Wow, another black and white public domain flick made it onto my Willies List! What are the odds? Actually, Carnival of Souls (1962) is the third such film to make it onto my list, along with Night of the Living Dead ('68) and Nosferatu ('22). It just goes to show you something or other, I'm sure.
One fine afternoon, some crazy kids decide to engage in some impromptu drag racing. They gleefully ignore a "road closed!" warning sign, and eventually the car filled with girls pitches off the side of a bridge, ending up in the drink. Pfft- women drivers, am I right or am I right? Unfortunately, only Mary (Candace Hilligoss) survives- she emerges from the muddy river in an understandable state of confusion.
Shortly after the accident, Mary is off to Utah to embark on a new career as a church organist, though she makes it eminently clear to all involved that her new occupation doesn't mean she's the churchy type: "I'm not taking the vows, I'm just playing the organ." This is disappointing news for her new boss, who insists she try to put her soul into the gig- a church organist can't get by on talent and skill alone, after all.
During the long drive to her new home, Mary sees creepy figures-n-faces along the road; is she crazy, or is there something...sinister happening in Utah?
There's an abandoned amusement park and pavilion in town to which Mary seems inexplicably drawn. The visions of ghostly figures seem to follow her around everywhere, and in one well-executed sequence, Mary herself seems to be invisible to those around her; while shopping, the saleswomen cease responding to her. Both in the store and out, all is silent: a jackhammer runs soundlessly, and Mary hears no footsteps save her own. What the eff is going on here, and will the answers be found at the eerie pavilion?
Let's be honest here: we all know what the eff is going on here. It's been 40-odd years since the film's release, and the central idea of Carnival of Souls has been addressed countless times. If you've seen at lease one episode of The Twilight Zone, then you can pretty much guess the plot withing the film's first ten minutes. But who cares? The fun is in the getting there, right? And Carnival is a damn spooky little film that's critically acclaimed but often publicly ignored. The critical acclaim is well-earned, however, as director Herk Harvey (who also plays the role of the 'main ghost' throughout the film, pictured above) squeezes everything he can out of a modest budget to create an atmospheric ghost tale.
The acting, for the most part, is undeniably amateurish and audiences not enthralled by "mood" pieces (such as Let's Scare Jessica to Death) will likely be yawning. But people like that are jerks, so who cares?
Should you feel like scratching beneath the surface, I suppose Mary's plight throughout Carnival of Souls could be seen as a metaphor for a woman who dismisses traditional ideas of what role she should play in society, not unlike that of the nameless protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. Mary isn't a church-goer, she doesn't care what the other "ladies" think of her, she hasn't had any desire to have a boyfriend or a child, she leaves her family behind to take on a new job in another state, and she just plain can't seem to relate to people. She must be crazy! None of those characteristics seem particularly notable today, but wholesome young women simply didn't act that way in 1962. Of course, we horror folk know that she's neither crazy nor attempting to strike a blow for women's rights, right? Right.
In related news, star Candace Hilligoss was the winner of the 1962 Anne Heche Looky-Likey Contest.
And yes, the Anne Heche Looky-Likey Contest was created before Anne Heche was.
As I said, Carnival of Souls is indeed in the public domain, which means you can buy shitty copies at your local dollar store, you can download it off the internet, or you can seek out the (naturally) pricy and super-sweet Criterion Edition. Drool. There's even a colorized version of the film out there somewhere for those of you who can't deal with black and white; I've yet to see it, but I can't help but assume that it won't be on par with the gorgeous cinematography of the original.
The film's score, which relies heavily on organs (whether Mary is playing them or not), gives Carnival a nice touch of the gothic. The ghostly/zombie-ish figures become increasingly aggressive throughout the film; in a scene recalled later in numerous horror films (recently in Romero's Land of the Dead) they finally rise from the water and eventually give chase in a horrifying sequence in the empty, decaying pavilion.
Again it's proven that you don't need much to make an effective horror film! Again it's proven that you can find some gems in the public domain!
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to prove, once again, how much I love pizza.