This 1962 American independent horror film is literally an auteur production: it was written, produced and directed by Herk Harvey, as well as featuring him in the role of the spectral figure that haunts its heroine.
While teaching and directing plays at the University of Kansas, Harvey started working for the Centron Corporation as a film director, writer, and producer on industrial films and commercials. He was lauded for his special effects techniques and ability to work under budget.
After the success of low budget films by Elmer Rhoden Jr. and fellow industrial filmmaker in nearby Kansas City, Harvey secured $33,000 in funding to make his lone film, although he attempted to film several others. Because the company that distributed the film went bankrupt, it wasn’t seen much in initial release but soon gained an audience at drive-ins and via late night showings.
For the rest of his life, Harvey continued creating industrial films and acting, even appearing in the harrowing made-for-TV movie, The Day After. Luckily, he did live to see people recognize this film as a classic. He died weeks after the soundstage at the University of Kansas was renamed the Herk Harvey Sound Stage.
Mary Henry gets involved in a drag race with her car going off the bridge. The police drag the waters for three hours before she rises, unsure how she could have survived.
Our heroine movs to Utah, a place where can’t connect to anyone and can only get organ music on the radio. Her journey to her new home is marked by appearances by “The Man” (Harvey), a spectral figure that comes and goes, and an abandoned pavilion on the Great Salt Lake that begs for her to visit it in the twilight.
Mary begins to disappear from the world, becoming invisible and unheard by everyone around her, as if she weren’t there. And on her first day at her new job as a church organist, when she begins to play an eerie tune, The Man and a group of corpses begin to dance until the minister begins to scream, “Profane! Sacrilege!” Truly, diabolus in musica — those demonic tritones are afoot.
Every attempt to escape the town is stopped by The Man and his dead people, including them taking over an entire bus. Finally, Mary makes her way back to the pavilion, where she watches them dance and notices that a ghoul version of herself is with The Man. She runs, but they catch her. The minister, a doctor and the police try to find Mary, but as they follow her footprints in the sand — is this when God was carrying her? — they end with no trace. Back in Kansas, her car is finally found beneath the water with her dead body still inside.
The US release of Carnival of Souls failed to include the copyright on the prints, automatically placing them in the public domain. That’s how numerous TV stations would show different prints of this movie, cut however they wished to fit its timeslot. Again, it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that this film would be recognized as the arty horror that it is, a precursor to the work of artists like David Lynch and George Romero, who specifically said that it inspired him to make Night of the Living Dead.
In turn, this is a movie inspired by the silent films of the past, with parts where Mary is in one of her altered mental states being tinted cyan while all the scenes of reality appear in black and white. Later, the tinted scenes become distorted in both sound and picture. There’s also an original organ score by composer Gene Moore that makes this movie feel trapped in cinema’s past.
The Church of Satan’s leader Anton LaVey spoke glowingly of this movie: “Carnival of Souls is another richly evocative film that has been completely lost until recently. Producer/director Herk Harvey did industrial films and this was his brilliant excursion into the world of nightmares.”
You can watch this for free on Tubi.