Spooky how that happens. SPOOKY, I say!
Oh man, so I've been sitting on this one for a little bit, putting my thoughts about it together and…ah who cares about that, let’s talk about why Carnival of Souls is regarded as such a cult classic, shall we?
Naturally, I mean the 1962 version and not the remake.
We start with a car crash. Some ladies in an automobile drag race with some guys in another car, and the ladies’ car goes off a bridge and into a river. Quite some time later, one female survivor emerges from the water. It's not sexy. She recovers and leaves her Kansas town for a job as a church organist in Utah. Though along the way she starts seeing a pale, sinister man, and then things get weirder.
Mary Henry: Candace Hilligoss plays a character who is…well, liminal is the best word to describe her. Attractive, she’s also antisocial and doesn't fit in with anyone around her after the accident. Curiously, she walks a fine line between being sympathetic and unlikable: She doesn't seem to like anything. She doesn't like people, she doesn't trust anyone, she doesn't drink, and she doesn't have much interest in religion, despite being a church organist (she views it as just another job). But it works, largely because the other people she meets are also weirdly unlikable.
John Linden: Sidney Berger plays the one guy who tries to get close to her. He’s a neighbor in the boarding house Mary rents, and he’s a lech. He peeps on her, tries to get her drunk, and so on. He’s oddly sympathetic, since despite being completely skeevy, he’s also the only living person who has any persistent interest in Mary as a person. He can’t actually help her though. He can't even help being skeevy.
The Man: Herk Harvey (also the director) plays the entity that haunts Mary. He doesn't say a word, and despite being a man in greasepaint with raccoon eyes and a receding hairline, he’s thoroughly creepy. Part of it’s in how he’s always got this serene smile on his face but a hunger in his eyes, and part of it’s in the timing of his appearances. He literally does come out of nowhere and approaches Mary before going away until the next time.
Directed by Herk Harvey, who directed a large number of educational/documentary shorts, but this was his only movie. Despite that, he gets a ton of mileage out of this one movie with the help of Director of Photography Maurice Prather. Many of the shots are mundane and ordinary. There are some awkward edits. The makeup for the souls is, as I've said, a matter of black and white face paint. But it works because of atmosphere. The visual style of the movie is just as standoffish as Mary herself, and works to isolate her character, even in busy street scenes. The visual linchpin that ties the atmosphere together is the abandoned Saltair pavilion at Salt Lake City, where Mary has her final encounter with the souls, which is makes exceptional use of undercranking to unnaturally speed up the unearthly characters.
Story (uncredited) by Herk Harvey and Written by John Clifford. The script is not particularly noteworthy. Dialogue is largely unremarkable with a few nice moments of banter here and there. Characterization is mostly vague and undefined, though I think that works in its favor.
One thing I think the script wisely does it not explain any of the supernatural to the audience. The ghostly characters chasing Mary are presumably the souls of the dead coming to claim her, but that’s merely an inference. The movie never tells you this. The Man could be Death, or the Devil (he is certainly sinister), or just the leader of the souls. Mary goes into occasional fugue states where she can interact with the world, but nobody else can interact with her and all sounds stop. Is this her passing into the spirit world physically? Dunno, but probably. The movie leaves it up to the audience to determine. I like that, because it lays out this mysterious situation and challenges the viewer to make sense of it.
Original Music by Gene Moore. It’s organ music, and lots of it. Which makes sense, as Mary’s an organist. It being a CHURCH organ adds to the supernatural/spiritual themes at play, and can quickly transition from beautiful and comforting to dissonant and unsettling. That last part is very important, as it is the hammer that nails the eerie atmosphere together in the most critical scenes. At other times the organ music can grate on the ears, but that’s a small price to pay for the atmospheric payoffs.
Carnival of Souls is a cheaply made B-movie with fair acting. Its individual elements are nothing spectacular and yet when those same elements are put together, it’s a master class in atmosphere that feels like a long form Twilight Zone episode. The movie builds tension extremely well and has legitimately creepy moments. Absolutely recommended, and easily viewable since it’s lapsed into the public domain (though Criterion also put out one of its deluxe sets for it as well).