The final scary movie for this year is Carnival of Souls, from 1962. I have heard about this movie for a long time and have long wanted to watch it: the B-movie that somehow stumbled into being a highly influential classic.
It was filmed for a mere $33,000 and used a no-name cast, but director Herk Harvey had some advantages. First, he was a director of industrial films, and so had plenty of experience behind the camera. Second, his star, the exquisite Candace Hilligoss, only ever appeared in two other films, but had trained seriously as an actor in New York and had extensive stage experience. Finally, the musical score, by organist Gene Moore, practically tells a story in itself. Nobody who ever sees this movie forgets that eerie organ music.
The story is pretty straightforward. Mary Henry has just graduated with her degree in music and has accepted a job as organist at a church in Utah. The day before she is to leave, she is driving with some girlfriends when they accept a challenge to drag race a car full of boys. Going over a bridge, the girls’ car goes over the edge. At first there are thought to be no survivors, but hours later, Mary emerges from the water. Others urge her not to drive to her new job, but she insists she must be there the next day.
As she drives to Utah, she sees a mysterious, spooky-looking man in the car window. Near her destination in Utah, she passes an abandoned dance hall by the Salt Lake and feels mysteriously drawn to it. Once in town, she starts her new job and moves into a boarding house where a neighbor, John, takes an interest in her. But as she goes about her new life, she keeps seeing that spooky man, and finds herself compelled to visit the dance hall again and again. She also has bizarre interludes when passersby don’t seem to notice she’s there or hear her speak. I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say it builds up to a surreal and frightening climax.
So, did director Harvey really know what he was doing or did he luck into it? Did he intentionally use the hypnotic soundtrack and surreal imagery to achieve the film’s considerable impact, or was that merely a necessary by-product of the low budget? Did he mean to homage 1920s German expressionist films? Not clear on any of the three counts, but whether by fate or design this movie came together perfectly.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
Story/Plot/Characters–Surprisingly good acting. Dialogue better than the usual B-movie. Straightfoward plot at first, by about halfway through we’re operating on dream logic, but it makes perfect sense within the movie’s world. (2.5 points)
Special Effects–Not a lot of effects, really little more than make-up, but what little there is, is used well. With even a slightly bigger budget this movie could have scored higher here, but maybe then we wouldn’t have gotten some of the other virtues of the film. (.5 points)
Scariness–Yes. Not chills or shocks, but a sort of dread that builds throughout the film. (1.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness–The abandoned dance hall on the lake, the feeling of isolation in the Utah countryside, the eerie town at night, and that organ music. This is exactly what I’m looking for in this category. (2 points)
Total=6.5 points (Pretty Good)