by Adam Riske
This movie has slowly collected a cult audience over the years, but could still use a bump. That's why I am strongly suggesting you find time to watch it this month. It’s quirky and fun (enough for hipsters to chew on), but also a landmark in the psychological horror subgenre. You will not be disappointed.
The team behind Carnival of Souls was mostly non-professionals who worked at the Lawrence, Kansas-based Centron Studios, an industrial film company that produced educational movies and “social guidance” short subjects. This was their only feature length production. According to screenwriter John Clifford, the genesis came from Herk Harvey’s sighting of the Saltair Amusement Park, outside of Salt Lake City, while driving on a road trip. He commissioned Clifford to write a screenplay based on the single image he had of creatures rising from the lake and doing a dance of death in this pavilion. While writing the screenplay, Clifford was thinking of locations in Lawrence that would provide atmosphere at little expense. One of those locations was the Reuter Organ Company.
The pipe organ-heavy score (by Gene Moore) complements the eerie black and white photography to create a horror movie with a very peculiar mood. It all feels drained of life, otherworldly, sad and longing but, most surprisingly, inviting. A key to psychological horror is that it draw you into the protagonist’s point of view, and Carnival of Souls achieves that in an interesting way. Because even if you don’t share Mary Henry’s indifference to life itself (which we’ll touch on shortly), you still feel drawn to a pavilion which is never shown to be anything but ominous and void of a future. Why is that?
For better or for worse, Mary is trying out some things throughout Carnival of Souls, which in the early 1960s might have been unpopular to do. She’s not Donna Reed and has no intention of being the typical 1950s housewife or a doormat of any sort for a man. She’s independent and outspoken to the point of being rude, but she’s not dishonest. She wants a man only when she needs one (in this case the skeevy Mr. Linden, who lives across the hall in a rooming house). She tells the minister that she’d prefer to skip the meet & greet with his congregation. She sits with a doctor (amusingly trying to play the role of a psychologist) and discusses how she has never had the desire for the close company of other people. The doctor then asks “Do you want to join in the things other people do, share the experiences of other people?” Mary answers, “I don’t seem capable of being close to people.” Mary has some solid reasons to feel this way beyond experiencing a traumatic car accident.
The impact Carnival of Souls has had on Horror is significant. David Lynch has cited it as an influence, which can be seen everywhere from the photography and mood in Eraserhead to his satirical outlook on community in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. George A. Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead owe a lot to the ghouls in Carnival of Souls from a makeup and design perspective, and movies as recent as Ti West’s The Innkeepers touch on similar themes of being a waking ghost – passively existing and unable to express the usual human emotions.
A scene that always struck me in The Innkeepers is the one where Sara Paxton’s character cannot even close on buying a cup of coffee. We don’t see what happened that led her to desert her order, but we know that something went wrong. It’s played as a joke, but was she so uncomfortable talking to Lena Dunham that she had to flee, thus breaking the unwritten rule of social interaction where you grit your teeth and bear it. Also, when Pat Healy’s character pours out his heart to Sara Paxton, she just ignores everything he says like she’s incapable of understanding feelings of love. She immediately changes the subject to tracking down the hotel ghost (of that movie). She’s not too much unlike Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls, both careening perilously into the abyss.
Carnival of Souls has been described by some critics derisively as a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone, to which I ask: what’s wrong with that? The Twilight Zone rules!
Carnival of Souls is my favorite horror movie and one you should watch during Scary Movie Month. It’s available all over the place, but the best place to watch it is the fantastic DVD put out by Criterion. It’s only $23 on Amazon. If you’re worried about expenses, just don’t use birth control for a month or something. In 9 months, you’ll have a baby and have seen a great Horror movie. You’re welcome!
P.S. Don’t go near the movie of the same title on Netflix Instant. It’s not a remake and it’s awful.
What are your thoughts about Carnival of Souls? Are there any other classic horror movies you think should be getting more attention?