Criterion Files #63: Things Aren’t What They Seem in ‘Carnival of Souls’

Carnival Of Souls
By  · Published on October 27th, 2011

Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula. Island of Lost Souls. The Most Dangerous Game. The Night of the Hunter. The Blob. For a company perhaps best known for releasing pristine editions of international arthouse classics, The Criterion Collection certainly has a healthy amount of cult films in its repertoire. Cult cinema is often a difficult beast to recognize, for such films avoid the roads best travelled in their journey towards recognition and renown. Unlike seminal films in the collection including The 400 Blows, 8 ½, or Rashomon, cult films aren’t typically met with immediate cultural or institutional recognition upon release, aren’t made by internationally-recognized talent, and don’t always have an immediately traceable history of influence. That is, however, what makes cult films so interesting and so valuable: they emerge without expectation or pretense and signal the most populist and anti-elite means by which a film can gain recognition, pointing to the fact that there are always valuable films potentially overlooked between the pages of history.

Herk Harvey’s low-budget drive through horror masterpiece Carnival of Souls (1962), like many cult films, emerged into the top tier of film culture in some of the unlikeliest of ways. Harvey was an industrial and educational filmmaker; the $33,000 Carnival was his only feature work. The film had ten minutes lobbed off of it for its drivethru run to fit more screenings, and was largely a non-event when it first graced American screens. Carnival’s success is owed mostly to genre film festivals, late-night television screenings, its home video release, and the emboldening of its reputation by the likes of George A. Romero and David Lynch. As such, it’s difficult to say when exactly Carnival’s influence took hold, or when it can be argued to have emerged into its current classic status. But looking at this almost-half-century-old film in retrospect, it’s clear the role it played in 1960s horror and in terms of its palpable influence. But as with the narrative of the film itself, with cult cinema, certain knowledge about truth as always more complex than it initially seems.

Early 1960s Independent Genre Cinema

Carnival of Souls is an important entry in 1960s horror cinema. Where 1950s horror cinema were often B-movies made by B-(or major) studios, the increased availability of motion picture equipment and the proliferation of easily mobile 16mm cameras opened up possibilities for people to make films who weren’t already part of Hollywood’s production economy. Low-budget, existing horror films could be bought after completion by small distributors rather than paid for in advance under studio watch, and these distributors bought these films knowing that genre sales regardless of production value. This enabled some great films to be made that would arguably not have been made in the same fashion had they been under a studio watch.

More importantly, because of both the limitations of production and their creative freedom to move outside conventional boundaries of studio horror, these films made a great contribution to pushing the genre forward. Unlike 1950s sci-fi horror which typically centralized a horrifying threat as one monstrous being, Carnival of Souls, along with other 60s drive-in films like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) saw the real threat as residing in the collective, and drew their paranoid scares from the notion that a large group of people may be complicit in a conspiracy that will cause the suffering of the few. Such films can bring forth an incredible variety of social readings considering the era of their release, like allegories for racism or red-scare witch-hunting, and these films were both narratively and allegorically without precedent in Hollywood.

Additionally, because of their shooting restrictions, these films were rarely made in cities or on movie sets, and were thus shot on location throughout rural America, which furthermore allowed these films to approach different forms of subject matter. Carnival was filmed in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City. Maniacs was filmed in St. Cloud, Florida. Living Dead was filmed in Evans City, PA. These are not the types of locations that had been given much attention in Hollywood, through genre cinema or not. Thus, these films drew associations between fear and location. They created a landscape for fear, one that looked much like the backyards and streets many Americans lived in. Unlike the sets and fantastic plots of 1950s studio horror, these B-movies brought fear home, and thus made home a lot more terrifying.

The Surprise Ending

One aspect of Carnival of Souls that permits a means to tease out its distinct influence is the film’s surprise ending. Even though the movie is nearly fifty years old, its incredible how effective the film’s ending is. Of course, after a half century of Hollywood conditioning audiences to expect the surprise, the finale of Carnival of Souls is, to the heretofore uninitiated, quite predictable. But that’s hardly the point. The ending of Carnival, rather than sweeping the rug from under its audiences’ feet, simply answers the question that was posed since Candace Hilligoss’s Mary Henry impossibly emerges from the water after the film’s opening scene.

What’s most remarkable about the film’s ending, and the aspect of it that has aged the best, is the elegance and patience through which the ending is approaches. There’s never a moment where the proverbial hammer comes down, attempting to knock the audience off their seat. Instead, Carnival takes its time with a slow reveal and, in its most brilliant but unexpected move of all, stages its most earth-shattering revelation as a waltz between undead souls. Scenes like this point to the difference between a cheap twist ending and a surprising ending that rather naturally concludes the film’s central problem. Moments like these render questions of predictability irrelevant.

The surprise ending has since become a staple of mainstream studio horror, either for better (Jacob’s Ladder), for gimmicks (M. Night Shyamalan’s films), or for worse (Identity), but even with all the production value and creative talent available to studios, few films have matched the reveal as perfectly as Carnival of Souls (that’s right: a functionary who made industrial films made a better surprise ending than Shyamalan ever has). And it is in this regard that cult films reveal their most important use value in cinemagoing culture: they take away hierarchical distinctions based on budgets and name recognition, and they challenge traditional expectations, proving that while studio-level utilities may not be economically accessible to everyone, good cinematic storytelling knows no monetary distinction.

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