I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie quite like Carnival of Souls. At least, I've never seen a movie from this time period that feels like Carnival of Souls. Made independently by director Herk Harvey (his only feature), the movie feels nothing like your typical early 1960's horror fare. It forgoes traditional shocks and gimmickry many of the B-Movies of the time rely on. Instead, it tells a different kind of ghost story, mournful, elegiac, and all too human.
Carnival of Souls is the story of Mary, a young woman who, at the start of the movie, hurtles off a bridge in a car with her friends, an accident in a drag race. While the police are trawling the river for the car, she mysteriously comes ashore, dazed but seemingly unhurt. We learn that she is a professional organ player and is soon going to move to Utah to play at a church. On her way there, she drives by a creepy abandoned amusement park, and then out of nowhere, sees a ghoulish figure (played by Herk himself).
Mary moves into a boarding house and begins her job, but still something feels off about her. She is cold and distant, and has no interest whatsoever in associating with other people. This is much to the only other boarder's chagrin, because let me tell you, he is interested. Over the course of the movie, things escalate. Mary continues to see the ghoul. At times, she herself seems to fade out of existence, all sound drains from the world and nobody hears or reacts to her. She is still drawn by the memory of the old amusement park.
I think what most struck me about Carnival of Souls was the truly independent feel of the whole thing. Most movies in the late 50's and early 60's were brimming with glamor and artifice. Everybody was beautiful and wore only the most fashionable of clothing, all the locations were phony and perfect looking. Besides the actress who played Mary, who was making a real go at the acting thing, the cast is made up of amateur local actors. The acting for the most part isn't top notch, but there's something that just feels real about these people. They look normal. They dress in clothes that normal people wore in 1961. The locations aren't sets and sound stages, they're real locations. You get to see what a department store in Salt Lake City must have really looked like 50 years ago. That kind of stuff fascinates me.
In some ways, Carnival of Souls feels a few years ahead of its time. It feels much closer to a movie from the late 60's or the 70's even, than it does to its early 60's brethren. The dialogue is more natural and less stylized. The camerawork, editing and sound design have a bit of an experimental vibe to it. There's a beautiful and mesmerizing sequence where Mary is playing the church organ in a very sensual manner while the ghosts and ghouls in the amusement park waltz.
It's too bad Carnival of Souls failed to perform in its initial release. I'm not sure if this was just a one-off for him, or if Herk Harvey had aspirations of making more films. I wonder what else he would have done, if he had been given the opportunity.