Carnival of Souls delivers a surrealistic mysterious horror vibe resulting in a cult classic.
Carnival of Souls is a mystery, surreal arthouse horror that is beautifully shot and filmed creating a foreboding and intense atmosphere. With ominous shots and a surreal atmosphere it creates a tensed vibe that is very tangible.
The film is shot with a low-budget and shows that imagination and creativity are of the utmost importance in creating something unique and special. The film can be watched in black-and-white but also in color, both giving a somewhat different effect on the tone and vibe of the film. While films from the seventies are known for their surreal content this cult film was ahead of its time and still is a great unique and scary watch.
Mary Henry is driving in car with two other friends when they are challenged by two guys. They race to a bridge, but the girl’s car crashes into the water. Mary is the only one who has survived the crash and traumatized she moves to another town to work as an organ player in the local church.
But when she experiences some strange things and a strange eerie man is following her, she thinks she is going mad, or that she is hallucinating. The strange occurrences all seem to lead to the abandoned pavilion where there used to be a carnival. She must figure out why she has blackouts and wants the panic attacks to stop, so she sets on a dangerous journey to unravel the mystery.
Why you should watch it
The story focuses on Mary’s perspective, her experiences and observations. The story therefore is told by an unreliable narrator, and therein lies the mystery of the film. Is Mary going insane, is she hallucinating, or is there some truth to the creepy appearances of The Man or is there something else entirely going on? We never get any prove that others can see The Man as well or that the experience what Mary is seeing or hearing is in fact real.
This film is shot in a very intense and intimate way. We are very close to the main character, experiencing alongside her what she is going through, real or not. That makes it a terrifying and claustrophobic experience for her and for the audience as well.
The story evolves around Mary. Although being an unreliable narrator, she is strong, decisive but at the same time doesn’t feel at home any more in this world. This philosophical existentialism plays a very big part in the film, adding to the surreal atmosphere. Very intensely shot, mostly zooming in on her eyes, it creates an intimate private atmosphere that increases her dissociative episodes.
These hallucinatory dissociative episodes are indicated by a waterfall effect. But also sound is a very important element involving these episodes. Sometimes there’s only a visual shot, and just one sound, like singing birds or her heals clacking on the pavement that is audible, creating a surreal vibe, just like if everything else is gone. Also the organ music plays a big part, creating a sense of doom.
The cinematography is highly creative and inventive and adds to the surreal vibe, but increases the creepiness as well. Creative shots from original angles make it more intriguing and mysterious. Especially when The Man shows up at her window, when Mary is driving, that is filmed with a handheld camera creating a realistic shot, that makes it all the more scary.
The Man himself and the ghouls are very eerie and their makeup is excellently done, as well for the black-and-white, making it somewhat gruesome and harsh, as for the color film making it spooky and surreal. Clad in black and white with their creepy makeup they stand out from the colored world Mary lives in. The ghouls coming out of the water or flowing out of the pavilion are not only creepy but symbolic as well, relating to the plot.
The shots, the cinematography, the sound effects, the movements, the pavilion, the ghouls and The Man are all leading up to the unraveling of the mystery, resulting in a big twist, connecting themes, plot and cinematography, intertwining them in a most enthralling story.
My favorite part
Really notable are the sound effects. While surrealism is mostly shown by the cinematography, original angels, creative points of view, creating a weird take on a situation, in this film however the sound plays an important role.
When Mary has an episode in the store, only her hearing seems to be affected. All falls silent. While she tries to talk to people they don’t seem to hear or see her, questioning if she herself is fading out of existence. Even the sound of birds suddenly audible after an episode, give the film a creepy effect.
Also the way in which her reaction and desperation is filmed, even going to a psychiatrist, but meanwhile she still believes herself, forcing her to investigate the pavilion she is drawn to, is a great example of a great heroin. Not being submissive to what the male doctor says or clinging to a man who wants to protects her, reinforces her womanly personal strength, and proves to be the only way to put a stop to all of this weird happenings.
Scare factor: ★★★★★
Surreal factor: ★★★★★
Originality factor: ★★★★★
Cast and crew
Carnival of Souls is directed and written by Herk Harvey and cowritten by John Clifford. It stars Candace Hilligoss (Mary), Frances Feist (landlady), Sidney Berger (John), Stan Levitt (Dr. Samuels), Art Ellison (minister) and Herk Harvey (The Man).
Duration: 84 minutes. Music by: Gene Moore. Cinematography: Maurice Prather. Edited by: Bill de Jarnette, Dan Palmquist. Produced by: Herk Harvey. Production company: Harcourt Productions. Distributed by: Herts-Lion International Corp.