Carnival of Souls is one of those movies that I've been looking forward to seeing for a long time. It is constantly being regarded as one of the best movies you've never seen, and a classic among black-and-white horror, despite its low budget and limited release. Already knowing the famous shock or twist ending to the movie, though, I wondered if this would hurt my first-viewing experience. And sadly, it kind of did.
After Mary is the lone survivor of a car accident that killed all her friends, she goes on with her life and moves to Utah where she has taken a job as a church organist. But strange happenings follow Mary wherever she goes, like seeing a ghostly man around corners and in mirrors. Mary also seems to be inexplicably drawn to an old pavilion in her new town: Does this place hold the answers to what's been going on with her?
Candace Hilligoss is surprisingly quite perfect in the lead role of Mary Henry. That still frame of her up there is one that I've been seeing around for years, and I have always just loved it - even though I hadn't seen the movie at the time. The look on her face and her body positioning almost looks like a painting to me, like an artist that captured a perfect moment in time, of confusion and fear. And now that I've seen the movie, I love that image even more.
Anyway. Hilligoss does wonderful through the whole movie with a role that is never clearly defined. Sure, Mary seems somewhat confident and clear in her ideals and what she wants, but she's also very much a mystery. She doesn't much like the company of other people, and though she plays the organ for a living, she is not a church-goer herself and instead seems to see religion as a little silly and unimportant. But has she always been like this or is the result of her experience in the car crash? Mary is indeed a mystery and remains so until the end, and Hilligoss's mannerisms and facial expressions clearly convey all the conflicting personality traits of the character.
The only thing that bothered me about Hilligoss, and which in turn hurt some of the more possibly effective scenes, was that she did the "old movie scream." I hate the old movie scream. Do you know what that is? It's the really, really annoying way that women used to scream in old movies - hands flying up to the face or into the hair, screaming in a way that is far too dramatic for the situation. Hilligoss does this a couple of times here and it definitely annoyed the heck out of me.
Sound becomes a important element in this film at times, or rather the lack of it in certain scenes. These are perhaps the best parts of the movie - the two scenes where Mary realizes that she has become invisible to those around her and that she cannot hear any noises in her environment. The sound of the pipe organ that Mary plays, a monstrous instrument that sounds incredibly creepy, is also important as it adds to overall eerie feeling of the movie.
But the movie goes a little off from this feeling in the scenes with Mary's pervy neighbor, John Linden, which I frankly did not get the importance of. I get that she doesn't want to be alone because she fears that the ghoulish man she has been seeing will come after her if she is, but what of the rest of the scenes with this guy? Subtlety is not Linden's forte. In so many words, he quite boldly lets her know that he wants to get into her pants even though he doesn't know her at all, and that is the only purpose that this character serves - to be pervy and annoying. He is not needed and all his disgusting innuendoes take away from the main point of the story and Mary's character.
Some of the editing choices in Carnival of Souls were a bit hackneyed for my taste, as well. In the scenes with all the ghosts that Mary sees, whether real or when she goes into those weird trances, the editing and camera made things confusing at times. I hated the part where Mary jumps onto a bus and sees it full of the ghosts. There's an outside shot of her getting on the bus, then a POV of her seeing all the ghosts in the seats, and then a shot of her running away from the bus again. The lack of a reaction shot from Mary or something that established that she was on the bus with the ghosts made this part look very amateur, as if they forgot to get a shot during production but didn't really care during the editing process how it looked.
At the same time, many of these scenes have wonderful individual shots that were very creepy and effective. Loved the scene of the ghosts dancing around all fast, and the shots of the various ghosts coming up one by one out of the water. Very cool looking. There's also a great overhead shot at the beginning where Mary is sitting at the pipe organ and you just see how incredibly massive this thing is and how small and insignificant she looks next to it. The scene where the ghost turns around in the doctor's chair could have been a lot scarier if Hilligoss didn't do that stupid old movie scream. And of course, my favorite shot of all is when Mary is emerging from the water after the car crash onto the muddy bank. I still don't know what it is about that shot, but I love it, and it's iconic, so you should love it too.
Now, I said before that knowing the ending to Carnival of Souls - that Mary actually died in the opening car crash - almost ruined the experience of watching it. I was very confused and frustrated throughout because, knowing she was dead, I was expecting a movie of her wandering around trying to figure out what happened to her or something. Instead, Mary almost immediately goes about her normal life, remembering the crash but just not how she survived it. If, as the title suggests, the ghostly man and the people at the carnival were other souls trying to take hers, and it was just her soul that went on living, how is she able to interact with other people and touch things? Wouldn't she be more like a ghost than a corporeal being if her body was still in the car?
So while this cult classic didn't completely live up to my expectations, I can't deny that I still love the story, the main character, and some of the really great standout sequences that make Carnival of Souls a movie worth a look for anyone who studies or just loves film. Some kind of variation on the twist ending has been done to death by now but this is one of the originals, and you should definitely watch it.