Mid-century America produced a seemingly endless well of low-budget genre films, released to satisfy the ravenous needs of Saturday matinee double features and drive-in movie theaters. B-movies were never intended as art, but rather existed to frighten and entertain children spending the day at the movies, often failing in both those simple tasks. Some gained a second life in televised syndication, where they were watched by a generation of kids from the 1970’s to the mid-1980’s, but most are now forgotten.
A few, however, have reached “classic” status and are remembered by a wider audience — George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Carnival of Souls. This is due to one of two factors — the film is unexpectedly good or influential (Night of the Living Dead falls squarely in this category), or so bad that it exemplifies the incompetence and lack of self-awareness of low-budget filmmakers that it serves to discredit a whole genre of film (Plan 9 from Outer Space).
Carnival of Souls definitely falls into the “unexpectedly good or influential” camp and also has the distinction of being a part of the Criterion collection, the cinephile home video company responsible for releasing such supplemental-laden classics as Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Kristof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, David Lynch’s Eraserhead and (bizarrely) Michael Bay’s Armageddon. The recent blu-ray release offers a pristine 4k transfer, along with a host of extras that first appeared on the early 00’s Criterion DVD release.
The film itself is simple enough — it opens with a young church organist named Mary Henry, riding in a car with a few female friends. Another car driven by a pair of over-sexed young men challenges the women to a drag race — they accept and race down the road towards a narrow bridge. The span can barely accommodate both cars, and the men recklessly muscle Mary and her friends through the wooden guardrail and into the river below.
The local authorities search in vain for the women, and just as they begin to call of the search, Mary emerges from the river, soaked and muddy, but very much alive. Although she is the sole survivor of a terrible accident, she goes on with her life, taking a job as a church organist in Utah and leaving the accident behind.
Except all is not right for Mary Henry — she is pursued by a ghostly man who appears to her in her new home, silent, but relentless in his pursuit, and she finds herself oddly drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. As she settles into her new life, strange occurrences and visions persist, leading her to the derelict pavilion and a stunning revelation.
The film doesn’t build fear, so much as it builds dread — Mary is disconnected from the world around her, pursued as much by the anxious pipe organ score as she is by the ghostly figure. She is a lone woman in an indifferent world, running from forces she doesn’t understand. Although Carnival of Souls is devoid of violence, through its luminous black and white cinematography and creative use of sound, it produces a sense that something terrible is just around the corner.
Writer and director Herk Harvey says that with Carnival of Souls he tried to have “the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau.” By citing two legendary auteur filmmakers — Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman and France’s Jean Cocteau — it’s clear that Harvey intended to make more than a B-movie. And as one strips away the ghost story trappings, it’s clear that there’s something more ambitious at work here, as Mary’s life is beset not only by hostile spirits, but also a boarding house neighbor who desperately wants to have sex with her and a doctor whose sympathy is poisoned by his brazen misogyny.
David Lynch has listed Carnival of Souls as an influence, and one can see the clear visual, auditory and thematic roots at play. In many ways, Mulholland Drive, is the direct descendent of Carnival of Souls — one might even call it a sort of remake, as it hinges on the same basic story twist.
But this isn’t to say that Carnival of Souls is a perfect success — stylistically, there is a lot to admire, but the performances of its amateur actors leave a lot to be desired. Still, it’s a surprising achievement for an industrial filmmaker, known primarily for his workmanlike documentaries and educational films, to have created such a distinctive narrative film that transcends its b-movie origins. Carnival of Souls is a better film than it has any right to be and deserves to be seen and remembered.
Jeff Barrus is the host of the Television Zombies podcast which covers all sorts of sci-fi and genre TV.