Carnival of Souls (1962, Herk Harvey)

Carnival of Souls is another film in the “way too literal ending” genre. After seventy-five minutes (of seventy-eight) recounting its protagonist’s bewildering, terrifying experiences, the finish is a big wink and shrug. Though there’s a seemingly unintentional casting gaffe to tie the disparate narratives together. Unfortunately, that low-budget coincidence doesn’t add anything to the ending.

The film opens with lead Candace Hilligoss surviving a terrible car accident. She and her gal pals are drag racing some boys, and their car goes off a bridge; Hilligoss is the sole survivor. The opening titles are moody, beautiful lighted shots of the river, so when Hilligoss emerges, it’s in a familiar location. It sets a higher expectation than the film will achieve with recurring locations.

Hilligoss can’t remember what happened in the car—the boys have already lied to the cops about what happened, so they luck out, but it goes unexplored anyway. After a very brief recovery, Hilligoss is ready to move on to her new job at a church in Utah; she’s a professional organist, which means there’s going to be so much organ music in the movie. At the beginning, especially during the titles, it seems like Gene Moore’s music will be an asset. However, once it’s clear it’s just organ music—probably the same organ music, it’s all indistinguishable, even when the music becomes a plot point—and it’s very tiresome.

In Utah, Hilligoss hallucinates some scary ghouls around her car as she passes a closed carnival pavilion in the distance. The pavilion’s Souls’s best and worst; when Hilligoss eventually tours it, the experience is perfectly dreamy (Maurice Prather’s black and white photography is remarkable for such a low-budget effort and superb in general). But when she frequently daydreams about it, those sequences don’t have any of the dreaminess. Bill de Jarnette and Dan Palmquist do the cutting, and they’re a little too blunt about it; they’ve got no rhythm. Though with Moore’s organ music going in the background, what could they really do?

Hilligoss finds herself a room; Frances Feist’s her landlady, Sidney Berger’s the creepy sexual predator neighbor who judges Hilligoss for not being religious enough even though she works at a church. She wants to be paid for playing music in church—doesn’t it give her nightmares? Souls has a peculiar relationship with religion, especially since Hilligoss’s boss, Art Ellison, is a combination dipshit and asshole. At least he’s not a creep. Lots of the old dudes in Souls exude creep, including the local doctor (Stan Levitt), who determines Hilligoss is unfit to be in public without him evaluating her (even though he’s not qualified). Her old boss, organ manufacturer Tom McGinnis, was also a little too intrusive.

All the men agree Hilligoss is a little too independent, a little too headstrong, and has too much agency, which are interesting complaints, though none of them matter in the end.

As she tries to get acclimated to her new job and surroundings, Hilligoss starts seeing one of the ghouls from her trip around town. Director Harvey plays this lead ghoul, who’s definitely creepy, but technically much less threatening than, say, Berger. No one else can see Harvey, which confuses Hilligoss, but not as much when she has fits of insubstantiality when no one else can see or hear her, and she can’t hear them either.

It’s basically a “Twilight Zone” stretched out, with less budget than the TV show and questionable performances. Hilligoss does about as well as can be expected in the lead with such thin motivation and characterization. As needed, she looks terrified, though sometimes it’s unclear why she’s not terrified by what she’s experiencing (and vice versa). Berger’s amateurish but such a creep it ends up helping. Doctor Levitt and (apparently not Mormon in Utah) preacher Ellison are just bad. Though Souls has terrible ADR from the start, the looped deliveries aren’t just poorly acted but often clearly do not match the actors’ lips. So maybe it’s not all on them. Also, the script; Levitt and Ellison are the biggest patronizing assholes in a movie full of condescending assholes.

As far as Harvey’s direction… he’s definitely got his moments. However, he can’t do a regular conversation scene, which hurts the film since it’s mostly conversation scenes. The eerie pavilion material is usually quite good, and he makes some other big swings, mainly in the first act. Once Hilligoss is settled in Utah, fending off Berger, running from ghoul Harvey, there’s basically none. Harvey instead relies on the editing, which doesn’t (no pun) cut it.

Carnival of Souls isn’t terrible. It’s got a handful of moments; John Clifford’s script doesn’t do the film (or its actors) any favors, outside—albeit pointlessly—establishing Hilligoss as a singular (for the setting) protagonist. None of it adds up, not Hilligoss, not even the eerie pavilion, but at least the cinematography maintains throughout.

Sadly, so does that organ music.

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