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Carnival of Souls

by Glenn Erickson Jul 07, 2016

Cinema Art from Lawrence, Kansas?   Industrial filmmaker Herk Harvey comes through with a classic horror gem for the ages. A haunted church organist begins to suspect that her hallucinations are more than just nerves. And who is that ghoulish man who keeps appearing in reflections, or popping up out of nowhere?

Carnival of Souls
The Criterion Collection 63
1962 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 78 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 12, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Herk Harvey.
Maurice Prather
Film Editor Dan Palmquist, Bill de Jarnette
Original Music Gene Moore
Assistant Director Raza (Reza) Badiyi
Written by John Clifford
Produced and Directed by Herk Harvey

Herk Harvey’s marvelous Carnival of Souls is an anomaly in screen horror, a regional effort that transcends its production limitations to deliver a spine-tingling encounter with the uncanny. Harvey was a prolific producer of industrial films, which by the 1950s had established their own strange sub-Hollywood grammar. As demonstrated in Criterion’s ample extras, Harvey’s Lawrence, Kansas outfit Centron ground out instructional pictures starring non-actors. When Harvey and his writing partner John Clifford took time out to make a feature film, they were consciously imitating their fellow industrial filmmaker Robert Altman, who several years earlier had filmed The Delinquents over in Kansas City. They even hired Altman’s assistant director Reza Badiyi, who would himself have a long Hollywood career.


John Clifford’s story is a spooky variation on the mind-warping concept of Ambrose Bierce’s vintage short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. A 1962 film version by Frenchman Robert Enrico (The Old Gun)  became an episode of the TV show The Twilight Zone. Souls unstuck in time and place were a fixture on Rod Serling’s show. Replace Serling’s liberal sermonizing with a weird independent art-film vibe, and Carnival is like an extended version of a TZ episode.

Young Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) inexplicably survives a drag race accident that sees all of her friends plunge to their deaths in the river. Seeking a fresh start, Mary quits her job as an organist and drives to another state to work for another church. On the way she is haunted by a mysterious Man (Herk Harvey) that she sees reflected in her car window.  She also feels drawn to an enormous deserted ballroom pavilion she sees on a muddy flat adjacent to the Great Salt Lake. Mary begins the new job but more hallucinations follow, the most disturbing being a sensation that she’s invisible, that people can’t see or hear her. She has difficulty relating to her landlady and her new employer, and must endure the lecherous advances of a fellow boarding house resident, John Linden (Sidney Berger). Does the secret have something to do with that ruined ballroom on the lake?


Carnival of Souls taps into a vein of horror that was never in vogue, and yet has yielded some really great pictures. This line of fright movies substitutes creepy visions for violence, and imitates the weird sensation of a bad dream. The classics know the mood well: The Cabinet of Caligari, Nosferatu, Vampyr. Karl Freund’s The Mummy also relies on scenes that evoke a timeless death state marked by silence and stasis. Mary Henry walks as if in a dream limbo, followed by a baleful ghost.

Harvey and Clifford were surely trying to capture and sustain the weird ‘twist effect’ then popular in the TV shows The Twilight Zone, Thriller and One Step Beyond: a last-minute revelation that overturns a basic narrative assumption. There’s also the impressively eerie, low budget classic Dementia, which centers on another haunted woman, and plays like an expressionist silent movie nightmare.


Horror fans are more than aware of the way ultra-low budget films sometimes seem like dreams. Seen late at night, old Monogram and PRC pictures take on an unreal quality, with actors that behave like zombies and line deliveries that blur into a monotone. Its as if the film had beamed in from another dimension. That quality certainly applies to the acting in the instructional films Harvey directed at Centron. As noted by more than one contributor to Criterion’s disc presentation, Carnival of Souls makes a virtue out of those limitations. Candace Hilligoss contributes a fine central performance but most of the characters around her are selfconscious amateurs barely pretending to act. Theater student Sidney Berger overacts, but in such a way that his character’s boorish behavior seems an extension of Mary Henry’s mental confusion.

A a visual experience Carnival of Souls works even better now than it did in 1962. The streets of Lawrence Kansas seem to come from a place in the distant past, a if out of a time machine. The evocative road-trip scenes capture the feeling of being ‘in transit’ on a blank landscape, a limbo. Mary Henry’s journey has parallels with Marion Crane’s highway flight in Psycho. Both women are alone in a vaguely threatening desert, and both are molested by strange young men that spy upon them as they undress.
Harvey and his cameraman nail various spooky scenes. The ‘out of nowhere’ appearances of The Man can really make a viewer jump. But some of the best things in the film seem to be the result of luck. Writer Clifford didn’t make Mary a church organist to advance a statement about spirituality. Her profession was instead chosen because Clifford knew of a pipe organ factory that could serve as an evocative location. That choice cues both Mary’s detachment — despite her job, she’s not religious — and the film’s soundtrack music. The organ score by Gene Moore slips between hymns, silent movie melodramatics and spacey mood effects. Church organ music is meant to evoke an ethereal mood. A sophisticated Hollywood score might be too much for this plainspoken Middle American setting.

The more we accept the stiff acting and rough audio dubbing, the more we’re drawn to Candace Hilligoss, a promising actress who studied in New York. An acting school connection with Roy Scheider may have landed her a second role, a small part in the New York regional production The Curse of the Living Corpse. But Candace’s agent reportedly dropped her after he saw Carnival of Souls.

Hilligoss gives one of the best ‘haunted’ performances ever. She has the poise of Tippi Hedren without the frigidity. Her Mary Henry isn’t as sensual as Carroll Baker in Jack Garfein’s Something Wild, another movie about a disturbed woman slipping off the rails of sanity. Unlike those women, Mary’s in a genuine supernatural bind: her soul has become unstuck in time.

We’re a little unstuck as well, due to the film’s fragmented time structure. During the drag race Mary doesn’t strike us as a wild young thing; that woman doesn’t connect with the calm Mary playing the organ just one scene later. The disconnect between what looks like a fatal accident and Mary’s appearance minutes later on a muddy sandbar, is also very strange. But we accept that anomaly as part of the low-budget filmmaking ‘reality’  just as we accept the unconvincing car crash stunt. We move on, vaguely aware that the filmmaker is laying a narrative trap for us.


The film’s dialogue is loaded with portentious hints about souls and final destinations, but the amateur actors’ little theater vibe only adds to the enjoyable unreal quality. Mary Henry is suspended partway between this world and some other, a predicament that Harvey and Clifford sketch with minimal resources. Herk Harvey was initially inspired by the sight of the abandoned Saltair Pavilion out on the Utah mud flats; on a lonely night it surely looked like a waiting room for the hereafter. The film concludes in a spooky tour de force on its enormous dance floor, with zombie dance couples emerging from the lake. They eventually advance on Mary, welcoming her to their ghoulish society just as did the laughing dream phantoms in both Dementia and the the earlier classic Dead of Night.

Almost nobody saw Carnival of Souls theatrically. Its original distributor Herts-Lion went out of business under suspicious circumstances, leaving the filmmakers high and dry. But the film soon became a legend on late night television, where its strange story structure and odd tone only added to the sense of dislocation and mystery. It’s a core late-night gem: one might tune in to the middle of the show at 1:30 a.m. and be mesmerized. Filmmakers outside of Hollywood have often taken up horror to break through the commercial film barrier; Herk Harvey’s is one of the few recognized as a genuine masterpiece.


The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Carnival of Souls is a much improved follow-up on their 2000 two-disc special edition. The spine number is an ultra-low 63. The old DVD had both the film’s original release cut and the longer extended edition. Because the extended scenes only exist on lower-resolution video, this Blu-ray presents only the original release cut. The extended scenes appear as an extra only.

After looking at the missing scenes, I’m not bothered by their absence — none of them are essential, and a scene in a psychiatrist’s office contains Miss Hilligoss’ only patch of sub-par acting. The gain is in the look of the picture — the 4K transfer and digital cleanup give Harvey’s film a stunning appearance. I had no idea that the original cinematography was this good. The digital workover helps as well: no more jumps at splices. The film is presented in its proper 1:37 aspect ratio, necessitated by the framing of the main titles. But almost all of the movie mattes off well in a wider format, in case you wish to experiment.

Most of the extras from the old DVD are present. Back in the late 1980s the cast and crew were reunited for a reissue of the picture. Topkeka PBS producer Bill Shaffer, whom Savant met much later while researching Sergio Leone movies, was a fan of Carnival of Souls and took the opportunity to make a TV docu about the local movie that made good. The film clips in his “The Movie that Wouldn’t Die!” will be a good reminder of how Carnival used to look — dull, murky and indistinct. Also present are the deleted scenes (just the main scenes, not the one and two-shot deletions) and a great deal of outtake footage that could well be edited into a different film. Other pieces on the film’s inspired Saltair Pavilion location are included as well.

The new items begin with a spirited talk about Carnival of Souls by writer-comedian Dana Gould. He makes a lot of minor factual errors, mostly dates, but sums up the film’s appeal quite nicely. Critic and filmmaker David Cairns has directed an elaborate short subject ode to Carnival of Souls. He enlists input from other critics, whose voices are heard filtered through Mary Henry’s car radio. The approach is arty but appropriate. Cairn’s narration communicates well some of the difficult-to-convey feelings and ideas about ethereal horror, that the rest of us too quickly file under the catchall phrase, ‘uncanny.’

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Carnival of Souls
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Selected-scene audio commentary with director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford, New interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould, New video essay by film critic and filmmaker David Cairns, The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!, a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the film’s cast and crew, The Carnival Tour, a 2000 update on the film’s locations, Excerpts from movies made by the Centron Corporation, deleted scenes, outtakes, history of the Saltair Resort in Salt Lake City, trailer, Insert essay by writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 3, 2016

Bonus feature! Here’s Mary Lambert’s TFH Commentary on Carnival of Souls:


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Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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