Carnival of Souls is 50 years old this month. Here’s a birthday tribute from Blake Backlash.
When Herk Harvey, the director of Carnival of Souls, was asked why he only made one film he is supposed to have replied that he made over four hundred. You are unlikely to have seen any of the others, unless you grew up in Kansas in the middle of the last century. Harvey was an industrial and educational filmmaker and his films were mostly about how to operate farm machinery or the importance of personal hygiene – y’know, the kind of thing you often see parodied in early Simpsons episodes.
You can see how well such an apprenticeship served Harvey in Carnival of Souls. It goes some way to account for just how good the film is – a talented filmmaker can’t shoot that much film without learning a lot. You notice it in the way he always seems to know the right place to put his camera: occasionally he moves it, but the film’s most striking moments tend to come from how he uses the frame. His shots are as rigorously composed as good photographs.
Making all those films also meant that Harvey learned his craft outside Hollywood. As such, Carnival of Souls just doesn’t look or feel the way most studio films of the 50s and 60s do. Every time I’ve watched it, I’ve noticed that it felt like there was something slightly off, or even wrong, about the way it looks. I feel something similar when I watch Citizen Kane or Night of the Hunter and I think it’s because these films are directed by people who never really learned, or never cared to learn, the ‘right’ way to make films. They seem less interested in using classical continuity editing (establishing shots, eyeline matches and the like) than they are in putting together a series of striking shots to achieve a particular effect.
And like those films, Carnival of Souls is ambitious. There’s a tradition of films that seem to sit on the borderline between surreal art films and horror films; the kind of films that (sometimes frustratingly) focus more on unsettling their audience with striking images than on creating a coherent narrative.
The tradition was probably initiated by the stroke of razor across eyeball in Un Chien Andalou and it takes in… well, I’m just going to namedrop some films here: Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, George Romero’s Martin, Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and many of the films of David Lynch. Peter Strickland’s recent Berberian Sound Studio would certainly be at home in such company. And it’s this kind of film I think Harvey set out to make. Un Chien Andalou was only thirty years old when Harvey made Carnival of Souls, twenty years younger than Carnival of Souls is itself today.
In a lot of these films, the strangeness of what we see on the screen can at least be partly accounted for by the fact that the visuals are rooted in the subjective experience of our protagonist, often one whose grasp on reality becomes increasingly tenuous as the film progresses. This is certainly true for Carnival of Souls – take a look at this sequence where Mary Henry, the film’s protagonist, plays a church organ. The use of image and music has a real feel of the arthouse about it – so much so that, looked at today, it almost comes off like a parody of how an arty, black and white film looks:
And just dig that metaphysical chat from the minister at the end! Carnival of Souls has some chewy thematic concerns, and I want to talk about those but note: from here on is where things get spoilery. I’ll be discussing a revelation that occurs in the final moments of the film. Now, I’d say the film’s real pleasures lie in how we get to that (pretty guessable) reveal so I think it still has a lot to offer if you go in knowing it, but if you’re totally new to the film, and want to stay that way, then you should know you can download it legally and for free here. So stop reading now and come back when you’re ready.
The revelation that Mary died in the car accident before the opening credits might these days be more likely to provoke groans than gasps of surprise. The twist was probably first used in Ambrose Bierce’s short-story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, though whenever it was first used it has been much overused since Carnival of Souls. Still, we needn’t make excuses. For all that the conclusion might now be overfamiliar, the film doesn’t offer enough certainty to neuter its strangest and most evocative elements. The dialogue and performances are still a little off-kilter. The words people say and the way that they say them are simultaneously banal and deeply odd – they’re almost affectless to the point of affectation. Think back to the exchange between Mary and the minister that follows her organ solo, or to their earlier conversation when he takes her to look at an abandoned dancehall she seems peculiarly fascinated by:
‘Will you take me in?’
‘Goodness no, it isn’t safe out there anymore, that’s why they put up this barrier.’
‘It would be very easy to step around it.’
‘What attraction could there be for you… out there?’
‘I don’t know. I’m a reasonable person. Maybe I want to satisfy myself that the place is nothing more than it appears to be. Would you take me out there?’
‘Oh no. The law has placed it off limits. Wouldn’t be very seemly for a minister to break the law, would it?
This doesn’t seem like a natural conversation: why does Mary need the minister to take her out there? Why is she so insistent? There is that odd, weighty phrasing of ‘the law has placed it off limits’, too. Of course, on a second viewing, we may feel more certain in understanding the underlying connotations, knowing that Mary is, in some sense, no longer of this world, but yet it can’t quite be explained away. There is something fascinating about it even when we know where the film is heading.
The way the dialogue flickers between stilted and allusive means we’re drawn into the film in a kind of languid and detached absorption, rather than being grabbed in an emotive or visceral way. That’s interesting enough in itself, but it also seems to me that our having to engage with the film in this way reflects something of how Mary engages with the world. She is absorbed when she plays the organ and other are moved by her interpretations, yet afterwards she states she feels no strong emotions when she plays. When she admits that for her a church is ‘just a place of business’, the response is ‘Don’t it give you nightmares to think that way?’ She also talks about how she has no real hunger for the company of other people. It seems that Mary’s estrangement finds a kind of echo in the way the film estranges its audience.
Carnival of Souls, as its title suggests, primarily explores its themes in a spiritual context, but it also makes room for a very mid-twentieth century, very American-film Doctor who talks about how ‘the mind plays tricks’. However, there’s a great shot near the end of the film where the minister and Doctor, meeting for the first time, are brought together on screen and share a worried glance. It seems like a pretty clear steer that neither spiritual faith nor a psychological understanding can explain away what has occurred.
And it seems to me that what Mary has to face up to (all that preachy talk she doesn’t quite get about connection and things that ‘mean’ something) might make sense to the secular viewer as existential challenges, as much as spiritual ones. Most of us know what it’s like to feel apart from the world. Many of us have known that kind of inner emptiness which leads us to seek out unsuitable one-night-stands, even if most of us would draw the line at John Linden, the whisky-for-breakfast boarding house voyeur and dive-bar regular that Mary finds herself wanting, almost needing, to hang out with as the film draws to its conclusion. We’ve been there. And because Carnival of Souls doesn’t just depict but also evokes that kind of emptiness, it retains its power. It remains as intriguing and unsettling as an abandoned building on the edge of town.
Blake Backlash is on twitter, tweeting about films and other things: @BlakeBacklash