The greatest movie you’ve never heard of
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
His name was Herk Harvey. Well-known for directing many industrial and educational movies with a single credit as director of a full-feature. A low-budget B movie, the kind of cinema that is usually filed away as insignificant, clumsy and exploitative.
The feature film mentioned above is Carnival of Souls. Released in 1962 but quickly forgotten, it was kept alive across the decades through various viewings on television channels and the zeal of its fan-base. It saw belated recognition and is today considered a cult movie.
The film begins with a drag race in Kansas, wherein three women (including the star Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry) in a car are challenged by two men. The race, a particularly rough one, ends in the women's car falling off the bridge. Later when the police and locals are trying to recover the car and the women, Mary miraculously walks out of the river, appearing unharmed though muddied by the river's water.
She doesn't seem to have a recollection of the events and decides to move away to become a church organist in Utah. On the way, she witnesses a desolate building standing alone in the field, an abandoned pavilion which once served as a carnival house. She begins to have visions of a ghoulish "man", who continues to haunt her all the way to the city where she is boarding. The horror of her experiences, mystery around the abandoned pavilion and the "man" who haunts her, with an array of characters who seek to understand, advise and assist her form the rest of the movie which ends with a twist.
The themes which intermingle with each other and interact with the viewers are: dreams, death, getting lost and being haunted.
Mary Henry has a dream-like quality to her. Her survival in itself is miraculous and for most of the movie, she is a lady who seems troubled by both actual and undefined problems. The former is symbolized by the entities present on-screen for the viewers, i.e., the "man" and other ghouls who haunt her, the latter through sequences which depict her interactions with rest of the world such as where she returns to the bridge, a few days after her survival. She has a longing for something unknown to us and looks on as if she has unresolved questions on her mind.
When she plays music, it makes others take notice because it stirs up their souls. In what are perhaps some of the most remarkable sequences of the movie, characters are shown taking notice of and being moved by her ethereal music.
When listening to her music, some take time out to enjoy the music with their loved ones, like the minister who states that "We have an organist capable of stirring the soul." Some stop their work to listen to the melodious composition. Some like the old lady at the organ factory take a note of what she is playing, stop for a while to enjoy it and then get back to whatever they were doing, taking the joy of music back to their work.
There are not many movies which can create an effect such as this, making the audience feel the joy that the characters experience.
The movie also makes one feel strange, unearthly qualities present in Mary Henry. The organ factory boss while imploring upon her to put her "soul" into the music, remarks upon the strangeness of the girl.
She carries a certain amount of bitterness (She never comes across as rude to anyone) and a yearning for isolation from rest of the world. She refuses the reception offered by the Church or the overtures from the lecherous John Linden, the boarder who lives across her room. She also shows an aversion to the church, stating that she thinks of her work as a church organist to be a "mere" job, which is often remarked upon as being strange by other characters. (Linden states "…Thinking like that, don’t they give you nightmares?") It shows her alienation from the moral order which is symbolized by the church.
At one point she even remarks "I don't belong in the world."
The closest interactions that Mary has with a person are with John Linden, who takes an interest in her. His character (especially the way he calls off his interest in her "That's just what I need! Get mixed up with some girl who's off her rocker!") reminded me of the sailor from the The Twilight Zone episode "The Hitch-Hiker". (An episode which shares several similarities with this movie)
Portrayed quite well by Sidney Berger, he’s an alcoholic with a cheesy character who spends almost entire of his screen appearance trying to get Mary Henry into his bed. ("You're gonna need me in the evening, you just don't know it yet.") To him she appears classy initially but when she accepts to spend the evening with him yet remains cold to his advances, he loses his calmness. He doesn't quite understand her nature, her disinterest in others of this world (which at another point in the movie, she clearly spells out to the doctor) and quickly vanishes after she displays her fragile mental state on their date-night.
Then there are dream-like sequences of her getting "lost". This "loss" is perhaps the most Twilight Zone-like element (other than the ending) in this movie. It is losing herself from this world and entering another realm, wherein she is present and can observe what is going on in the world but no one can notice, talk or even feel her touch. She also sees certain visions of ghouls while she's playing the church organ, it makes her play such ghastly music that she ends up getting fired. (The Minister dismayed at her act, calls it "Profane, Sacrilege!")
She is rescued by these "loss" visions on one occasion, through a chirping bird in a park and subsequently assisted by a Doctor, but later (when she’s trying to escape the city) the visions take a metaphysical form, wherein it turns out to be a vision within a dream and we are left to question as to what is real?
Her haunting is impersonated by a set of ghouls led by the "man" (played by none other than Herk Harvey himself) and the abandoned carnival pavilion. He haunts her through the movie and renders an effective and creepy performance, especially in the sequence where he's shown to be under-water. A lot about him and the other ghouls is left unexplained and that adds to their fear factor.
The carnival pavilion is a source of enigma and something that attracts Mary towards it. A desolate building, which is falling apart and with attractions that have long been abandoned, it is shown to belong to the ghouls and the "man". With every small step that she takes towards the pavilion, the visions become intense and it feels like she is slowly walking towards her fate.
The Ghouls never utter a word, are seen at inexplicable times and places- such as when they are shown dancing in fast motion or walk out of the water. Their only source of communication is the ghastly music (a superb score by Gene Moore) that accompanies them. When Mary inevitably enters the pavilion in a trance, they are shown enjoying themselves to a dance. The "Man" is with a female ghoul, whom Mary visions to be herself, however we as the viewers can see in different shots where Mary is visible by the side, that he is dancing with a different ghoul. It has a hypnotic impact on the mind of Mary as well as the audience. Finally, when she breaks out of her trance and screams, the ghouls run after her haphazardly and encircle her as she breaks down.
Death and inevitability of fate are the final themes that the movie seeks to explore. There are a lot of questions which are left unanswered and they simply add to the spooky atmosphere which is built around the movie by Herk Harvey. Were the ghouls a representation of her fate and trying to drag her back towards her death from which she had supposedly miraculously survived? Or was she dead all along and what other characters experience is a strong-willed entity (Her strong will is oft-remarked by others) who "survived" out of that accident, only to be recalled to the "other" world by ghouls? What exactly does the "man" represent, the inevitability of her fate or death itself?
While elements of surrealism are present through the movie, they become most prominent as soon as she enters the haunted pavilion for the last time. We are left with what we can interpret from the final sequence when the doctor and the minister look for the missing lady (studying her footprints which vanish into nowhere), while simultaneously the car is dragged out of the river in Kansas with the bodies inside it.
Roger Ebert called it akin to a long-lost episode of The Twilight Zone. As discussed earlier, "The Hitch-Hiker" with its plot of a young lady on a journey who is haunted by a stranger, bears the closest resemblance to Carnival of Souls. However, there are several other episodes one can relate to once they have seen the movie. And when the sky was opened has characters being put in a state of not being there in the "world", before being "forgotten" from this world. A Stop at Willoughby is a study of the relationship between desire and death, with dreams playing a very important role. Nick of Time discusses the idea of an inevitable force which takes control over one’s desires and actions, while Perchance to Dream puts the protagonist in a desperate situation where he tries to avoid sleep, just as Mary is trying to avoid the night and the "ghouls" who happen to come out and haunt her.
To go back to the title, a question might come to your mind. Whether this is the greatest movie you've never seen or heard of? Well, I openly state that my intention was to bait you in and introduce you to a great work. One could give a similar title to a lesser-known Leone epic like Duck, You Sucker! or Corbucci's The Great Silence, which are very well-known to fans of Western cinema but not for many others. One could put in Melville's Army of Shadows, another excellent feature which was forgotten by time till it was revived later in the 90s. I could add up Come and See from Elem Klimov, Stalker from Tarkovsky and state the same.
The trick is simple: introduce you to something new, something refreshing which fills you with life and makes you think. A foreign language classic that wasn't accessible when you were growing up, a movie which belongs to a genre which you've only explored because you happen to have watched a well-known classic from the same, e.g., The Good, The bad and The Ugly becoming a gateway to other Spaghetti Westerns. But greatness has a certain quality, which attracts the viewers towards it.
What quality is found in Carnival of Souls? It is a dream come to life. If this feature was made as an episode from a well-known classic (of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits) it would be hailed as one of the best episodes from the series, if this was made by a well-known director it would be hailed as a raw yet excellent work or (if it was released earlier in his career) as a foretelling of his genius.
But it is not the same. It has been made by people whose names you've probably never heard in an important feature film. Whose usual occupations have nothing to do with the "commercial" side of cinema. It is almost like something that shouldn't belong to this world.
Yet it does.
It is a monument to dreamers and creators. All those who have ever dreamed of making movies or writing a book or creating a work of art but hindered due to various limitations, get a reason to believe in themselves. A belief that they too can create something of value, which is unique and perhaps will be remembered for years to come.
But to some, this still might not be enough. To them, let me assure. Despite its shortcomings (obviously due to the budget at which the creators were forced to operate), this movie has all bearings of being a cinematic classic. An interesting plot, shot in black and white, is able to suck one into its unique setting with a simple narration, ghastly music and haunting sequences. It is a must watch for any of those interested in horror, psychological thrillers or surreal cinema.
A B-movie carries a certain perception around its neck. That it is famous because it falls into the "So-bad-it-is-good" category or because it is a shabby yet novel attempt at introducing something different, perhaps hindered by its low budget or it is an earlier work of a famous director/actor. Carnival of Souls doesn't fall into any of these categories and still, is an excellent feature film in its own right.
In fact, the supposed weakness of being a B-movie has added to its cult status and become its biggest strength. The lack of a big cast or much fanfare around it, allows it to come out of nowhere and surprise the viewer with an unexpected sense of satisfaction. If I could compare this feeling to a movie sequence, one can do well to remember Psycho (another movie with a troubled blonde in a car), which starts resembling a crime caper but strikes a completely different chord when Marion Crane enters the shower in the Bates motel.
Carnival of Souls is a true cult-classic as well as a great movie, which has lived through the test of time and has been kept alive by the efforts of fans.
His name was Herk Harvey. Well-known for directing many industrial and educational movies with a single credit as director of a full-feature. A low-budget B movie, the kind of cinema that is usually filed away as insignificant, clumsy and exploitative. No more with us but forever shining in the Twilight Zone of cinematic history.