For the final film of my Halloween oriented cinema spook-fest, I decided to go with the indelible cult classic, Carnival of Souls, which has become one of the premier scare movies that is....well, criminally under-appreciated. For some time Carnival of Souls fell the way of dubbed copies and public domain twenty set movie releases, only to get somewhat of a resurgence after being shown at various independent theaters, as well as making constant appearances as a midnight movie. In a matter of no time, Carnival of Souls became the movie to watch if you thought you were cool and knew the classics of horror, and deservedly so, Herk Harvey's only feature length work is something to be witnessed. As is the case with many a b-movie, it starts off quite bland with some lees than stellar action shots and some of the worst dubbing imagined in a movie where the actors are speaking the same language. However, less than ten minutes into this cinematic wonderscape, it becomes very apparent that Carnival of Souls will not be your run of the mill work and exists as something far creepier and thoroughly inexplicable. It is hard not to see the clear influence this film has on directors like David Lynch and Steven Sodergbergh who love taking a completely normal scenario and inserting incredible amounts of absurdity into them without the characters seeming to completely fall apart in the wake of said deconstruction of the natural. It could be argued that Carnival of Souls has very few scary moments within its entire seventy or so minute narrative, but I would contest that it is a far greater thing than simple scares when it comes to Carnival of Souls, for the entire diagetic world created within this film is scary, the landscapes defy logic, the characters interact in a vapid and disconnected manner, often engaging one another with such levels of paranoia that it is hard to feel comfortable. Not to mention we are watching a woman slowly fall into such a existential mentality that her sanity begins to blatantly betray her, it is scary in a way many films are not, it does not provide you with explanations as to why ghost A is showing up or why ghost B is so damn mean, it simply places you in media res to a horror story directly consuming on persons life, and in this case Carnival of Souls may have been the first to commit such an approach, and is certainly yet to be challenged.
Carnival of Souls follows a young woman named Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) who is still centering her world after being the sole survivor of a rather unfortunate accident in which a car including her and her friends goes spiraling off the side of a bridge. Shortly after her lucky survival Mary discovers that she will be taking a job in Utah as a church organist, something for which she somehow managed to get a college degree. Upon her arrival to the small town things seem underwhelming with the exception of a rather contentious land lady and a incessant neighbor who feels it necessary to hit on her at what appears to be literally every waking moment. During a trip to work, she notices a carnival in the horizon, which causes her to experience heightened states of paranoia, something that was initially signaled by her seeing a ghostly deep-eyed male apparition. During a day of shopping, Mary experiences a delirium in which nobody seems to acknowledge her existence, despite her yelling and calling attention to herself. This inspires her to investigate the carnival she previously saw on the road, an event that takes her through a bizarre house of illusions and on one of the most decrepit boardwalks ever filmed. All the while she attempts to travel through her daily life, eventually being fired from her organ job after falling into a daze dreaming about the carnival and playing what the priest describes as profane music. Furthermore, she has a falling out with the neighbor who takes her on a date and complains about her cold demeanor and disconnect, taking particular disdain in her refusal to to drink the beer that he paid out of pocket for her to have. Eventually after another bizarre vision of being unable to contact the living Mary returns to the carnival only to find herself being chased by ghastly apparitions from the carnival. After falling into the sand, the scene cuts to detectives as they attempt to track down Mary's body, noting that she seems to have just disappeared into the sand, while we are then shown Mary's corpse being extracted from the river, along with her friends in the car of the original accident. It may be an overused plot twist at this point in film, but I can imagine it was quite the twist fifty years ago.
Carnival of Soul's in notable in its approach to a uniquely female experience of haunting and paranoia. While the film does problematically incorporate notions of hysteria a bit more than is justified, it does manage to make it quite distinct that much of the experiences of horror plaguing Mary are a result of her detachment from society based on gender. To some degree, one could incorporate Simone de Beauvoir's notions of "the second sex" in order to explain why Mary is so distraught. Sure she is seeing ghosts, but all of the threatening ghosts are notably male and could represent a means of patriarchal oppression, which relegates her to a position of lesser being and therefore irrelevant to societal discourse. If we consider Mary as an other in the context of this film, it helps to explain her moments of being ignored by society as not her being a ghost, but rather; a being who realizes that in the context of the early sixties that her body is not only defined as lesser than a male, but also so arbitrary that it is literally overlooked by males who do not want to lose their point of power, as well as by women who have internalized the notion that they are lesser than their penis bearing counterparts. Even the scenes of Mary's interactions with her neighbor reek of the sexual assumptions of the era, in which a man is able to traipse about sexually preying upon women and chastising them when they do not put out, going so far as to call Mary cold, a clever play on her being deceased, as well as a common term for a woman who even remotely cared about her sexual identity during the time. Sure the film is absolutely a ghost story and a very good one at that, but it is not impossible to read heavily into the revolutionary questioning of gender constructs and performance within the text, after all it was a B movie that is where one could break free from the mold of normalcy with great success.
Key Scene: There is a particular scene in the dance hall involving sped up dancing that is, factually, the scariest thing ever put on film.
Buy this movie, I would love to tell you that Criterion is going to re-release the work in high definition, but it tragically does not appear to be the case. As such the DVD will have to suffice.