Carnival of Souls (1962)

I have a list bookmarked that ranks what most people regard as the best horror movies ever made. And I’ve… covered an embarrassingly few of those movies on this blog. I definitely have seen a huge chunk of these films! I just tend to gravitate towards garbage because ranting about something being bad is easier than making a post with nothing but praise. But I have plans to burn through a couple of my personal to-do lists, so let’s kick off this burst of motivation by talking about something actually good for a change: Carnival of Souls.

After a street race goes horribly wrong, the car Mary (Ms. Candace Hilligoss) is in goes off a bridge and into the river below. The water’s murky enough that the car can’t be found, but Mary is the only survivor as she somehow crawls out of the river. Wanting to put everything behind her, she moves to a nearby town to play the organ in a church, which turns out is an crazy hard instrument to master. She doesn’t really believe, but whatever; a job’s a job. But even in this new town she’s stalked by a ghoul and/or zombie of a man that no one else sees. And sometimes all sound around her stops and no one can see or hear her. Probably not good signs. She’s also strangely drawn to an abandoned carnival. Well, abandoned except for all those ghouls! As time goes by she loses more interest in her daily life, ranging from her job to the sex pest who’s always trying to get with her. Eventually she realizes the truth: she never survived the crash, and the dead want her to join them. But instead of the typical “it was all a dream” reveal most movies would end on, there’s every indication that real people interacted with Mary and assumed she was alive. That’s made all the stranger when the car is finally dredged up, and her lifeless body is indeed inside.

Hey, so, is Hellraiser: Hellseeker a bad remake of Carnival of Souls? Not that I needed another reason to dislike that movie, but still.

This is definitely one of those horror films that flopped at the time, but grew to become a cult classic. But instead of it taking decades, it apparently only took a few years after its 1962 release–George A Romero cited the film as an inspiration for a little movie released in 1968 called Night of the Living Dead. You may have heard of it. And Carnival is well regarded for good reason. Hilligoss gives a great performance of a woman trying to stay strong while her world crumbles around her, convinced she’s being stalked by a zombie while all the men she encounters think she’s crazy. The lack of external sound when she’s disconnected with reality is a relatively simple effect–cutting out the existing sound and adding them back in, typically through Foley sound effects–but it adds to the unease of the situation. And the organ music that makes up most of the soundtrack is creepy and very atmospheric. This is one of the key movies that tied organ music to the horror genre (see the above YouTube link for more info), a perfect example of the two great tastes that taste great together. Or something. That last part might be me craving candy as we get closer to Halloween.

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