Carnival of Souls
Horror | 78 mins | Released: 1962
Director: Herk Harvey
Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Tom McGinnis, Forbes Caldwell
Our Rating: 8
Black & White
Mary Henry (Hilligoss) is riding in a car with two other young women when some men challenge them to a drag race. As they speed across a bridge, the women’s car plunges over the side into the river. The police spend three hours dragging the murky, fast-running water without success. Mary miraculously surfaces, but she cannot remember how she survived.
Mary then drives to Utah, where she has been hired as a church organist. At one point, she can get nothing on her car radio but strange organ music. She passes a large, abandoned pavilion sitting all by itself on the shores of the Great Salt Lake; that seems to beckon to her in the twilight. Shortly thereafter, while she is speeding along a deserted stretch of road, a ghoulish, pasty-faced figure (billed as “The Man” played by director Herk Harvey) replaces her reflection in the passenger window and stares at her. When The Man suddenly appears in front of her, she swerves off the road. At a gas station, the attendant tells her the pavilion was first a bathhouse, then a dance hall, and finally a carnival before shutting down.
The Man appears in the car window.
In town, Mary rents a room from Mrs. Thomas; John Linden, the only other lodger, wants to become better acquainted with the blonde newcomer, but she is not interested. That night, she becomes upset when she sees The Man downstairs in the large house and retreats to her room. Mrs. Thomas, who brings her some food, says she did not pass anyone.
Soon, Mary begins experiencing terrifying interludes when she becomes invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world, as if she simply is not there. When The Man appears briefly in front of her in a park, she flees, right into the arms of a Dr. Samuels. He tries to help her, even as he acknowledges he is not a psychiatrist.
Her new employer, the minister (Art Ellison), is put off when she declines his suggestion of a reception to meet the congregation. When she practices for the first time, she finds herself shifting from a hymn to eerie music. In a trance, she sees The Man and others of his ilk dancing. The minister, hearing the strange music, denounces it as “profane” and insists upon her resignation.
The Man approaches Mary while she is in a trance.
Terrified of being alone, Mary agrees to go out on a date with Linden. When they return home, he smooth-talks his way into her room, but when she sees The Man in the mirror, she becomes upset and tries to tell Linden what has been happening to her. He leaves, believing she is losing her mind.
After talking with Samuels again, Mary believes she has to go to the pavilion. There, however, she finds no answers.
Other ghouls join The Man. Mary tries frantically to escape, at one point boarding a bus to leave town, only to find that all the passengers are ghouls. Then she wakes up, showing that she dreamed this sequence at least. In the end, she is drawn back to the pavilion, where she finds her tormenters dancing. A pale version of herself is paired with The Man. When she runs away, they chase her out onto the beach. She collapses, and they close in.
The minister, the doctor and the police are baffled. Her bare footprints in the sand (the only ones) end abruptly, but there is no trace of her.
In the final scene, the car is finally located and pulled from the river. Mary’s body is in the front seat alongside those of the other two girls.
Carnival of Souls is a 1962 independent horror film starring Candace Hilligoss. Produced and directed by Herk Harvey for an estimated $33,000, the film did not gain widespread attention when originally released, as a double feature with The Devil’s Messenger; however, today it is regarded as a cult classic.
Set to an organ score by Gene Moore, Carnival of Souls relies more on atmosphere than on special effects to create a mood of unease and foreboding. The film has a large cult following and is occasionally screened at film and Halloween festivals. It has been cited as an important influence on the films of both David Lynch and George A. Romero.
Harvey was a director and producer of industrial and educational films based in Lawrence, Kansas, where he worked for the Centron Corporation. While returning to Kansas after shooting a Centron film in California, Harvey developed the idea for Carnival of Souls after driving past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hiring an unknown actress, Lee Strasberg-trained Candace Hilligoss, and otherwise employing mostly local talent, he shot Carnival of Souls in three weeks on location in Lawrence and Salt Lake City. Harvey took three weeks off from his job at Centron in order to direct the film, starting with an initial production budget of $17,000.
Harvey employed techniques he had learned in his work on industrial films in order to limit production costs. There was not enough money for a process screen to create a rear projection effect, which was the method typically used at that time to create the impression that a scene was taking place inside a moving car, by combining footage shot inside a static car with separate footage of a moving background. Instead, Harvey used a battery-powered hand-held Arriflex camera to film the shots inside moving cars, removing the need for compositing. The Arriflex, which was at that time more often used by cameramen filming newsreel footage, also allowed them to use a moving camera in other scenes without the need for gear like dollies or cranes.
The shot where the face of The Man appears in the car window was accomplished using an angled mirror placed on the far side of the window. The scene at the start of the film where the car goes off the bridge and into the river was filmed in Lecompton, Kansas. The town did not charge a fee for the use of the bridge, only requiring the film crew to replace the bridge’s damaged rails once they were done filming. This was done, at a cost of $38 for the new rails.
Negotiations with the film’s writer, John Clifford, and the director, Herk Harvey, led in 1998 to a remake directed by Adam Grossman and Ian Kessner and starring Bobbie Phillips. The remake has little in common with the 1962 film, borrowing little more than the revelation at the end. Sidney Berger, who had appeared in the original film as John Linden, appeared in a cameo in the remake. The remake followed the story of a young woman (Phillips) and her confrontation with her mother’s murderer. The film makers had asked for Candace Hilligoss, the star of the first film to also appear, but she declined, feeling that Clifford and the filmmakers of the remake had shown disrespect to her in initiating the film without consulting her or considering her treatment for a sequel to the 1962 version. The remake was marketed as Wes Craven Presents ‘Carnival of Souls’ . It received negative appraisals from most reviewers and did not manage to secure theatrical release, going direct-to-video.
An unofficial remake of the film was released on 2008 under the title Yella, directed by Christian Petzold. This film is also very loosely based on the original.
Herk Harvey’s crew only consisted of five other people besides himself.
Star Candace Hilligoss’ agent refused to represent her any further after seeing this film.
Upon release in 1962 the film was a failure in the box office, but its subsequent airings on late night television helped to gain it a strong cult following. Today it is regarded as a landmark in psychological horror.
This was the only feature film that director/producer Herk Harvey ever worked on.
According to director Herk Harvey, one reel of footage for the film was unfortunately ruined during processing. Harvey said it was a long series of shots that was suppose to take place just before Mary sees the “souls” dancing in the ballroom. In the shots the ghouls were supposed to slowly appear from behind the rotting dock pylons out on the salt flats and slowly walk across the prairie to the ballroom, where they would begin to dance. Sadly, the footage was overexposed during the processing and couldn’t be included in the film.
Director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford both waived their earnings in order to get the film made under the initially miniscule $17,000 budget.
The damage to the bridge in the opening scene of the film cost Herk Harvey $17.
The film resurfaced in 1989 when it was fully restored and given a more proper release in New York.
The film’s budget was raised over the course of one weekend. Local businesses in Lawrence, Kansas invested in the film.
Director/writer Herk Harvey thought up the idea of the film after driving past the Saltair Amusement Park while traveling through Salt Lake City.
At the “Carnival of Souls” 1989 reunion, director Herk Harvey wore the ghoul makeup that he wore in the film for interviews.
This was the film debut of Candace Hilligoss.
The shots of the ‘ghouls’ rising from the Salt Lake were actually filmed in an apartment swimming pool.
The Saltair that appears in the film actually burned down in the early ’70s. In the early ’80s another version of Saltair was rebuilt, although it was a much smaller design. Shortly after it was built, the Great Salt Lake rose and flooded it out. In 1993, the building was remodeled and reopened, now it’s mainly used as a small venue for musical acts.
This film was shot on location in Salt Lake City, Utah, and in Lawrence, Kansas, with interior shots at the Centron Studios in Lawrence. Centron was an industrial film company, producing industrial and educational films and “social guidance” short subjects in the 1950s into the 1960s. Most of this film’s technical staff, including director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford, were Centron employees.
Filmed in three weeks.
According to star Candace Hilligoss, the river water she was submerged in for the film’s finale was frigidly cold. She said she had to be placed in the water for several hours to get the final shots. In fact, one of the actresses lying next to Hilligoss can be seen trembling from the cold water.
In the late 1980s, Candace Hilligoss wrote a treatment for a sequel to ‘Carnival of Souls’. She took it to associate Peter Soby Jr. who instead decided to produce a remake of the original film (also called Carnival of Souls (1998)). Hilligoss had no part of the production.
The bridge used in the opening of the film is called the Lecompton Bridge, named after the nearby town of Lecompton, KS. The Kaw River runs under it. The iron bridge was replaced with a concrete one in 1970.
Portions of the movie are tinted in a manner similar to silent films. Whenever Mary is in one of her altered mental states, the picture has a faint cyan tint, while all the “real” scenes are in pure black-and-white. Later in the film, the tinted segments also have distorted sound and picture.
The backdrop is the Saltair Amusement Park outside Salt Lake City.
The original cut of the film ran 84 minutes but was cut down to 75 minutes by drive-in owners in order to accommodate more showings.
The Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce charged director Herk Harvey $50 for his one-week shoot at the ruined Saltair Pavilion.
The film was originally released on double-bill with The Devil’s Messenger (1961), a TV pilot for a Swedish horror show.
The supporting cast of the film was made up of local actors from the Lawrence, Kansas area, where much of the film was shot.