Carnival of Souls
starring Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, Frances Feist, Art Ellison, and Herk Harvey
directed by Herk Harvey
screenplay by Herk Harvey and John Clifford
What makes a cult classic? Is it as simple as a film with a strong story and memorable characters, falls under the radar of the mainstream, yet finds an audience with a niche few who espouse its merits over the years and decades? Carnival of Souls is one of those cult classics, but despite its recommendation from the eclectic and eminently talented Cate Gardner, I don't think I can count myself among the niche few who appreciate this film.
Originally released as a B movie in the early 60s, Carnival of Souls was an underdog from the get-go. It tells the story of a young woman named Mary, who steps out of a river onto its muddy banks, after she and her two friends plunge off a bridge in their car during a drag race. From that point on, a once vibrant organist becomes detached, exhibiting a cold manner towards to those around her. She eventually moves to Salt Lake City, Utah, where she takes a job as a church organist and becomes haunted by both the abandoned pavilion outside of town, as well as a menacing figure who appears to her as reflections, then as a ghoulish figure stalking after her.
I'm not sure how much $30,000 amounted to back in the early 60s, but I imagine you stretch that kind of movie budget a lot further than you can now. Yet, seeing the movie and learning it was made for that much, I'm tempted to ask: where did the money go? This feels like a very bare-bones type of production, not only because it relies on ambiance rather than practical effects, but because it feels like an even sparser production than George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Actually, the biggest letdown for me was the acting, which made the performances in NotLD look downright Shakespearean by contrast.
Sidney Berger's performance as the creepy lech across the hall was a saving grace to the movie, though. While he came off nearly as hammy as the other actors, there was something to his role that made it seem more in tune. As for Candace Hilligoss, she effectively played the frightened aspect of her character, but the scenes in which she wasn't tormented by the ghoul (director Herk Harvey hamming it up in full makeup), she seemed as unconvincing as the local talent hired for the minor roles.
As for the twist ending of this film, it doesn't pack nearly as strong a punch to a cynical sod like me, in this day and age. This movie is best observed as a time capsule to a time of celebrated indy filmmakers who seemingly threw everything at the screen to see what stuck. But a cult classic? Not for me.