CARNIVAL OF SOULS disappeared upon its catch-and-release debut in 1962, but decades later attained an enduring afterlife as a cult fave. An impressionistic $33,000 blend of skill, slip-ups, scares and silliness, written on a whim, directed on the fly, acted with degrees of fervor, its inspired weirdness, both innocent and knowing, slapped together classic cheese. A chuckle-along chiller, ultimately appreciated by mainline critics and genre fans, the dime-store descent into death dreams attained enough following that it merited inclusion in the vaunted Criterion Collection. “You can take all the baths you want.”
A drag race across a bridge in Kansas becomes a real drag when one of the cars plunges into the river below, drowning two of the three women passengers. Somehow, ‘Mary Henry’ (Candace Hilligoss) survives, emerging from the muck hours later. In a jiffy, she’s splitting to Utah, where she’s been hired as a church organist. On the drive there and at her new rooming house she has unnerving visions of a silent, pasty-faced ghoul. She’s also drawn to a mysterious abandoned pavilion perched on the shore of Great Salt Lake. Pestered by her oily, suggestively horny neighbor down the hall, scorned by the church minister for her baroque taste in music, dismissed by the local doctor for her increasing bouts of paranoid imaginings, Mary finally has a full-scale showdown with the legions of the damned at that haunted former funhouse on the lake. But, wait a minute….
“Thank you for the coffee. It was unsanitary but delicious.”
Produced & directed by Herk Harvey, who’d been making industrial films, written by John Clifford, the bare-bones affair echoed the reality-warp themes of then-contemporary TV spookers like The Twilight Zone. Without the budget or stars to match, Herk’s jerky but jarring ghoulash of amateurish acting, deadpan bad-dialogue gems, unsettling atmosphere and clever camerawork beats the later midnight movie sleeper hit Night Of The Living Dead to the punch by six years.
The petite Miss Hilligoss, 27, had, along with being a model and dancer (at the Copacabana!) studied acting under Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner, and she gives a commendable performance. Granted, she has little competition from the rest of the cast. Among other things her harried Mary gets the blithe morning exchange with her leering, boozy neighbor, where he pours a jolt of hooch into his coffee and blurts: “What do you think, I’m an alcoholic? I just like to start the day off in a good mood.” She replies “You must be hilarious by noon.” We also appreciate when she tells her landlady that “I went for a long drive in the country with my new boss… an elderly minister” and gets the response ” Oh hoo… that must’ve been a kick in the head.” When Mary squares with ‘Dr.Samuels’, saying “I’m a competent person. If anything, I’m a realist. I’m not given to imagining anything, he returns with ” Hogwash. All of us imagine things. Have you never heard two men talking behind your back and imagined they were talking about you? Have you never imagined you saw someone you knew and walked up to them and found they were a perfect stranger.” Thanks, Doc.
The doofy work from the supporting players actually works to add to the macabre progression of Mary’s fateful move to Utah–you leave Kansas and seek sanity…in Salt Lake City? Harvey’s disorienting camerawork, the eerie use of silence and the simple but effectively menacing makeup on those departed apparitions provides late-night fun shudders. The atmospheric organ music soundtrack was composed by Gene Moore.”The Man’ specter that keeps Mary flustered is played by director Hervey.
With Sidney Berger (unctuously awful as the actual live creep next door), Art Ellison (the affronted minister who vents “Profane! Sacrilege!”), Stan Levitt (the brusque, skeptical doctor), Frances Feist (the bug-eyed landlady, free with her bath-boosting), Steve Boozer (‘Chip’, dolt yokel) and Larry Sneegrass (drag racer clod who starts the whole nightmare). Speaking of depraved, the zombies waltzing in the Saltair ballroom were students hired from a University of Utah dance class. 84 minutes.
* Framework time in Weirdville, pop. unlimited: The Twilight Zone (1958-64), Alcoa Presents:One Step Beyond (1959-61), Thriller (1960-62), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65). There was a rip-off remake in 1998, same title, a total dud, and another in 2008, Yella. That one, from Germany, was directed by Christian Petzold, stars the great Nina Hoss, and was well-reviewed. Expect more in the future.
** The acting career of Candace Hilligoss never really recovered from this launch: when he saw the result, her agent ceased representing her. Two years later she appeared 8th-billed in The Curse Of The Living Corpse, which starred Roy Scheider in his debut. Doubtless he was proud, but ya gotta begin somewhere; actually, it gets a number of positive reviews, including one from Glenn Erickson, so ignore my prattling. She self-published a memoir in 2017, “The Odyssey and the Idiocy – Marriage to an Actor”. Some Candace quotes: “I once was told there are three kinds of men I should never marry. Working actors. Non-working actors.Between jobs actors.” “If the marriage was hell, divorce proceedings were Armageddon.”
Candace developed a script for the first remake of the movie that gave her a degree of immortality, then the producer vaporized her of any credit. Asked about that 1998 fiasco, she was not shy: “This is the kind of movie that I would PAY them not to let me in the theater. I would give them eight dollars NOT to allow me inside, because the agony of sitting through this crap is so great that it would be worth eight dollars to me to be permitted to stay far, far away!”