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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Carnival of Souls (1962)

One sort of horror movie I really love are ghost stories.  Haunted houses, phantoms sliding around in the shadows, and lost souls looking for rest.  As much as I love monster films, and slasher movies, I really love a good ghost story- and "Carnival of Souls" is a decent one- even if there are some flaws to it.

Mary is the soul survivor of an auto accident that claimed the live of her two best friends.  Wanting to escape the memory of it, Mary takes a job as a church organist in another city.  Soon she starts to see strange figures, and develops an unusual obsession with an abandoned fairground... that may hold a dark revelation for Mary...

Despite the fact that "Carnival of Souls" didn't garner much attention when first released, it has grown into what is considered to be a cult classic.  I can see why.

For starters, the story is actually quite good, even if it wasn't fully developed to its potential.  When I first saw it, I was really interested in seeing where the story was going.  Some might complain about several questions being left unanswered:

  1. Who were the "carnival ghouls"?
  2. Why did they gather at the carnival?
  3. What did they want with Mary?
  4. Were they the reason the fairgrounds were abandoned in the first place?
I didn't mind these questions being unanswered, since it added to the unreality of the whole movie.  The ending reminded me of a short story I read as a kid about a civil war soldier that was about to be hung- but manages to escape- only to realize things weren't what he thought they were.  Besides, there's something unsettling about the idea that the "carnival ghouls" may still be there... dancing to the organ music...

Candace Hilligoss turned in a great performance as Mary.  The scene of her playing the organ during the dance scene was surreal and creepy, and the scenes where she's apparently invisible to those around her were unsettling.  Director Herk Harvey looked phenomenal as The Man- the main "carnival ghoul" haunting Mary.  The make-up was simple, but effective, as was his acting.  The first time I saw him close up, I squirmed a bit.

It's hard to given an opinion of the other performers as they didn't get that much screen time.  The only supporting cast member that got any serious time was Sidney Berger who played Mary's lecherous neighbour.  I would have to say though that since I wasn't meant to like his character, he did a good job making me not like him.  Other than to illustrate Mary's rather unemotional interactions with people, the supporting characters really didn't serve much purpose.

One of the important keys to a good ghost story movie is a sense of foreboding through the use of shadows and light.  "Carnival of Souls" did what I felt was a remarkable job with that in regards to its camerawork.  There are some fantastic shots that would make great stills.  Angles, distances, light and shadows were well used in this film- creating a sense of suspense, anticipation, and unreality that kept me interested.

Combined with the organ music scoring, the surreal scenes seem all the more un-nerving and creepy.  The dance scene once again illustrates this perfectly.  I was extremely impressed by how the music and editing blended together to create great atmosphere to the scenes.

Usually, when I hear that a movie is a "cult classic," I'm usually ready to sigh and pop the movie into "The Ugly"... but "Carnival of Souls" is a cult classic that, for me deserves better- and has earned a spot in "The Good."


  1. This is just a classic movie (nevermind the "cult"). Obviously influential on Night of the Living Dead, which wouldn't have been the movie it is without it.

  2. I've gotten an idea for a novel from watching this film. :D

  3. The dance scene! My god that was frightening! And her male neighbor at the hotel sure was horny.

  4. Is the building a set or real location?