Tuesday, July 26, 2011

#354. Carnival of Souls (1962)

Directed By: Herk Harvey

Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger

Tag line: "She Was A Stranger Among The Living"

Trivia:  The damage to the bridge in the opening scene cost its director $17

For 33 years, Herk Harvey worked as a filmmaker for the Centron Corporation, a company out of Lawrence, Kansas that produced a variety of industrial and educational films. During that time, he would direct exactly one feature-length motion picture: the atmospheric horror movie Carnival of Souls, which is still, to this day, considered a genre classic.

After being challenged to a drag race, a car carrying three young women accidentally drives off a bridge and sinks into the river below. As authorities are searching for the missing vehicle, one of the woman, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), makes her way to shore, in shock but relatively unharmed. 

Shortly after this harrowing incident, Mary heads out of town, having already accepted a job as an organist for a small church in Utah. Yet she cannot shake the feeling that something is very wrong with her, and wonders why she is being followed by a strange man (played by director Harvey) whose pale features are more than a little unsettling. 

Upon her arrival in Utah, Mary checks into a boarding house run by Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist), yet, for some unknown reason, finds herself drawn to the abandoned carnival grounds situated just outside of town. After a few more visits from the stranger with the white face, Mary begins to wonder if she's losing her mind, yet even this cannot prepare her for the shocking revelation that awaits her on those carnival grounds.

Shot in black and white, Carnival of Souls clearly benefited from Harvey's extensive film making experience; one of the things that struck me was the film's unusually large number of wide shots, with Harvey positioning his camera a great distance from the on-screen action. There are plenty of examples early on, like the scene where Mary crawls out of the water, but it's also employed at other points throughout the movie. By keeping Mary at such a great distance from his audience, Harvey establishes that his main character is very much alone, an isolation he'll explore in greater detail as the story progresses.

This visual style, combined with a handful of memorable scenes (while walking through a department store, Mary realizes she has suddenly gone deaf, and that no one can see or hear her), bring an intensely disturbing air to Carnival of Souls, a feeling of dread that continues to grow right up to the film's creepy conclusion.