Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Movie Appraisal: Carnival of Souls (1962)

This movie is interesting in so many ways and it makes me very confused. Now, I don't feel that way because the movie has an odd storyline or because it doesn't always make sense. I love movies that are odd and complicated. But this movie starts off the trend of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" types of stories, which is a good thing, I have to say. Ideas and stories like that are few and far between and I feel that they are some of the best storylines in existence if done thoughtfully. So, you can start to see my dilemma. I wanted to like this film... nay... I wanted to LOVE this film. It influenced some of my favorite films of all time: Jacob's Ladder, Stay, and many others, and yet this film doesn't hold a candle to any of them.

At first I thought it was the style of filmography, which is a bit strange. The way the film is cut and the directing style leaves the viewer feeling both confused and a little bit like the viewer has just been punched in the nose by a very angry gorilla. The acting is just awful, full of actors whom the director seems to have just chosen off of the street. The performances are painful to both watch and listen to, resulting in a film that quickly seems impossible to enjoy. The story cuts in and out quickly and becomes hard to follow as the movie proceeds, which I am by no means against. It only becomes a problem in my mind because the acting is just so awful and the filmography is just so painful to watch that the story actually suffers because of it despite being interesting. If the acting or filmography had been decent, this might have turned out to be a decent film, but instead I feel that this film actually set back psychological horror films for decades rather than giving those films a solid base to jump off of.

All of my criticisms aside (and I do have many), this film had some beautiful ideas that were executed quite well, along with excellent ideas executed so painfully as to be unwatchable by any person who isn't a masochist. When the main character, Mary Henry (played by Candace Hilligoss), experiences times when she cannot hear anybody and she does not exist to them, I was in awe. A scene like that is so rarely tried and it was done so beautifully that I was incredibly impressed. The idea of that scene, as well as the execution, was so well done that I had to mention it. Candace Hilligoss's acting really shines in those scenes to the point where it overshadows the more ordinary points in the movie. The movie seems off in so many scenes, giving a creepy ambiance to almost every frame, but doing it in the worst way possible. Instead of subtlety, it relies on a heavy-handed approach... instead of letting the plot flow, it relies on cheap tricks and questionable story decisions. This movie was one of the first of its kind, so I can forgive a lot, but at the same time, I wish that the director (Herk Harvey) or screenwriter (John Clifford) had taken time to look at the movie and say something to the effect of, "Yes, maybe there should be a little more symbolism. Maybe instead of forcing the plot, we can instead just let dream-like things happen and see where it all goes."

Now, as you can tell I've spoken mostly about technical aspects of the movie rather than the story itself. I've done this because the story barely exists. It is as simple as can be. A bunch of girls drag race a bunch of guys. The girls' car flips into the water as their car careens off of a bridge, and only one girl, Mary Henry, survives. The story turns to her and how she is holding up after every single one of her friends were killed in the accident. She moves out of her hometown to become an organist at a Catholic church, which goes fine for a while, except that she acts so weird at points that the priest is forced to fire her after she seems to be possessed by some un-Godly evil. During this whole time a very creepy man, Mary's neighbor, hits on her constantly while she pretty much acts like a cold chick who has no interest in him. The man seems to have no redeeming qualities. Well, none of the characters do, but the way the guy looks, you kind of want to like him, but he's a jerk, a cad, a womanizer who has no right to be a womanizer, and a gigantic stalker-creep on top of all of that. Mary acts crazy towards him and eventually even drives him away. She drives her own stalker away by being crazy at him for a little while. Jeez, I wish people in the real world could drive stalkers away by just being creepier and crazier than the stalker is... Anyway, the whole "Carnival of Souls" thing comes in the very end of the movie when Mary ends up at an abandoned carnival inhabited by zombies, watches them dance, and then is ripped to shreds by them. The end of the movie shows that she had never gotten out of the car in the beginning of the movie, and had drowned with all of her friends, meaning that the entire movie was something like a death-dream by her.

As I've mentioned, I should have liked this movie much more than I did, but I really didn't. I hated it. Maybe it was the terrible acting, or the lack of original and good ideas, but the movie was painful to watch throughout except for a few shining scenes like the ones where Mary was isolated from everybody else. I wish this movie had been good. I wish it had started the trend of psychological horror movie long before they became big with movies like Jacob's Ladder and such.

If you want to see one of the earliest attempts at psychological horror, you can watch this now public domain movie at It's worth watching if you like these kinds of movies, but don't expect a gem or anything beyond some of the better more recent films of this type, but watch it with the impression that it was one of the earliest attempts at a new genre and it was very well done for its day, even though it doesn't hold up to today's standards.

The film, to me, only passes an absolute failing mark for its age, its attempts at creating a new genre, and its intelligent ideas, but it is bogged down by too many terribly executed everythings for me to recommend it to anybody but the staunchest movie or horror fan.


  1. Sounds like an interesting genre experiment. Bad movies are fine, it's the boring ones that really suck.

    I may try to track down the Legend Films edition first, if only for the bonus Michael J. Nelson commentary track.

  2. It would probably be worth it.

    It is a decent movie in terms of ideas... it just fails in its execution. But it isn't boring, I'll give it that much.