Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls
Director: Herk Harvey
Writer: John Clifford, Herk Harvey
Cast: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Herk Harvey
Seen on: 6.6.2021

After a terrible car accident that leaves Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) the only survivor, she is ready to leave town. Fortunately she has a job offer as an organ player in Utah. As she makes her way there, she sees a long abandoned building that used to house a carnival. And a man (Herk Harvey) seems to follow her around. Mary tries to settle in, but she becomes increasingly disconcerted, sure that the man has something to do with the carnival.

Carnival of Souls is an atmospheric film that needs very little to become pretty creepy. Definitely worth visiting cinematic history with this one.

The film poster showing a drawing of a woman running from something. Behind her we can see a carnival building with dancers in front of it. Below her is the woman in a car that is half-submerged in water, as well as the head of a man.

A lot of older horror movies are charming rather than creepy by now – too often have we seen the tropes they use by now, while at the same time filmmaking conventions have switched around to make the older stuff feel a little quaint. And there is a smidge of that here too – the people in white make-up, or Mary’s habit of just screaming – these are not things that work that well for today’s audience anymore.

Nevertheless, the film still manages to create the necessary atmosphere for its story, and a huge part of this has to do with the fantastic cinematography and sound design. The images are super-crisp, the camera angles often inventive and the sound is appropriately distorted in just the right moments.

Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) emerging from the river.

I also very much enjoyed the characters here. Mary is harsh and cold – usually the kind of (female) character that would be relegated to an unlikeable supporting role. But she takes center stage here, and we definitely feel with and for her. John Linden (Sidney Berger), the other tennant in the boarding house where Mary rents her room, on the other hand, is an unlikeable sack and pretty much an incel template. He constantly pushes against Mary’s boundaries and things only get worse when she gives in just a little. He is so perfectly characterized, it’s depressing that we apparently have to deal with the same shit from men for at least 60 years now.

Plus, I do feel like that there is a very feminist, queer reading of the film that I’m this close to getting: Linden, obviously, but also Mary’s accident that is the result of a flirtatious race between a car full of women and one full of men; her disinterest in men; the way she is an organist who doesn’t believe; the doctor’s dismissal of her experiences; the dancing dead – I think all of this would be worthy to explore, but I’d have a tentative theory that in the end, Mary’s experience is one of a queer woman in the patriarchy. Maybe I’ll have time to dig into this a little more at some point.

For now, let me just recommend the film to you – it’s definitely worth it.

The Man (Herk Harvey) who keeps following Mary.

Summarizing: really good.

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