George A. Romero was not the first industrial filmmaker to release a landmark B&W horror picture in the 1960s. Romero, after churning out commercials for TV and those industrial films for Pennsylvania-based The Latent Image, came out with the seminal Night of the Living Dead in ’68, but Herk Harvey had beaten him to the punch by a good six years. Harvey, in 1961, was working for Centron Films in Lawrence, Kansas, also cranking out industrial and educational films, before coming out with a film the following year, Carnival of Souls, that has been chilling the blood of baby boomers and later generations for over 50 years now. All Harvey needed, as the story goes, was one glimpse at the derelict Saltair pavilion near Salt Lake City (built in 1893, rebuilt in 1926, closed in 1958) to inspire his use of this site as the central locus for a horror movie. Writer John Clifford was given the task of coming up with some kind of a screenplay, $30,000 was raised, a cast of “no-names” was hired, and the film was shot in Lawrence and Saltair in just six weeks. Released in September 1962 on a double bill with the long-forgotten Devil’s Messenger, the film has since become a cult favorite, leading to a 1989 director’s cut rerelease and a deluxe Criterion double-DVD package, loaded with a staggering roster of fascinating “extras.”
A seeming mash-up of Ambrose Bierce‘s famous short story from 1890, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” as well as the 1/22/60 episode of The Twilight Zone, the one entitled “The Hitch-Hiker,” Carnival of Souls introduces us to Mary Henry, a young woman who, when we first meet her, is involved in an automobile accident. The car in which she and two other young gals are passengers falls off a bridge and into a river. Three hours later, Mary emerges from the water, seemingly unhurt, and drives to another town to begin her new life as a church organist. But who is that ghoulish-looking man (played by Herk Harvey himself) who keeps following her? And why does she find herself slowly becoming invisible and inaudible to those around her? And finally, why does that ghostly pavilion by the lake seem to be drawing her to it?
Mary, it must be mentioned here, is played by the one and only Candace Hilligoss, who became a cult figure herself by dint of this one film. Possessing an off-kilter kind of beauty and an alternately tentative and grating charm, Hilligoss is just perfect for this role of a woman who is losing contact with life and reality (although it must be said that Mary, antisocial and nonreligious as she is, only had half a contact to begin with!). What a shame that she only made one picture after this one, Del Tenney’s excellent Curse of the Living Corpse (1963). I’m not saying that Candace deserved an Oscar for this film — 1962 had a plethora of great female performances, including Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Lee Remick in The Days of Wine and Roses (she would’ve been MY choice) and that year’s winner, Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker — although I WILL say that her performance was at least as memorable as those other nominees’.
In addition to her wonderful presence, Carnival of Souls also features another fine acting turn, by Sidney Berger as Mary’s lecherous boardinghouse neighbor; a truly creepy score by Gene Moore (appropriately enough, all on organ); and some wonderfully effective B&W cinematography by DOP Maurice Prather. This combination of inspired direction, perfect script, memorable acting, chilling music and gorgeous visuals has made Carnival of Souls well deserving of the appellation “The Movie That Wouldn’t Die.” It’s been creeping this viewer out ever since he first saw it on NYC TV’s Supernatural Theatre over five decades ago, and continues to do so today. Those who have not experienced this low-budget wonder should pounce, and prepare themselves to witness one of the eeriest little movies ever made…