Episode 145 - "Carnival of Souls" (1962)


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Welcome back to Film Buff Fridays. Today I have a massively influential film, one that influenced the likes of George Romero, David Lynch, and James Wan. And like most cult movies, it never got its due in its time, but I hope this review helps others enjoy it. Do you have any suggestions like this, films lost to the ether in the glut of new content being released? Head over to onemoviepunch.com and submit a suggestion, and who knows, I just might watch and review it.

And now...

Today’s movie is “Carnival of Souls” (1962), the horror mystery feature-length film from Herk Harvey, written in collaboration with John Clifford. The film follows Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a woman drawn to a mysterious abandoned carnival after a major accident. The film saw a revival in the early 1990s and has periodically been featured around the world at various film festivals.

Spoilers ahead.

Who’s Herk Harvey? I know I asked that question when this film appeared on my radar. Harvey worked for Centron Films, involved in writing, producing, and even starring in a series of short films made for industry, schools, government, and general documentaries. Chances are if you grew up between the 1970s and 1990s, you have probably seen one or more of his shorts. And on a trip back to their base in Lawrence, Kansas from Salt Lake City, Utah, he was drawn to an abandoned carnival, and returned to work with John Clifford to pen a film utilizing the location.

“Carnival of Souls” (1962) is an incredibly well-composed and well-connected film. Mary Henry’s character as a professional organ player connects the film to the full organ score by Gene Moore, moving between lofty church hymns and eerie carnival dirges. The Saltair Pavilion was almost ready-made for the story, needing only extras with makeup and clever camera work to accentuate each scene. The sound editing feels very much like a radio drama, and the visual editing is a mix of neat special effects (at least for the time) and tributes to silent movie montages, particularly the final scenes, including the stinger at the end.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about this film was that it was placed immediately into public domain in the United States, because the initial print failed to include a copyright. It made it fair game for anyone to find and broadcast, which meant Harvey and his investors were cut out of their $33,000 investment, and that local stations could acquire, cut and broadcast the film as they wished, royalty free. But perhaps this worked to the film’s advantage, as its audience grew over time, building acclaim until an official home release was developed, so at least Harvey knew his work was appreciated, and I believe would see how influential it really was.

“Carnival of Souls” (1962) is a once forgotten, now universally acclaimed horror mystery film, serving as possible muse to more than one director. It may have been Herk Harvey’s only feature-length film, but it is spectacular, especially given its budget and its limited initial distribution. Fans of old ghost stories, or fans of cult films in general, should definitely check out this film, and hopefully you’ll be as surprised with it as I was.

Rotten Tomatoes: 85%

Metacritic: NR

One Movie Punch: 8.6/10

“Carnival of Souls” (1962) is rated PG and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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