Movie MonDAVEs: Halloween Edition 2022 (Part One)

It’s October again, friends. It’s the time of year when all movie geeks turn their attention towards the macabre and creepy. Here on MonDAVEs we will be doing the same thing, though perhaps in a different way.

This month I shall be focusing on some of my favorite independent horror/sci fi B movies from the early to mid 1960s. These are films that fall outside of the studio system, made by a ragtag bunch of hopefuls with limited funds and resources, but fueled by the desire to make their own movie. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes…not so much. I will give equal time to both. Join me as I discuss the stories behind the films, and the movies themselves. Then, by all means, watch them for yourself…if you dare.

PART ONE: CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

Carnival Of Souls has become a cult classic, though it was virtually ignored upon its release and was kept alive (barely) by late night television. It has since been praised for not only its Twilight Zone-ish storyline, but the acting, cinematography, and unique soundtrack.

As per usual with these types of films, the story behind the movie is almost as interesting as the movie itself. The film was directed by a gentleman named Herk Harvey, who sparked the whole idea off when, while driving through Salt Lake City on the way to Kansas, passed an old, run down pavilion on the shore of the lake and decided that it would be a great location to shoot.

Herk Harvey worked at a production company in Kansas called Centron, which made industrial films for schools and corporations. He began discussing the idea with colleague John Clifford and before you know it, the two had a script, and were ready to begin. Filming was completed in three weeks in both Lawrence, Kansas, and Salt Lake City, Utah with Herk Harvey directing. Shot for a budget of $30,000, Harvey used his skills to make the most out of his limitations.

The cast consists of newcomers and amateur actors, notably Candace Hilligoss as our heroine, Mary, Sidney Berger as shady guy next door John Linden, Stan Levitt as the stoic Dr. Samuels, Frances Feist as housekeeper Mrs. Thomas, and ol’ Herk himself as a ghoulish figure known in the script simply as The Man. While the cast may not be world class names, they are better than one would find in most low budget features, and in this particular film, any odd performances merely add to the otherworldliness of the proceedings.

And now for the movie itself. Carnival Of Souls tells the story of Mary Henry, who mysteriously survives an automobile accident. She moves to Utah to take a job as a church organist. Upon arrival, Mary finds it increasingly difficult to relate to the locals, and begins to have peculiar visions of a man that seems to follow her everywhere she goes. She begins to have strange feelings of isolation accompanied by hallucinations, and starts to question what is real. All the while, Mary is inexplicably drawn to an abandoned carnival on the outskirts of town, which she is sure will provide the answers to what is going on in her waking nightmare.

Watching this movie is an interesting experience. The movie feels very much like a German expressionist film, wrapped up in horror movie packaging. It is a film that relies more on an eerie feeling than straight out scares (though there are a few). The viewer is kind of swept away into an intriguing, dream like world that is harshly beautiful yet full of dread. The fact that the movie is shot in black and white only adds to this effect.

One of the key parts of the film’s atmosphere is its soundtrack. The movie is almost exclusively scored by the organ. It is odd and unsettling, but it works well and it never gets tiresome. In fact, the instrument plays a large part in Mary’s story and one of the film’s most effective scenes involves her playing in church and getting lost in a playing a piece that starts off as a standard hymn and becomes more deranged as it continues. The combination of eerie visuals and music that is at once both beautiful and unsettling gives this movie a very unique feel.

Carnival Of Souls is a horror movie, but it is also an artistic movie. It is about the thin line between the natural and the supernatural, between the waking world and the dream world, between life and death. It is not a perfect movie. There are some technical hiccups along the way and a few questionable decisions in the storytelling, yet these flaws seem to add to the horror overall, and not detract from it as happens with so many other low budget scary movies.

Herk Harvey wound up making a film for the ages, and it’s too bad that this is his only feature. It seems a shame that his talent was used in industrial shorts instead of giving us a full catalogue of cinematic treats. The same can be said of the principal cast as well. There’s no reason why Candace Hilligoss couldn’t have gone on to bigger and better things and been at the very least a B movie Queen, if not a full fledged star. As for Sidney Berger, he should have rightfully been one of those “that guy” actors that fill so many of our favorite films. Although I say it’s a shame that these folks never went on to any other films of note, it does sort of add to the creepiness of watching Carnival Of Souls, knowing that you may never actually see these people again.

Apart from being a bona-fide cult classic, Carnival Of Souls has gone on to influence may other artists, from having its dialogue sampled by musicians to directly inspiring directors like David Lynch and George A. Romero. In fact, you can almost draw a direct line from Carnival Of Souls to Night Of The Living Dead. Almost.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

See you next week for Halloween Movie MonDAVEs part two.

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