It’s the only commercial film the director ever made, in part because it’s a film with hundreds of flaws. The premise — heck, the whole story — has a lot of holes. The editing and the acting sometimes leave a bit to be desired. But, I don’t know . . . I absolutely love the classic (is it a classic?) horror film Carnival of Souls (1962). There are faults, yes, but there are moments of perfection, and all the rest just falls away.
The movie begins at a stoplight on a Kansas road. A car of boys pulls up next to a car of girls, and the engines rev. Yes, this is action we’ve seen this a million times, but the movie doesn’t dwell on it. It’s a means to an end. Before long, the car of girls goes through the barrier on a bridge and falls down into the muddy water below.
The next scene slows things down nicely. The locals have all come down to help find the vehicle, and they are suitably worried and grave, even as they have the peace of knowing it’s not their life that has been flipped upside down. Harvey, whose background was creating low-budget, high-quality documentaries and educational films, spends time listening to what the people are saying. It’s not entirely relevant to what’s coming, but it adds to the atmosphere. It’s a moment when the B-movie becomes something a bit more. We can forget about the cheesy action that started the film; we’re going to be focused on other, more important things.
After several hours — so how could they hope to find any of the girls alive — someone spots this coming from the water and across the mud:
As an aside, Carnival of Souls is credited for inspiring George A. Romero’s fantastic Night of the Living Dead, and a still like that shows us why. But the moment is not played for terror. That’s one of the girls, Mary (Candace Hilligoss), miraculously finding her way back on land after surviving the accident.
The film moves on. Mary has had it with Kansas. A professional organ play, she secured a job in Utah playing the organ for a church.
Now, I want to step aside for a minute and focus on what I mean by “moments of perfection” in a very flawed film. The story is fine — and I’ll return to it in a moment — but it’s the strange shots, the evidence that Harvey, while operating on a tiny budget, was fairly brilliant. Look at this next still of Mary playing an organ in Kansas:
Putting aside the beautiful mathematical precision of the shot, once again we see Mary isolated, locked in, buried. As in the shot above, we feel she needs to emerge from this set somehow. The remainder of the film is going to show us just how buried she is, just how unlikely her emergence was — just how unlikely it’s going to go unpunished.
All of the above happens in the first few minutes. Really, it’s all an excuse to get Mary from Kansas, where Harvey and his production studio worked, out to Utah, where we see the raison d’etre, of the film: one of the creepiest places out there — the one-time thriving, now abandoned Saltair Pavillion near Salt Lake City. Apparently one day Harvey was on vacation in Utah and passed the strange building. He didn’t care what, he didn’t care how, he just knew he was going to film a creepy movie there.
Saltair was originally built in 1893 as a kind of Coney Island of the West, and for years the terrace situated on the lake was a thriving tourist attraction. As the years went by, however, the lake receded, and it’s just not as cool to go to a pavilion situated above mud. Add a fire, the Depression, the advent of movie theaters, and Saltair began to decay. By the time Harvey drove by it, it was completely abandoned.
In the film, when Mary drives past it, creepy things begin to happen:
(that’s the director, Herk Harvey, being pretty scary as he somehow hangs out just outside Mary’s moving car — and, again, showing us how we got the zombies in Night of the Living Dead)
Mary starts her job in Utah, but this obviously dead man keeps showing up around her. She has no idea why, but she thinks it must have something to do with the strange building out in the middle of the mud. Against all advice, she drives out and enters the strange building, and it’s a great scene — again, one of those scenes that makes the entire movie more than worth it. You see why Harvey had to film in Saltair, and you see why he just didn’t care about things like plot — just film here, it will work! The place is an abandoned carnival ground. The outdoor courtyard is not even strewn with trash as much as its strewn with pieces of the booths where children once played. Inside, all of the fun house pieces have ceased to work. The joy is gone. The place is dead. She shouldn’t be there.
Sadly, her trip to the building didn’t help. Back in town, she continues to drift in and out of . . . what, reality? She can’t hear the living people around her, and they can’t see her. It’s creepy and well crafted, and it leads her to another trip to the strange building, and to one of the best shots in the film:
At this time of year, as you look for scary movies to spook yourself and your family, you can’t do much better than Carnival of Souls. And when it gets really late, pop in Night of the Living Dead.