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CARNIVAL OF SOULS

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 8, 2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: The boutique home-video line Criterion Collection is giving a Blu-ray upgrade next week to the low-budget, independently-produced black-and-white supernatural-horror film ‘Carnival of Souls,’ initially released in 1962 and not seen again in theaters until 1990. This is a movie whose cult following brought it to national attention and it received dozens of belated positive reviews. It was also largely filmed in Utah and a new featurette on the Criterion Blu-ray is about location shooting in the then-abandoned Saltair building on the Great Salt Lake. Here’s my Jan. 9, 1990, Deseret News review.

Here's a real oddity — "Carnival of Souls" is a 27-year-old black-and-white low-budget horror movie shot largely in the Salt Lake area that was dismissed during its initial release but is fast becoming a cult classic.

Some of that is because it's received a special boost as it begins a new art-house tour in the form of rave reviews from such prominent national critics as Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert.

And, as it happens, "Carnival of Souls" deserves its newfound fame.

A moody, atmospheric combination of Alfred Hitchcock, Roger Corman and "The Twilight Zone" by one-shot filmmaker Herk Harvey, "Carnival" in many ways actually more resembles a movie that came along some years later — George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead."

"Carnival of Souls" starts off with a bang in its pre-credits opening sequence as three young women in Kansas find themselves in a drag race on a wooden bridge. Their car goes over the side, falls into the river and, as a crowd gathers, one of the women (Candace Hilligoss) emerges from the murky depths. She is naturally confused and not quite sure how she survived or what happened to her companions.

     

Candice Hilligoss is pursued at Saltair, 'Carnival of Souls'

An accomplished organist, Hilligoss eventually hits the road for a job playing the organ in a church in Salt Lake City. Along the way she is haunted by the figure of a man who looks very much like one of Romero's "Living Dead" zombies (played by director Harvey), and her radio seems to want to play only haunting organ music.

But she makes her way to Salt Lake City, takes a room and starts work in the church. In an amusing touch, the minister tells her, "We're not the largest church in this community," and as she practices the organ it seems to want to play its own ominous tunes, as if it's trying to tell her something.

      

She is also mysteriously drawn to the old Saltair Pavilion on the Great Salt Lake, deserted and loaded with atmosphere of its own, which is used to great effect by Harvey. And occasionally Hilligoss finds she can neither hear nor communicate with those around her, as if she is on some different spiritual plane than everyone else in the world.

You will doubtless guess the conclusion of all this before it arrives but that makes it no less satisfying. Harvey's unusual method is to build on day-to-day events, revealing them to be just as bland and boring as they really are, with his actors speaking in deadpan monotones, which adds to the eerie quality he subtly exploits.

In addition, the film is filled with amateurish elements — shots that don't match, sound effects that are out of step, choppy editing — aspects that should detract from the proceedings. Instead, however, they add to the overall effect.

In the end we have been numbed by an 85-minute chill, rather than a series of explosive shocks, and it makes for quite a film.

Modern horror filmmakers could learn something from "Carnival of Souls." Harvey's technique may be crude, but he knew how to use the materials at hand to create atmosphere, making this film very much worth a look.