Carnival Of Souls Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie

by Erik Amaya

Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Carnival of Souls

Every so often, a legitimate cult classic emerges from the world of cheese. That is to say, genuine piece of art can finds its way out of the exploitation markets of the mid-20th Century. They retain certain flaws associated with low budget, quick-and-dirty fare, but somehow hold people captivated. In fact, they may be more captivated by the filmmaker’s odd yet artistic choices than they are entertained. These sorts of films can also come out of the studios, with a movie like Johnny Guitar gaining acceptance despite some very dodgy B-western scripting choices and performances. Outside of Hollywood, the best example of art meeting cheese is, perhaps, Carnival of Souls.
Directed by Herk Harvey and co-written by Harvey and John Clifford, the film centers on a young woman, Mary Henry, who moves to Salt Lake City following a nearly fatal car crash into a river. Her ordeal seems a vague memory afterward, but she has difficulty communicating with people on a very basic level. Before she leaves home, her conversation with a local organ maker suggests she has no time for conventional aspirations (marriage) anymore. Her hope in moving is to settle into a quiet life where she play organs at an SLC church and is otherwise left alone.
She states as much when the pastor in Salt Lake City suggests a welcome party. Nowadays, we’d suspect a lot of her behavior as a result of an undiagnosed trauma from the accident. But it is possible that Mary was always reticent to engage with people. Oh, not that her weird neighbor John Linden (Sidney Berger) cares. Besides being haunted, Mary is hauntingly beautiful and Linden is a take-what-he-wants kind of guy. Mary only escapes his advances for the first few days because she seems genuinely unaware of them. She accepts them only to avoid the ghoulish specter chasing her around town.
Oh, yeah, Mary sees a ghostly apparition from time to time. Did I forget to mention that?
In addition to Linden creeping on her and the presence of the specter, she also experiences strange episodes where people simply cannot see or hear her. She attempts to find help from a man who is not a psychiatrist and begins to dream of an abandoned amusement park out by the lake. Soon, the pull to the seaside grows too great and Mary confronts the ghostly man and his fellow ghouls at an organ music-filled frolic that may or may not actually be happening.
Of course, what is real and what isn’t comes into question when the viewer witnesses the final scenes.
And if the description sounds moody yet inconsistent, that’s part of the film’s charm. Shot with an operating budget of $17,000 — thought its total cost was $30,000 — Harvey’s storyline betrays the speed at which it was written and filmed. He took a leave absence from his day job as a commercial director to shoot the film in one week. Consequently, the film can look scattershot and dopey at first glance. Okay, it can continue to look that way after several viewings, too. But beyond an initial goofiness and a lack of scripting elegance (the film commits a special version of the greatest “don’t” in narrative fiction), it captures, both on accident and on purpose, Harvey’s melancholic view of the world.
How do I know this? I happened to watch a number of Harvey’s industrial shorts and moral hygiene films long before I ever saw Carnival of Souls. Yes, I know how weird that sounds.
In the short film Cheating, Harvey employs interesting photographic and editing techniques to create a bleak, cold world in which a bright young lad is caught cheating on a math test. In a darkened hallway of his home, he contemplates his missteps and the loss of frienships because of it. But even before he’s caught, the floating specter of his math teacher follows him wherever he goes. Meanwhile, a disembodied voice speaks directly to him about his lack of discipline and moral failings. The fact the boy may have a genuine learning disability never comes up because this is 1952 and such things were dismissed as laziness and signs of poor character. The short is laughable on its face — indeed, it’s one of the best shorts ever riffed by Mystery Science Theater 3000 — but Harvey still creates an appropriate mood for the heavy-handedness of the material. He also gets a great performance out of the main actor, who was just a kid from a Lawrence, Kansas junior high school. Along the way, you also get the sense that Harvey’s view of the world is as despondent as Cheating‘s photography.

Strangely, Carnival of Souls — shot ten years later — shares a similar feel to Cheating even if Mary is not a culpable sinner like the child in the short. Nonetheless, she inhabits a cold world that has turned its back on her. Due to budget limitations, she never wanders a pitch-black hallway, but the bright daylight of a Salt Lake City park is every bit as foreboding as the child’s home in Cheating. Additionally, Harvey made use of a few simple but effective camera tricks to insert his ghostly specter into windows and mirrors in lieu of the processing techniques he used on his industrial films. The special effect works and the cheesiness of it even adds an air of suspense to the specter.
The performances are … well, let me put it this way: every performance in the film casually wanders into a mode of acting David Lynch (an admitted fan) tries very hard to coax from his well-trained performers. It’s the acting of non-professionals, but Harvey assembles it in a way that is charming on the whole even if it falls apart under scrutiny. Star Candace Hilligoss isn’t the best actor, particularly when asked to recite dialogue. To her credit, she is aware of what screen acting is supposed to look like, but often gives a better performance when she forgets about her Strasberg training and just reacts. Whether dealing with the horror of becoming invisible or facing down the terror of the ghoulish specter (an uncredited Harvey), the unease on her face and her screams of terror are her most effective tools.
The moodiness of the film and the relative strengths of Hilligoss as a performer come together whenever Mary visits the lakeside carnival. Shot at Salt Lake City’s abandoned Saltair II Pavilion, Harvey captures a decay which is both filled with meaning about progress and industrial disuse while also revealing the strange turmoil of his protagonist. As our tour guide, Mary wanders the place as though in a Sears catalogue, but like that brand — and indeed the notion of catalogue shopping — she ambles through something long since dead. Her subsequent visit is filled with menace as the ghouls come out to claim her, giving Hilligoss plenty of time to scream and grow increasingly unhinged.
And I promise, there are cheesy things to laugh at in the film. In fact, Carnival of Souls is the only film to receive home video releases from both The Criterion Collection and Rifftrax. That unique distinction means you will get something out of the film no matter what mood you’re in or how you happen to see it. Like the film’s conclusion, it relative merits will leave you guessing.
As mentioned above, Carnival of Souls is available as a Criterion Collection Blu-ray or DVD. This version is also available on iTunes and the Filmstuck streaming service. If you want professional riffers to help you get through your first viewing, Rifftrax offers the film with both a studio-recorded riff track and one performed before a live audience. While the jokes in the live version are great, the film is presented with colorization, destroying some of cinematographer Maurice Prather’s effective black & white photography.

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