Herk Harvey | Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) is a strange, atmospheric and unforgettable low-budget horror film. Source

A young woman (Candace Hilligoss) in a small Kansas town survives a drag race accident, then agrees to take a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City. En route, she is haunted by a bizarre apparition that compels her toward an abandoned lakeside pavilion. Made by industrial filmmakers on a small budget, the eerily effective B-movie classic Carnival of Souls was intended to have “the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau”—and, with its strikingly used locations and spooky organ score, it succeeds. Herk Harvey’s macabre masterpiece gained a cult following on late-night television and continues to inspire filmmakers today. Source

Amateurish in many ways (the film does include some stilted performances, bad lip-synching, clunky editing and a few continuity errors), Carnival of Souls nevertheless continues to exert a strange fascination for many viewers. Not a conventional horror or ghost story, Carnival of Souls explores the psychological state of Mary Henry after she emerges, apparently unharmed, from the murky depths of the river. Moreover, Carnival of Souls raises a number of perplexing questions that relate to the existence of Mary Henry, without providing any definitive answers. Has Mary really survived what appears to be certain death? Is she already dead? Does she exist in the real world or some parallel universe? One plausible interpretation of Carnival of Souls is that the film represents a hallucinatory dream –or nightmare– that Mary is experiencing in the split second before the car plunges into the river and she plummets to her death. Source


Carnival of Souls was the only feature film to be directed by industrial and educational filmmaker Harold (Herk) Harvey. After completing Carnival of Souls, Harvey was to return to making industrial and educational films before retiring in the late 1980s (he died in 1996). Source “Anybody that produces a film runs into problems when they come to distribution,” said director Herk Harvey told Timothy De Paepe in 1983, somewhat understating the reality of the trials he endured while making his directorial debut, Carnival Of Souls. Not just distribution, but budget, filming permissions and location difficulties all contributed to his film’s unconventional birth. Perhaps the strangest thing about it, though, is that despite a legendarily problematic production, Harvey succeeded in crafting a horror film with such enduring and haunting power, it inspired the likes of George A. Romero, David Lynch, and M. Night Shyamalan, and continues to earn new fans today. Source

It all began in 1961. While driving back from Los Angeles to his home in Lawrence, Kansas, Harvey glimpsed a shadowy ruin on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. Pulling over to explore, he discovered the Saltair Pavilion, an abandoned ballroom that had a bewitching air of faded grandeur. At the time a payroll director at Centron – which produced educational and industrial films – Harvey was looking to break into features, and the pavilion struck a spark of creativity in his mind. “The whole place looked sort of weird,” he said. “I just catalogued it away.”When he got home, Harvey called up his friend and fellow Centron worker John Clifford, and asked if he’d write a feature based around the pavilion. “The last scene, I told him, had to be a whole bunch of ghouls dancing in that ballroom,” remembered Harvey to the LA Times in 1990. “The rest was up to him. Source

Assembling a crew of just five – himself, cinematographer Maurice Prather, editor Dan Palmquist, assistant director Reza Badiyi, and production manager Larry Sneegas, all of them his buddies at Centron – Harvey managed to generate a budget of $33,000 after approaching local Kansas businessmen, who invested in packs of the production’s stock. And he found his lead in the form of up-and-coming actress Candace Hilligoss, who turned down a role in Psychomania (1963) to star in Carnival Of Souls. “I was paid $2,000 for doing the film,” she later recalled. “It seemed like a fortune.” Source

Meanwhile, Harvey himself would play ‘the Man’, masterminding the character’s look by using white greasepaint on his face and wet salt in his hair for a crusty long-dead appearance. “That was part ego and more economics,” he explained of playing the role. “Mostly economics. When you’ve only got $17,000 cash, you get thrifty.” Source

Organ Music

Watch a horror movie and there is a good chance you will hear an organ, probably a pipe organ. Screenwriters and directors even add organs to stories whose literary sources have none. Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde contains no mention of a pipe organ and yet the 1931 film of the story by Rouben Mamoulian opens with Dr. Jekyll playing one in his grand home; the Edgar Allan Poe story to which Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 The Black Cat alludes (admittedly only vaguely) likewise has no organ even though the film does. Carnival of Souls is perhaps the ne plus ultra of horror movies with an organ. Its central character is an organist, its soundtrack consists exclusively of organ music, and the film moves to and from two locations of organ imagining: a church and an abandoned fairground-cum-entertainment pavilion. The minute we hear the organ underscoring we know something is up. Much as K. J. Donnelly argues we can consider films to be generally haunted by the “ghosts” and half-remembered sounds of film music, that “repository of reminders, half-memories and outbursts of emotion,” we might consider this film to be thoroughly haunted by organ music, certainly to the same extent as its central character seems haunted by demons and ghosts. Source

As mentioned above, Carnival of Souls can be interpreted as the “dream-like” state that Mary is experiencing in the split second before her death. Although Mary appears to have miraculously survived the car crash, it soon becomes apparent as the film progresses, that there is something different about her. It’s as if Mary is flickering in and out of existence; that she appears to inhabit an “otherworldly” or “parallel universe.” This strange surreal atmosphere in Carnival of Souls is highlighted by the eerie organ music (by composer Gene Moore), which punctuates the entire film. This unsettling and discordant organ score, a combination of strange carnival music and off-kilter funeral dirge, is very effective in creating an unsettling mood, which signals a separation between the otherworldly existence Mary appears to be experiencing and the reality of the world around her. This separation between dream and reality is demonstrated very effectively in the scene when Mary, while driving to Salt Lake City, switches on the car radio and flicks up and down the dial. However, the only music she can hear is the macabre organ score that doesn’t appear to be coming from the car radio, but seems to be playing in her head. Gene Moore’s incessant score is again highlighted later in the film in a scene with Mary playing the church organ. As she plays, the organ music becomes more unsettling and ominous. Mary appears to be in a hypnotic trance-induced state of mind; wide-eyed and zombie-like, swaying from side to side, unable to stop or control the organ music swirling around her –drawn by visions of “the man” and other ghouls to the sinister old carnival pavilion. Source


Carnival of Souls went largely unnoticed by critics upon its initial release and received “delayed acclaim” in the ensuing decades, with numerous arthouse screenings in 1989 in conjunction with the Halloween season. It has since become regarded by many film schools as a classic, often praised for its lighting and sound design, in which “sight and sound come together… in a horrifying way.” Some scholars, such as S. S. Prawer, consider Carnival of Souls more an art film than a straightforward horror film. The Time Out film guide commended the film’s “striking black-and-white compositions, disorienting dream sequences and eerie atmosphere,” adding that the film “has the feel of a silent German expressionist movie. Unfortunately, so does some of the acting, which suffers from exaggerated facial expressions and bizarre gesturing. But the mesmerising power of the carnival and dance-hall sequences far outweighs the corniness of the awkward intimate scenes.” Source

Carnival of Souls has gradually developed a cult following since its release and is now considered a low-budget classic. The film has since been included in multiple lists by various media outlets as one of the greatest horror films ever made. Complex magazine ranked Carnival of Souls number 39 on its list of the 50 scariest movies ever made. Slant Magazine placed the film at #32 on its “100 Best Horror Movies of All Time”. Paste magazine ranked the film at #85 in its list of “100 Best Horror Movies of All Time”.Source

In 2012, the Academy Film Archive restored Carnival of Souls. The film has been named as a precursor to the works of various filmmakers, including David Lynch, George A. Romero, Lucrecia Martel and James Wan.Source

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