Carnival of Souls stars lovely Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry, a talented young organ player. As the film commences, she's involved in a bad accident (following a drag race), and trapped in a car (with two friends...) that goes off a bridge. Mary emerges from the swirling river some time later, apparently the only survivor of the tragedy, and leaves town, headed for a new job (as a church organ player) in a brand new city. But on the way to her new post, Mary begins to experience macabre visions of a strange, smiling, white-faced stranger. And she feels irrevocably drawn to a lonely, deserted dance hall/carnival she passes on the highway by night. There, at Saltair, white-faced souls emerge from a river and dance at a merry go-round. They beckon Mary to join them...
Though this is undeniably a low-budget, slowly-paced film (even at 81 minutes), Carnival of Souls admirably remains focused on its central character, and her "horror" plight reflects her unique and individual characteristics as a human being. Or to put it another way, the film's form reflects its content. What this means is that Mary is a remote, icy woman who - even before her accident - feels separated from the rest of the human race. Some accuse the distant (frigid?) woman of not possessing a soul to begin with. A cold fish (but not a bad person), Mary feels detached from those she works with, and doesn't even evidence sorrow about the accident. Mary just seems...off. She wants to connect with other human beings, but somehow just can't do it. She has never been able to do it.
The screenplay is a good one because Mary's crisis is that, post-accident, she indeed begins to slip away from humanity, into the nether world of death. Her lack of connection becomes a real, tangible thing. Her feeling that she has "no place in the world" and "no part of life" is literalized when she begins to drift slowly into the eerie, dead world of the carnival of souls. At one point in the film, while in a department store dressing room, Mary sees the surrounding world ripple around her (as if underwater...), and when she emerges into the store proper, nobody can see her, and she can't hear anything. She has gone from being a voluntary (but distant) observer of her fellow man, to an involuntary one, and it's frightening to see it happen. Later, the same phenomenon occurs a second time, and Mary flees to a bus station. Here, she is given an opportunity to board a bus, one filled with white-faced ghouls, and the moment is legitimately terrifying. A gaggle of the dead sit in their seats, staring and smiling, waiting to add to their number. The message is clear: there is no escape from death.
Another moment in Carnival of Souls finds Mary slipping into a fugue state while playing the organ, and experiencing visions of the dance pavilion, where the dead whirl in endless circles, waltzing for all eternity. As Mary drifts ever further from the land of the living to the Tartarus of the dead, she desperately tries to hold on to her humanity, to connect with a skanky neighbor in her boarding house. "I don't want to be alone tonight. I want to be near you," she begs, trying desperately to hold onto the existence she knew, but once took for granted. The date goes badly, however, after Mary witnesses a disturbing image in a mirror. Nuzzling on her neck is not the skeevy would-be suitor, but rather the white-faced stranger. It is the emptiness and isolation of death courting Mary now.
Buttressed by unconventional and - in some sense - avant-garde scene transitions (ones that seem to presage David Lynch's brilliant Lost Highways), Carnival of Souls culminates with Mary's final visit (in this life...) to the abandoned pavilion. Herk utilizes a series of high-angle shots to express Mary's doom, and one shot, viewing the protagonist from behind a chain-link fence, dramatizes her ultimate entrapment. What follows a brilliantly-shot chase sequence (which features ghouls in close-up, popping up unexpectedly into the foreground of the frame), is the ending zinger or "twist." By now, this ending probably feels familiar (and you can see it coming). But back in 1962, it probably worked better than it does now. For a generation weaned on multiple incarnations of The Twilight Zone, we've been trained to expect such a reversal.
This film won't prove everybody's cup of tea, no doubt, especially based on its budgetary limitations, but Carnival of Souls is admirably mounted as an exploitation film without any real exploitation. It is ambitious in that it doesn't rely on violence, gore or titillation to achieve chilling effects. Instead, the film is paced lugubriously (but deliberately) as a character piece. The narrative unfurls with the illogic of a dream or a nightmare and consequently the film casts a spell or aura of doom and foreboding. Let's take the make-up on the ghouls. It is fairly obvious that white pancake make-up was applied heavily and rather roughly to the extras, with black make-up around the eyes. At times, you can actually see brush lines where the make-up is applied. Yet this would-be problem is instead part of the film's terrifying mood, a piece of the crude but ambitious artistry. The ghouls remain scary, even if we can see that they are wearing badly-applied make-up. I don't know why, exactly, but here realism isn't necessary in forging the spell, and the shabbiness (at points) of the production values instead serves to enhance the feeling of surrealism.
Herk also does really well with "the creep factor" underlining Carnival of Souls. The first time that a white-faced "soul" appears in the reflection of a car's passenger-side window is a terrifying humdinger (and an inventively staged shot). The moment wherein the ghoul reappears at the bottom of the staircase (and we get opposing zoom shots: of the grinning stranger and of the terrified Mary at the top of the staircase), generates a legitimate sense of suspense and horror, especially as the ghoul ascends the staircase.
Performances in Carnival of Souls are truly variable, from the exquisite and sublime (the entrancing Hilligoss) to the terrible (there's a moment when a stranger by a water fountain addresses the camera directly), but there's an alchemy at work in Carnival of Souls, one impossible to dismiss. The film's production deficits somehow manage to play into the overriding sense of the unreal and dream-like. There are no zombie attacks, no fierce action sequences, no bouts of blood-letting here. Instead, the venture methodically and memorably (and with unforgettable imagery) charts one woman's tragic plight as she slips slowly -piece by piece - from the world of the living to the world of the dead. In that half-detected twilight between life and death, she begins to regret that she never embraced life as meaningfully as she should have. Because now, death's cold embrace - a dance partner in the carnival of souls - is all she has to look forward to.
There are better, more accomplished horror films out there, but few as lyrical and psychically unnerving as Carnival of Souls. It's one of those films you should really watch in total darkness, in the middle of the night. You'll appreciate it best while feeling the tug of sleep, as dreams beckon and nightmares loom. Carnival of Souls artistically navigates the tightrope of the unconscious and perhaps subconscious world, creating a gloomy trance-like state of attention; one occasionally punctuated by moments of sheer, palpable terror.