The Threshold Between Life and Death

Carnival of Souls (1962) – A Psychological Journey


Carnival of Souls – A Psychological Thriller

Carnival of Souls is a an obscure psychological thriller that is creeping up some Internet top horror movie lists. The Criterion Collection released a high quality restoration in 2000. Filmed in black and white, director Herk Harvey tells a story that plays out like 80 minute long Twilight Zone episode. Staying true to the psychological thriller formula, Harvey creates a surreal landscape that conflates reality with fantasy. The main character, Mary Henry, wanders through a landscape trying to understand why the world turned upside down ever since she narrowly survived a car accident.

The Crash

It begins with a drag race that results in one car careening over the side of a bridge. All but one, Mary Henry, dies in the river. A crowd gathers as Mary emerges from the churning waters of the river. Once recovered, she feel compelled to leave home for Utah. Soon she starts seeing the seemingly undead in reflections, and later in more manifest form. Over time, she becomes more and more disconnected from reality and reality becomes more and more disconnected from her.  As she struggles to find complacency, Mary must eventually come to terms with what really happened the day of the crash.

Carnival of Souls – Not Quite a Horror Film

Carnival of Souls is less a horror movie than it is art film that paints the countryside traversed on the journey from life to death. Carnival uses the very plot device that would later gain fame in The 6th Sense. A young woman sees dead people, unaware that she herself if dead. Mary Henry, descends into madness as she draws towards the conclusion. To create the fantasy world that Mary exists in, Harvey relies on bold cinematography and striking contrast through lighting.

The film takes a slow, but intentional pace to gradually pull Mary into surreal circumstance. The drone of organ music throughout the film lend to the foreboding feeling of the film. The character of Mary Henry is played deftly by Candace Hilligoss. While I can’t put my finger on the exact characteristic at play, she relays the confusion and wonder often displayed in the works of Rod Serling. The director manages to maintain the novelty of this approach over the course of 80 minutes.

Carnival of Souls - The Threshold Between Life and Death
The Threshold Between Life and Death

All Creeps are not Ghouls

Despite that fact that Mary regularly encounters Ghouls, the most frightening person she meets is a fellow resident, John Linden. He exudes totally creepiness as he tries to make a play on her. I cringe every time he speaks. Unfortunately for Mary, she is willing to take company from anyone to avoid her hallucinations. I suspect that Linden’s character was created intentionally to show the harshness of reality in contrast to the peaceful allure of the afterlife.

Dance With the Dead

The movie ends with a haunting dance of the dead in an old arena turned amusement park, providing the perfect metaphor for Mary’s final journey. The police find Mary’s footprint in the sand the following day. At the bridge, a crew pulls a car from the muddy river. Mary sits lifeless in the front seat.

Carnival of Souls – Final Thoughts

Filmed, on what was reportedly a shoestring budget of $33,000, this film really is a triumph.  Carnival of Souls confidently achieves what it sets out to do.  The result is a suspenseful psychological thriller that refuses to let the viewer off of the hook, even though the conclusion can be seen from miles away.  I highly recommend this film as an prime example of Hollywood’s transition from the 50’s generic serial style horror to the more auteur style that would take hold decades later.

Carnival of Souls (1962) - A Psychological Journey - Malevolent Dark
carnival of souls park

Director: Herk Harvey

Date Created: 1962-01-01 00:00

Editor's Rating:

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