Made in 1962 and directed by Herk Harvey, Carnival of Souls is an effectively creepy tale shot in black and white. Harvey’s only feature-length piece in a career of educational and industrial shorts with the studio Centron Productions, it was also shot in just two weeks, but from its low-key atmosphere and low budget emerges a strange and fascinating story.

This is in spite of an opening sequence which makes you believe you are watching a confused shlock drama (or a health and safety short on the dangers of drag racing). However the mis en scene style of the beginning quickly develops into a strange mix of guessing game and twisted cat and mouse horror chase. The protagonist, Mary, is mysteriously the sole survivor of the car accident, and decides she would be better off leaving town. But she has not gone far before she begins being haunted by a ghoulish man, reminiscent of the pale-faced man in Lost Highway (yes, I know this one came first), who appears with increasing proximity and whenever she is alone. She is also strangely drawn to an abandoned carnival ground near her new home, and suddenly has unnerving episodes in which the rest of the world becomes silent, and cannot see or hear her.

Poor Mary is desperate to take control of her life again, but her mind is unraveling as rapidly as the plot will let it… The entire film takes place over only three days, and within a week of her ‘accident’. Finally she takes it upon herself to explore the derelict carnival ground which has drawn her since she arrived and begins to feel she has conquered at least one of her fears. That is until she begins to play horrifying carnival music instead of hymnal chords while practicing her new job as a church organist. The combined symbolism of the devilish carnival music, ghoulish black-eyed man and shunning from the world of Christianity do not look good. What is overtaking her?

This film will remind you of many other classic, surrealist ‘twist’ tales. It’s spooky, fascinating, and a template for a lot of horror tropes that appear in future years. There are many similarities to Lost Highway, with the tension growing steadily and an underlying sense of fear, based almost entirely on not knowing quite what is going on. There are also obvious stylistic comparisons to Hitchcock seminals like Vertigo. It’s a brilliantly strange film, coming on as dream-sequence and thriller alike, and with a toned-down angst to it. The juxtaposed visuals, in the form of the black and white make-up of the ghouls following her, and the aural echoing emptiness of the world she cannot seem to keep a grasp on, create a sense of intense isolation. Compelling and creepy.

Review by Nicole Holgate

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