Like Jason's Facebook Page

Friday, October 25, 2013

Carnival of Souls: A Cult Classic Reviewed

Carnival of Souls (1962), directed by Herk Harvey

As the classic horror movies of the Universal Monster era evolved throughout the 1930's into the 1950's, creatures remained the at the top of the genre.  That decade saw such gems as The Blob, Tarantula!, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Giant Claw, Attack of the Giant Leeches (a personal favorite!), and William Castle's The Tingler.  Rarely did horror not include a monster or an alien that was out to get you.

However, in the 1960's, even as creatures continued to menace theaters, horror fans began to see a new type of movie.  Darker themes lit up the big screen.  Man became a terror all his own.  Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock and a little known author from Wisconsin (Robert Bloch, a friend of H.P. Lovecraft), audiences all over the United States discovered that we need not fear giant ants or alien parasites when a man like Norman Bates is lurking behind a shower curtain in the 1960 classic Psycho.  Horror directors began to delve into the creepier aspects of what scares us.  Around this time period, Herk Harvey, a director of educational films from Kansas had an idea for a thriller-horror movie while on vacation in Utah.

For only $33,000, he filmed his movie, Carnival of Souls, using a professional actress (Candace Hilligoss) while filling in most of the cast with local talent, including himself.  In just three weeks, he completed his film.  As a "B" movie, it did poorly, and Herk Harvey never made another feature film.  Most of his crew came from the company he worked for making educational films.  The music score was done by Gene Moore, a co-worker who is also credited with such great films as How to Run a Filling Station and Embryology of the Chick.  (And no, those titles aren't humorous.  The films were actually about running a filling station and embryology...whatever that is.)  Actress Candace Hilligoss only made a few more films.  Carnival of Souls might never have been remembered had it not been seen again.  But as often happened, as cable television sought out more and more old movies to show late at night, Carnival of Souls was resurrected in the 1980's, and over time has become a respected film of 1960's horror.

So let's get to the movie.

Filmed in black and white, with Gene Moore's hypnotic organ score that saturates the film, Carnival of Souls begins with an accident during a drag race between a car full of young men and a car full of young ladies.  One of the young ladies, Mary (Hilligoss) miraculously crawls out of the river three hours after the car she is in runs off a bridge.  Stunned, she staggers home and continues on with her plans to take a new job as a church organist in Utah.

Candace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls
Traveling to her new home, Mary passes an abandoned bath resort/carnival on the shore of the Great Salt Lake.  She begins to see apparitions as she is driving.  Basically, she is not feeling well, and greatly disturbed.  Taking a room in a boarding house, she discovers that her neighbor across the hall is John Linden, a creep who spends his days on the make.  Actor Sidney Berger, who later became an acting instructor, plays John Linden, and does so with a delightful job of being creepy and distasteful.  His performance helps to cement the disturbing atmosphere of this bizarre movie.

The real terror, however, comes from the apparition that begins to stalk Mary.  A white-faced ghostly image of a middle-aged man wearing a suit.  No, he wasn't a radio-active creature, not an alien with eyes on the end of two long stalks.  Just a man, whose intense stare is too much for the unbalanced Mary.  At first she does her best to keep away from this silent watcher.  But finally she can no longer stand not knowing who he is and what he wants.  Unable to get any help from a local doctor, she begins to see more ghouls around her.

The Ghoul (Herk Harvey)
Finally, she is drawn to visit the abandoned carnival.  And there, she will eventually find the answers she is seeking.  Harvey makes use of the abandoned location with well-crafted scenes that are bizarre, ghoulish, and surreal.  I was expecting something over the top, but was happy to find that Harvey keeps the whole movie understated, with just the right amount of creepiness and dreamlike atmosphere.

Hilligoss is cast well as the doe-eyed blonde who stumbles around in this dreamy fantasy.  She never looks like the typical stupid young girl that so many horror movies offer up.  Instead, though she can't seem to figure out what is going on, she retains her dignity even as she is slowly overcome by the ghouls that haunt her.

Carnival of Souls is available on Amazon Instant Video.  Use the link below to check it out.


  1. I'm not a horror fan in any of its many incarnations, but this one actually looks interesting. Great review Jason.

  2. Yes, it is really more of a psychological thriller. It can be seen on youtube presently. Check it out here:

  3. Well-written review. I just recently discovered this movie, and I agree with you when you say that "Harvey keeps the whole movie understated". Also, you are right in saying that Mary "never looks like the typical stupid young girl that so many horror movies offer up" and that "she retains her dignity". Well put, great review. I actually made a song and a music video dedicated to "Mary Henry" after seeing this movie, I used footage from the colorized version of the movie (did you know about the colorized version?), you can watch my music video here:

  4. Peggy Lee Zorba: What ever happened to your 'encomium' to Mary? You have a wonderful style (sort of a funky postmodern Joan Baez, of sorts)! I have posted you on my FACEBOOK more than once: You are talented and deserve your own a website.