J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Industrial Terror: Carnival of Souls

It must be the only film selected for both the Criterion Collection and the Rifftrax treatment. Rightly or wrongly, it was largely ignored when first released and would be the only feature narrative helmed by its producer-director. Yet, Herk Harvey remained a prolific filmmaker, releasing scores of educational shorts through his Kansas-based Centron Corporation. Like Harvey, many future horror auteurs honed their craft and bided their time making educational and industrial films that often strangely foreshadow their macabre work to come. Fittingly, Harvey’s Carnival of Souls with the Centron short None for the Road screen together during Anthology Film Archive’s before-and-after film series, Industrial Terror.

When reluctant street racing passenger Mary Henry manages to walk away from a fatal accident, it ought to be an occasion for some soul searching. However, she seems determined not to process it. Always temperamentally aloof, she simply proceeds with her prior plans, accepting a church organist position in Utah arranged by the owner of the local pipe organ factory. In her new town, Henry tries her best to cut herself off from social contact, even though she dearly needs an emotional support system.

Beginning during her lonely drive into town, Henry has been haunted by visions of a ghoulish man. Perhaps even more troubling, she experiences episodes of time-stoppage, during which the townspeople around appear oblivious to her freaked-out presence. Spurning offers of help from the kindly priest and concerned Dr. Samuels, Henry becomes increasingly obsessed with the darkly picturesque abandoned carnival outside of town.

That carnival setting is definitely creepy, but most of Harvey’s film is a rather Edward Hopper-esque take on the horror movie genre. There is no gore at all, but the lighting and shadows are all kinds of eerie. Refreshingly, this is the sort of film where priests and factory owners are good people. Unfortunately for Henry, there is also very real supernatural business afoot.

Granted, some of the line readings are a little stilted, but Harvey’s visual style is remarkably accomplished, particularly his smooth jump-cut transitions. He patiently builds an atmosphere of foreboding, rather than resorting to sudden shock scares, perfectly supported and emphasized by Gene Moore’s unnerving organ score.

The performance of method-trained Candace Hilligoss (who bears some resemblance to Judith O’Dea in Romero’s original Night of the Living, another Industrial Terror selection) is almost too inwardly focused for the demands of the genre, but she is certainly convincingly brittle and standoffish. While the supporting ensemble is admittedly all over the place, Stan Levitt provides a solid anchor as Dr. Samuels and Harvey himself is effectively ghastly as the ashen apparition man.

Carnival will have its critical champions and detractors, but you can see its influence in scores of films, such as Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. It is a strong example of the greater efficacy of suggestiveness rather than splatter in horror movies. Thematically, it is also a good fit with None for the Road, in which a research scientist gets lab mice hammered and tries to balance them on metal dowels, while telling kids if they are going to drink and drive, get so blitzed the Highway Patrol is guaranteed to pull them over. Science is hardcore. Carnival of Souls is also weirdly potent stuff. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (10/24) and next Tuesday (10/28) as part of Industrial Terror at Anthology Film Archives.

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