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It’s strange to see Carnival of Souls so venerated now – it’s even out on the Criterion Collection. A quickly-produced low-budget movie meant as a calling card to the movie industry, now acknowledged as a classic. Well, okay, there are more than a few of those in the Collection, but it’s rare that we get to watch one during Hubrisween.
Just in case you recently switched living arrangements from underneath a rock, Carnival opens with a drag race gone wrong, as a car carrying three women plunges off an old bridge into a river and sinks immediately. While the river is being dredged for the car and the bodies, one of the women – Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) stumbles from the muddy river, unable to remember anything since the crash.
Mary’s a skilled organist taking a position at a church in Utah, though she denies being particularly religious. On the way to this new life, she is stricken by the sight of an abandoned pleasure palace on the shore of a lake. Her increasing obsession with the place becomes a problem, though not as much as the ghoulish, silent white-faced man who seems to be stalking her.
Since we’re dealing with a movie half a century old, I think we can stop being so precious and just say that Mary died in that car wreck, and she’s only been pretending to be alive all this time. It’s something that anyone who’s read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” or seen an episode of Twilight Zone has already figured out by the first half hour mark, if not ten minutes in. The difference is in the delivery of that revelation, which is where Carnival manages to edge itself into the realm of actual art.
There are two times in the movie when Mary finds herself in a silent world, unable to interact with any of the people bustling around her, as if she’s ceased to exist. It’s amazing how affecting something like killing the ambient sound in a sequence can truly be. These segments, and the scenes taking place in the decaying Saltair Amusement Park (an amazing setting that was only waiting to be discovered), its downbeat denouemant, are what give the movie its power to chill.
Producer/director Herk Harvey (who also plays the ubiquitous dead-faced man) was a veteran of numerous “mental hygiene” and industrial shorts, and went into his two-week shoot with a budget of $17,000 and a five man crew. Years of quick production put him in good stead as the shoot proceeded guerilla-style in Salt Lake City (offering a man in a van twenty-five bucks to “nearly” run over Hilligoss, for instance). Much of the movie was shot in Lawrence, Kansas, where Hervey and his cohorts were well-known and respected (“You need to shoot in my church? Sure!”).
The oddest note in the movie is struck by Hilligoss’ portrayal of Mary; judging from interviews with her and Harvey, the cold, non-social aspect of the character is a choice by the director, which Hilligoss struggled with. It may be good for the story – Mary is a character that never truly lived, and now desperately wishes to, but doesn’t know how. It does, however (and as Hilligoss feared) limit viewer sympathy for the protagonist.
Faring better is Sidney Berger as the only other occupant of Mary’s boarding house, John. John is a realistic, horny working guy, equal parts good humor, sexual bluntness and desperation. Mary acquiesces to his constant efforts to get close to her simply because her fear of the Man and the call of the abandoned park are beginning to terrify her. Even the horndog, though, is unwilling to expose himself to her increasing instability. Berger went on to a sterling career as head of the drama department at the University of Houston, and had to put up with some frequent razzing about the role, but honestly, he is, in many ways, the best actor in the movie.
Carnival did not fare well on its initial release, and was, as is so often the case, screwed over by a con man masquerading as a distribution company. It was also cut by as much as eight minutes, and since I saw the original, uncut version, that might have actually been an improvement – it does drag in parts. But when it was sold to TV, frequent airings allowed its strengths to be appreciated, and a cult grew. And this is why, even knowing the Twilight Zone properties of the script, it is possible to still watch this small, well-organized picture and still be able to pick up a chill or two.
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