As cult films go, Carnival of Souls (1962) hits the right buttons. First, it’s a horror film – traditionally, the most inexpensive fiction films to make. Next, it was produced cheep-cheep with a lot of guerrilla tactics ($33,000 in 1962 – which is about $275,000 today). Also, most of the actors were amateurs. And sets weren’t built; they were discovered, such as an abandoned carnival ground.
And most importantly, there’s a strong element of creativity – which is different from originality – although they certainly play together. Director Herk Harvey – who never directed another feature film – did a lot with a little. Similar to other cult film of equal status, energetic creativity overcomes sophisticated technologies and the trappings of studio production.
The story itself is not new. You can find remnants of the narrative in Twilight Zones and schlock horror… Somewhere in Kansas, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) rides in a car with two other young women. A couple of standard-issue, high school goofballs in a jalopy challenge them to a drag race. As the two cars cross a bridge, the girls’ car plunges into a lake. Only Mary Henry survives.
Mary, a church organist by training, decides to move to Salt Lake City, Utah, for a new job.
While driving to her gig, Mary’s radio gets jammed on all-eerie organ music station (who would ever advertise?) and she sees the reflection of zombie/ghoul (known as “The Man”) in her passenger window as she passes an abandoned carnival pavilion.
From then on in, things get exceedingly weird for poor Mary.
This is where Harvey’s talent as a nascent horror-meister kick in. From the clever use of sound effects, music (church organ, that is), fright-night make-up, camera movement/camera speed, and pre-existing sets, viewers are somehow slowly integrated into this black and white phantasmagoria. What’s scary is how casual everything seems. The pacing is almost naturalistic. Indeed, one core aspect of successful cult films comes as an unintended, back-handed veracity – ofen due to slim budgets.
Similar to Blast of Silence, Carnival of Souls has become an enduring example of what cinema can achieve in a scary World without Money.