Mary Henry is enjoying the day by riding around in a car with two friends. When challenged to a drag, the women accept, but are forced off a bridge. It appears they all drowned, until Mary, quite some time later, amazingly emerges from the river. After recovering, Mary accepts a job in a new town as a church organist, only to be dogged by a mysterious phantom figure that seems to reside in an old run-down pavilion.
We start with a road crash. A car hurtles off a bridge into a silt-choked river and vanishes. Rescue attempts seem futile until, in one of the films first starkly surreal images, a young woman is seen standing, bewildered and bedraggled on a sandbank. It appears she is the only survivor but after taking up her new job as a church organist she is strangely drawn to an abandoned carnival palace out of town. Things start to get weirder when she starts to see strange, pale-faced ghouls and people fail to notice her (a gimmick later used in The Sixth Sense) before, in a climactic final sequence, she returns to the palace and dances with the ghouls. Back at the river the car is found. A final shot shows her corpse still in the passenger seat.
Until the runaway success of The Sixth Sense in 1999, ghost stories have pretty much been horror movies' poor relation. There are the occasional classics such as The Legend Of Hell House (1973), The Haunting (1962), Jacob's Ladder (1990) and, arguably, The Shining (1980), but generally directors have steered clear of the sub-genre, put off perhaps by the qualities required to produce a really good, haunting yarn. Unlike other kinds of fright movie, the ghost story can't rely on mind-blowing special effects or inventive new ways of dismembering the human body, but rather on those most difficult of effects of all to achieve: precision storytelling and molasses thick atmosphere.
Luckily these are qualities that don't require gargantuan budgets, a good thing for Herk Harvey, a maker of industrial training films for Kansas commercials company Centron, and intent on producing his first feature. He had only $33,000 seed money, a cast of friends and colleagues (with what can only be described as limited acting experience) and a tight schedule having taken a leave of absence from his job. What he also had was a great idea, and even more important, a fantastic location. Carnival Of Souls is one of those very rare films whose set is as important as its content.
The film's twist ending is now a cliche (it's used in Jacob's Ladder but was probably coined originally by American writer Ambrose Bierce whose story Incident At Owl Creek was adapted as a short in 1961) but at the time packed a terrific punch. It's difficult to overstate how important Carnival Of Souls is in the history of the independent horror movie. In 1962 American horror was in a pretty dismal state, dominated by the cheesy drive-in fare provided by American International Pictures (I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, How To Make A Monster) and the, admittedly superior, work of Roger Corman (Pit And The Pendulum). The only recent innovation of any note had been Psycho in 1960 (and Harvey nods towards the film with his tense driving scenes, as well as some risque bathroom sequences that would have been unthinkable before Hitch had his leading lady butchered in the shower). But other than that serious, bleak horror that didn't rely on pantomime makeup or schlock gothery and cruddy references to the stalwart monsters of the 30s was pretty much non-existent.
Legions of subsequent micro-budget horror directors owe Harvey (who sadly died in 1996 without ever making another feature) a debt of gratitude. From George A. Romero, who openly acknowledges the visual influence that Carnival had on his black and white classic Night Of The Living Dead, to Tobe Hooper with his pretty much DIY Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Sam Raimi with The Evil Dead and John Carpenter's Halloween, independent horror filmmakers are all treading in Harvey's footsteps. For that matter when Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez took their video cameras into the woods for The Blair Witch Project in 1999 they were repeating, in part at least, the technique of Harvey and cinematographer Maurice Prather who used location shooting with their lightweight 16mm Arriflex cameras to give the movie a unique, mobile feel. (Dennis Hopper would use the same technique to shoot seminal 60s flick Easy Rider a full seven years later. Carnival has worn better.)
In the dance sequences themselves, the huge space festooned with rotting streamers is reminiscent of the ballroom sequences in Kubrick's The Shining (1980). As with many indie horror movies it exists in a number of cuts from 80 mins to a possibly mythical two hour version.
Certainly these days Carnival Of Souls has an undeniably amateur feel. The sound dubbing is dreadful, the acting variable, the dialogue clunky and the organ score sounds like it's being hammered out by that nude bloke from Monty Python. Yet it retains an atmosphere of melancholic, surreal dread.