Carnival of Souls

Title: Carnival of Souls
Rating: 2.5/5
Genre: Horror (apparently)
Starring: Candace Hilligoss
Director: Heck Harvey
Release Date: 1962

Returning to my education in the origins of horror comes this intriguing little number; starring a female lead, Mary, who drives the story forward with only a little intervention from a small cast; it's uncommon notion particularly in this period of time in the US's short but turbulent history, portraying an independent woman who bluntly mentions her lack of desire for a man and her desire to work and live for herself rather than as a housewife as was still largely considered normal. And perhaps this is where part of the horror was intended to emerge from; the very notion that a woman would not want to obey a man, though whilst I think it would certainly have raised a few suspicious eyebrows at the time, the inherent lack of horror atmosphere is perhaps more down to how the genre has developed from its far more subtle origins to this rather dated offering.

Though there is something of a motif regarding how women drive; within the opening minutes we see a woman crash on a straight bridge followed by the survivor driving in a manner that is perhaps one of the few genuinely frightening moments, the thought that she might have actually been allowed on the roads, the majority of the plot revolves around the aftermath of the incident. Randomly deciding to take a career change and become a church organist, as she works within the church despite being of little faith and lives in a large house with the landlady, the elderly Mrs. Thomas, and next door to the horny git Mr. Linden, she begins to see visions of a ghostly man haunting her, drawing her curiosity to a mysterious abandoned carnival...

Now, Mary could be a classic case for a psychological mystery to invest yourself in, but she never quite manages to provide that draw; her strength of acting doesn't succeed in fascinating the viewer in the role, still somewhat feeling stuck in the mindset of the era. The script makes sense, and even many of the bizarre unexplained moments that occur on occasion slot into place by the end, even if it never quite feels like a mystery to be solved as much as it does nonsensical and poorly explained by the occasionally badly mixed volume levels, the background music obscuring the dialogue already rendered 'noisy' as a result of the low budget and time. The acting might not have felt particularly special, but the inherent desire to immerse the viewer in the world – there are none of those car scenes where the background shows its clearly not them driving for example – through any means at their disposal has resulted in a number of clever tricks and use of camera angles that by modern standards renders it almost indistinguishable from its bigger budgeted brethren.

I can't in all conscience call this a bad film, despite my occasional negativity towards it, as by the conclusion more details have sunk in and the intelligence behind it all has slowly begun to rise to the surface. Indeed a number of films feel indebted to this work. Not only is this an early example of a now cliché twist, a landmark in how to display the psychological torment of a protagonist within the horror genre, at the time more concerned with apocalypse and monsters, but it also pre-dates the likes of Romero's “Dawn of the Dead,” who created his zombies in much the same manner as the ghost used here. The problem lies in dated conventions that no longer apply; interactions and situations that have long since stopped really occurring. Carnival of Souls is an important historical precursor to many of the great horror films of the coming decade and beyond, but its antiquated feel has long since been bested.


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