Carnival of Souls is a 1962 American independent horror movie produced and directed by Herk Harvey and written by John Clifford from a story by Clifford and Harvey, and starring Candace Hilligoss. Her story tells of Mary Henry, a girl whose life is turned upside down after an accident with a car falling into a river. She moves to a new city, where she finds herself unable to integrate with the citizens, and is drawn to the structure of an abandoned circus. Director Harvey shows up in the film as a ghoulish stranger who follows her throughout.
Shot in Lawrence, Kansas and in Salt Lake City, Carnival of Souls was filmed on a budget of $33,000 and Harvey used guerrilla film methods to complete the production. It was Harvey’s only feature film, and it also didn’t attract much interest when it was initially launched as a double feature with The Devil’s Messenger in 1962.
Since the 1980s, Carnival of Souls has been remembered by film critics and scholars for its cinematography and haunting setting. The film has a large cult following and is periodically shown at movie events and Halloween movies marathons. The film’s story resembles that of Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
Cult horror to be rediscovered with great surprise, “Carnival of souls“, is a strange low-budget American independent horror film made in 1962. which became almost invisible for decades due to distribution bankruptcy. The progenitor of the “Twilight Zone” style horror-purgatory, he puts the supernatural at the center of the story, which breaks through the daily life of an ordinary woman. It is now a cult film that has been screened in US arthouse cinemas for many years for Halloween, and has become more understandable to viewers. A film that at the time went much further, without ever exaggerating, managing to express truly disturbing emotions.
Candace Hilligoss, who plays Mary, the main protagonist, crashes into a railing of a wooden bridge and falls into the river below. Police and divers search in vain for the car, until Mary re-emerges on the banks of the river dazed, the only survivor.
What happened to the others? How did she run away her? She does not know. And she doesn’t care. She is a fragile and cold girl who works as a church organist but does not take religion seriously. This is despite the fact that her organ seems to be trying to tell her something. Many unforgettable images and cinema moments are scattered throughout this arthouse horror film, which remained invisible for more than 20 years, until it was released on home video in the United States.
A few days after miraculously escaping death Mary leaves town for a job in Utah, playing the organ in a new church, and from then on a ghostly figure will follow her everywhere (the ghostly man is played by the director himself, Herk Harvey). She rents a room in a guesthouse run by an elderly woman, played by Frances Feist. There is another boarder, Linden (Sidney Berger), a womanizer who starts making advances right away.
The Idea for Carnival of Souls
Harvey was a director and producer of educational and commercial films based in Lawrence, Kansas. While returning to Kansas after filming a movie in California, Harvey got the idea for Carnival of Souls after passing the deserted Saltair Pavilion in Salt Lake City. “When I returned to Lawrence, I asked my friend and colleague at Centron Films, John Clifford, who was a writer there, if he could write a film,” Harvey recalled. “The last scene, I communicated to him, was to be a staging of evil spirits dancing in the ballroom; the rest was up to him. He wrote it in 3 weeks.
In New York City, Harvey found the then 20-year-old actress Candace Hilligoss, who had studied with Lee Strasberg, and cast her as Mary Henry Hilligoss had been cast in a role in the Richard Hilliard-directed horror film Violent Midnight, but made a name for herself with the role in Carnival of Souls. She said at the time she took the job as a “sort of a take the money and run situation”; she was paid about $2,000 for her work on the film.
Carnival of Souls Productions
Harvey shot Carnival of Souls in 3 weeks in the Lawrence and Salt Lake City area, after taking 3 weeks off from his job to direct the film, and starting with a preliminary production budget plan of $17,000. increased the budget plan by $17,000 by asking financing for local entrepreneurs. The other $13,000 of the full $30,000 spending plan was late. Harvey was able to get the Saltair Pavilion rented for $50, and many other scenes were shot without a budget. Hilligoss said the shoot went quickly, with actors and crew working 7 days a week.
Harvey used strategies he had discovered in his work with commercial films to limit production costs. There were insufficient funds to shoot with the technique usually used at the time inside a moving car, incorporating a virtual background of the landscape passing outside the windows. Rather, Harvey used a portable, battery-powered Arriflex movie camera to film inside moving cars, eliminating the need for compositing. The Arriflex, which was routinely used by cameramen shooting newsreels at that time, also allowed them to use a moving camera in various other scenes without the need for equipment such as cranes or trolleys.
Harvey’s assistant director was Reza Badiyi, a young Iranian immigrant who was just starting his film business in the United States. Badiyi had been a second unit director on another film, Robert Altman’s directorial debut. The shot in which the Face of the Man with Makeup appears in the car window was created using an angled mirror positioned on the opposite side of the window. The scene at the beginning of the film where the vehicle rolls off the bridge and into the river was recorded in Lecompton, Kansas. The community did not charge the production for use of the bridge, only asking the film’s staff to change the bridge’s damaged rails after filming was completed.
The film includes music by local Kansas City organist and author Gene Moore. The body organ is just one of the ghostly elements in Carnival of Souls, evoking the cinema of yesteryear. Screenwriter John Clifford has specified that Harvey’s chosen areas for the film, particularly the Saltair Pavilion and the church’s large organ, influenced the choice of using organ music. The on screen representation of the organ being played by Mary was inserted by Harvey to contribute to the look from gothic movie.
The film had its opening night at the Main Street Theater in Lawrence, Kansas in September 1962. In 1989, the film was shown at festivals throughout Europe and the United States, managing to restore the public interest, and has consequently appeared in many Halloween movie events. The Carnival of Souls prints differ in length from 78 minutes to 84 minutes in the initial cut. The director’s version, which lasts 84 minutes, is better.
The film went totally unnoticed by critics upon its initial release and gained delayed recognition in subsequent years, with countless art house screenings in 1989 along with the Halloween period. In fact it has been regarded by many film schools as a timeless film, often lauded for its lighting and sound design. Some scholars consider Carnival of Souls to be much more of a arthouse film than a simple horror film, with stunning black and white images, the surreal scenes and creepy setting, with a style from German expressionist film. The mesmerizing power of circus and dance scenes is great.
Harvey’s camerawork makes one of the more ordinary areas appear as well as people as horrific hallucinations by elegantly using existing locations and lights to create maximum disorientation of the viewer. In the film, there is a mental state of agony within one ghost story with imaginative inventions, in which the tension slowly builds. The film is considered today as one of the best horror films ever made.
Deals with Carnival of Souls writer John Clifford and director Herk Harvey led to a 1998 remake directed by Adam Grossman and Ian Kessner and starring Bobbie Phillips. Sidney Berger, who had appeared in the initial film as John Linden, made a cameo appearance in the remake. The filmmakers had asked Candace Hilligoss, the actress from the first film, to star in the remake, but she declined, as Clifford and the filmmakers of the remake had shown her disrespect by pitching the film without consulting her. The remake garnered negative reviews and was never released on the big screen, going straight to video.
Carnival of souls is different from the usual horror films, especially the contemporary ones: zero special effects but many psychedelic influences and trips to different levels of existence, with beautiful black and white, and incredibly effective atmosphere and acting. His influences probably reached as far as directors such as David Lynch or George Romero. Blue Velvet, Night of the Living Dead and Lost Highway seem to have drawn inspiration from different components of this film.