harsens_rob (harsens_rob) wrote,

Movie Review: Carnival of Souls (1962)

title splash

Carnival of Souls

Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sydney Berger
DIR: Herk Harvey

Blurb: After a traumatic accident, a woman becomes drawn to a mysterious abandoned carnival after experiencing a strange series of events post-accident.

Scene 01: We start our film on the streets, where we join a pair of guys in their car harrassing a trio of women in theirs. The guys are challenging our young women to a drag race, which our car driver accepts with a laugh. The passengers aren't too sure this is a good idea, but not one really protests the "all in good fun" street race.


Scene 02: With the green light, the race is on across a thoroughfare and onto a dirt road. The guy passenger and the girl driver share a lot of soundless laughs back and forth at one another.

As the race proceeds deeper into the countryside, our main passenger gets more nervous about the wild driving. The road race carries the two cars onto a road that is marked as closed for construction work.


This in turn leads to a bridge, where the two cars are driving neck-n-neck, as they begin their fateful crossing. The bridge causeway is rough, uneven boarding across its expanse and both cars have trouble maintaining control. There are a few scrapes upon one another as they struggle to stay straight.

It's unclear exactly how, but the young woman loses control of her vehicle and goes over the side, plunging the car into the river below.


Insert Title over the dark river where the car is submerged quickly. [I really like the simple, creepy theme for the movie. Kudos go to Gene Moore.]

Scene 03: We come back from our extensive credits over the river to return to the bridge, where the locals have gathered. They have a skimmer on the water trying to find the car/survivors, but an old man on the bridge opines that the water has been running high and with all of the sand and silt, there's no way they'll recover it.

Scene 04: As the recovery attempt proceeds, the Sheriff is interviewing our guy racers. Our passenger lies his ass off, omitting there was a race going on in order to spin a tale where their car was on the bridge first, when the female driver wanted to pass them by. She tried to get around them and went over the side.

Sheriff asks outright if he's sure they didn't crowd them out, to which we don't get a response, but can assume he claimed negative.

Commentary: It's not clear here whether the sheriff is suspicious because the girls broke through the rail on their correct side of the bridge (making the assertion they were passing inconsistent with the testimony), or if the bridge is supposed to have cars in one direction at a time -- implying that both cars entered from opposite sides of the bridge and tried to crowd past one another rather than one of them giving the right-of-way.

Scene 05: Later, the boys are crouching on the banks waiting for word on whether their race companions have been located. A bit further down, the searchers are about ready to stop, as it has been 3 hours without a trace.

There is suddenly some commotion, as the bridge watchers spot our survivor, Mary Henry, crawling up from the river onto a sandbar. Everyone crowds down to the river's edge, as Mary stumbles up the embankment in a state of shock.

As the police throw blankets around her, they ask about how she got out (and presumably where she's been for the past 3 hours) and about the other girls, but Mary claims she doesn't remember anything.

Scene 06: It's an unspecified amount of time later, when Mary returns to the repaired bridge railing where her two friends died. She watches discomfited as a single boat still throws a weighted line into the water, looking for the submerged vehicle. She returns to her own vehicle in a half-daze.

Commentary: I like the way that the organ theme and the silence is used in this shot. There is an unsettling, dreamy quality to Mary's standing on the bridge as the music plays. It returns to no soundtrack at all as she leaves the bridge and returns to the automobile, giving the impression of Mary moving between a twilight existence revolving around the fatal accident and her returning to the solid, mundane world that will be a running theme as we follow her story. The theme and its use is good at capturing Mary's muddled perceptions and moods.

Scene 07: We cut to a church, where Mary is playing the organ. Also in the church are various craftsman working and listening to her play. Many gather in the rafters above her, looking down on her as she plays. It appears the church is undergoing renovation.

Commentary: And, I'm pretty sure that the music is in no way matching any of Candy's pantomimed finger playing. I can't decide if this is deliberate, justifying our watching so much of her hands moving across haphazardly on the keys (in keeping with the nature of the film -- which is really a mind screw picture), or whether it is just clumsy filming.

Scene 08: At the organ, Mary is then joined by a gentleman in a dark suit. The gentleman (I believe he's a mentor of sorts, possibly the organist at this location if not the pastor) asks her if her accident will delay her moving to a new location to take over as the organist, there. Mary assures him that she has done all she can with the police and is leaving that morning.

There is some expository dialog that Mary isn't religious in any way, despite working in a church. She explains she's taking a job playing the tunes, she's not taking any vows. In addition, when the guy asks her if she's stopping by her folks' place to say goodbye, Mary gets flustered and claims she can't as she must drive straight through. He finally mentions to her that to play the organ well, she needs to do more than play the notes - she should put her soul into doing so. At this, Mary gives a neutral, blank reaction and walks away.

Our gentleman calls out a good luck to her and tells her to stop by the next time she's come through, but Mary resolutely tells him that she's never coming back. As she walks out, our gentleman seems to be harboring a great deal of concern about her.

Commentary: Mary also seems a bit stand-offish and maybe a bit pricky about it, as well. The interesting thing that I found with this scene though, is the atmosphere and the way it changes as soon as the gentleman begins to talk about religion and Mary's past. There isn't anything noteworthy, really, in the words of the conversation, but the vibe starts to feel mildly off in Mary's reactions.

I can't quite tell what to make of it.

Scene 09: We remain with our gentleman, who walks up to one of the construction crew and tells him that he's worried about Mary. He explains her accident of less than a day ago. He's worried that her reactions don't seem normal for someone who has just lost two friends and nearly died herself.

The construction man says that Mary has always been greatly reserved and off by herself a lot. He also says that Mary has a great deal of strength however.

Gentleman is still worried about her and construction guy tells him that whatever problems she may be having, they're bound to follow along with her.

Scene 10: We rejoin Mary who is driving across the same bridge where her accident was the day before. She stops in the middle of it and stares out at the water. Mary gets a thoughtful look on her face, but then shrugs off whatever she's thinking and continues on. She drives out of town on her journey toward her new life.

What follows is generic-music and a travelogue so we'll skip through.

Scene 11: Some time later, Mary has crossed the Utah border. It is evening and Mary is looking at bit wore out. The radio, which seemed to have played the same song since she turned it on way back in Kansas, begins to play an organ selection. More strange than this being played over the airwaves, though, is that the song continues on no matter which station that Mary turns the tuner to.

Mary finally gives up on the song going away, but she also remains oddly unaffected emotionally by this weirdness. As she drives onward, she passes an abandoned amusement park sitting forlornly out in the growing darkness and she begins to get antsy behind the wheel. The organ selection drones on.

Commentary: That was a really nicely used shot of Mary's ghostly figure reflecting in the passenger side window as Mary herself is now beginning to experience the weird, possibly supernatural events that will plague her going forward (starting with the organ music that won't stop on the radio).


Mary puts her gaze back on the road, but she's clearly feeling some angst that she's attempting to ignore. In the passenger window, her reflection is replaced by the image of a man's face peering in at her. Mary's response is a gasp and stepping hard on the accelerator. When she looks again, her usual reflection is back in place.

Mary continues driving, staring warily out around her into the night. When she finally returns her attention to the front of the car, she sees a pasty faced man nearly on top of the car.


This causes her to send the car off the road where she comes to a stop in the shallow embankment. The car has stalled out during the accident and in the silence, Mary realizes that she's in the middle of nowhere with no help. She rolls up her window and locks the car doors, as she attempts to get the usual recalcitrant automobile to turn over. It only takes a few moments for the car to start and she's able to back up onto the road again and be on her way. The music has not returned, though she may have turned off the radio without our seeing it.

Mary continues to check out her reflection in the passenger window, but the man's face doesn't return. We do see though, that the abandoned pavilion has once again returned, almost as if her car had moved backward at some point.

Commentary: At first, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is just a continuity error, as it seems an obvious one. But, with the return of the organ music (though it is unclear to me if this is for us, or if the radio is playing it again for Mary to her ignoring of it), I think you could interpret this instead to be a deliberate part of the unexplained phenomena that is building up around Mary as she makes her way to her new start.

It's difficult to tell which elements are otherworldly and which mundane for us, because everything is being filtered throughout through Mary, and we've already gotten plenty of hints that since the accident of just a bit over a day ago, she's either in a state of denial over the trauma or she's suffering a PTSD-type emotional distance that is surely skewing her perceptions. This keeps the entire film in a grey, ambiguous zone.

Scene 12: With Mary now driving past the pavilion in the desert, she pulls up to a gas station with no further trouble. As the station attendant pumps gas for her, Mary gets out of her car and goes over to the passenger window. She lays her hand against it, wonderingly.

The attendant breaks into her reverie and she asks about the pavilion and is told that it sits out there abandoned now. He next directs her to the boarding house which she'll be renting from as she gets settled in.

Scene 13: We next join her as she's being shown her room by the landlady, Mrs. Thomas.

Mrs. Thomas informs Mary that she's sharing the house with the landlady herself, and one other tenant - John Linden. After being shown the apartment, Mary is left to settle in.

As she is opening up her luggage, she receives a strange chill and then sees the mysterious pasty-faced man again, this time standing at her window looking in at her. It's only there for a moment, for Mary goes to the curtains and pushes them aside only to see that the face in the windows is hers... though distorted by the double pane. She grins at her foolishness.


Scene 14: The next day, she reports to the church to take on her new position. At first things seem to be very pleasant, until the minister mentions throwing a reception of some sort for her to meet the congregation. Mary balks at this, and turns chilly, speaking with just a bit of contempt toward the religious patrons she'll have to interact with. The minister, reluctantly, accepts that Mary would just as soon be left alone to play without becoming involved for the moment though he worries that she may find life difficult by being so purposely withdrawn.

Mary deflects by turning attention to testing the organ. She plays, which the minister finds pleasing and he leaves her to it.

Scene 15: As Mary plays, the gardener, the preacher and the cleaning woman all listen in rapt attention. The minister mentions to the cleaning woman that they've found an organist capable of stirring the soul. Surely Mary wouldn't appreciate that turn of phrase.

Scene 16: As she plays, Mary looks up at the rafters, the organ pipes and the religious iconography of the stained glass. Her tune turns to the eerie theme that has been her companion since the accident. On the far side of the church, we see the pasty-faced man wandering and listening to her play.

He spends several moments looking heavenward.

Scene 17: Outdoors, the minister is consulting with the gardener. With the organ music stopped, the minister returns to the chapel to find Mary staring at the stained glassed images. The minister asks what she sees, but Mary tells him nothing -- claiming that her practicing the religious music "all afternoon" had put her in a spiritual mood.

He tells her that he has to go out to make a call and asked if she'd like to come along for the fresh air. When he confirms that they'll pass by the abandoned pavilion and that he's offering to stop if she'd like to investigate it a little, she's eager.

Scene 18: As the minister drives into the pavilion's driveway and toward the building, the organ music is again playing on the soundtrack. Otherwise, everything seems mundane.

Mary determines to go into the decaying structure, but the minister states it isn't safe as the place has been left to crumble for quite a while. He's curious about her fascination, and she isn't able to explain it to herself let alone him. She offers that perhaps she just wants to assure herself that it is nothing but what it appears to be.

The minister reminds her that the law has stated no one can enter it anymore and takes her on their way, though Mary makes clear that she's probably going to return at some point to satisfy her curiosity at a later point.

Scene 19: As they drive away, Mary can't keep her gaze from the back window and the organ motif continues playing over the scene.

Scene 20: Inside one of the abandoned buildings (presumably the mentioned dance hall), Pasty-Faced gazes out at the car carrying Mary away.

Scene 21: In the car, Mary seems to nearly sense his gaze at her....

Scene 22: Later, Mary greets Mrs. Thomas and explains about why she'd been out all day. She also mentions in passing that she's forgotten to eat and the elderly landlady offers to bring her up a cup of coffee and a sandwich after a bit.

Mary is grateful and goes upstairs to run a hot bath.

Scene 23: Mary sits in the tub as it fills. We hear a soft knock, but Mary doesn't.

It turns out that this isn't Mrs. Thomas with her light meal, but a guy at her door -- presumably the mentioned Mr. Linden.

Mary gets out of her tub and I notice there is a second lock on her bathroom door, which strikes me as odd.

Scene 24: Mary does hear the knock after she leaves her bath and calls for Mrs. Thomas to come right in, but she's forgotten the door was chained. She wraps herself up in a towel and answers the door.

She's startle to find John at the door. He invites himself in, despite her obvious discomfort at standing there in a towel. She's able to get him to step out while she slips into a bathrobe, though he does watch her through the crack in the door by its being left partly ajar.

The close up on John's eye gives us the impression he'll be a pervert. An impression not allayed when he offers to take Mary out to dinner and with her polite decline, pushes the issues - blocking her from closing the door to get dressed with his body and continuing to hit on her, unsubtly.

Scene 25: After she finally manages to get him on his way, she pauses for a moment and then goes to the staircase, presumably to assure herself Mrs. Thomas is nearby, as John did seem a bit skeezy on first impression. Instead she finds Pasty-Faced in the foyer below stairing up at her. They stare at one another a moment, before he walks away.

Mary is left gasping fearfully as she bolts back to her room, with the organ music returned.

She stares at the door for a few moments and then quickly locks it with the chain when she hears footsteps approaching the door. The door swings open, making the chain go taut, but of course it's only Mrs. Thomas with her coffee and sandwich.

Scene 26: Though she lets the old woman in, her reluctance is obvious and puzzling to the older woman. Mary chains the door after she's let in and asks her about the man in the hallway, who Mrs. Thomas understandably mistakes as a reference to the other border.

Mary clarifies, but Mrs. Thomas seems oddly insistent that there was never another man in the house or she would have known it. She excuses herself from Mary, looking a little too startled given the situation, with the impression that she thinks Mary may be a bit of a hysteric. She goes into the hallway, and as expected, there is no strange man waiting.

Scene 27: That night, after having assured the landlady that coffee doesn't keep her awake, Mary lies fully awake with wide eyes staring into the darkness of the room. She hears thunder rolling, and with the organ music again over the scene, makes her way to the window to stare out at the rain.

As she does so, looking nearly like she may be in a trance, we focus in on the curtain until it dissolves to a shot of the pavilion in the dusk as seen from the road when Mary first noticed it. This quickly skip-jumps to a focus-in on the building from the front and then another rapid skip-jump looking out from the window where Pasty-Face was standing while spying on Mary and the minister, and a zoom shot out from this window.

Scene 28: Suddenly, it's morning and the alarm clock is ringing as Mary lies half-awake.

Her half-doze is interrupted by John knocking at her door with a small coffee pot and two cups. When Mary greets him at the door, he offers that he heard her alarm go off and figured she could use some early morning caffeine.

Mary seems far more friendly to him this morning, and he mentions the awkward foot they got off to, but she just blows this off by wondering how she could resist the inducement of fresh morning coffee at her door step. They chat a bit, with him offering a shot for her coffee but she declines as it wouldn't be seemly to show up at the church for work smelling of booze. We find out that John is a warehouse worker.

John thinks for a moment that he may have shocked her with his alcohol offer, but she explains that she isn't religious. She finds it strange that everyone seems to think that just because she took a job playing organ for a church, that she's a believer. She explains that she's a play-for-pay organist and needed a job -- nothing more to it.

John is a bit taken aback and wonders if she doesn't get nightmares thinking that way about a church profession. She mentions, for reasons other than a dueling psyche over faith, that she did in fact have strange dreams the night before.

In their back and forth, we find out that John didn't graduate high school and blusters to hide feelings of inadequacy about it. He also pours a bit more of his whiskey into his coffee cup. Mary comments on this, and he blows her off that he isn't an alcoholic or anything. He just likes to start off the day in a good mood. Mary comments he must be a riot by noon.

Throughout the exchange, John continues to drop not-so-subtle hints about their hooking up some night, which Mary tries to ignore while keeping things light and friendly. They part on good terms and Mary smiles at a possible new friend/perhaps romantic potential (although, I'm not sure John would be a good choice for anything more than a casual good time).

She also mentions that she doesn't have to go in to work that day and is going to spend it shopping, as she suggested that he should get going before he's late.

Scene 29: Later, Mary is trying on dresses and tells the shop girl that she really likes the one she's trying on. She heads back to the dressing room to change back to her street clothes with plans on the purchase. As she's changing, her sight gets blurred out for a moment. She suddenly stands, disoriented. The sounds of the shop in the background have suddenly been replaced by silence for Mary, organ music for us.

When Mary has finished changing, she finds that the dressing room door won't open for her for just a moment. When she does get the door open, she finds everything appearing normal in the dress shop, except that no one is making any sounds. The only thing we hear is the organ music (but I'm presuming that Mary isn't).

Scene 30: Mary continues up to her salesgirl and tells her that she believes she'll have the dress delivered, but the woman doesn't react. As Mary repeats herself, the shop girl smiles at another customer over her shoulder and walk past Mary without any acknowledgement. Mary follows her over, where her salesgirl is helping an elderly woman. The old woman is saying something, but there isn't any dialog -- just the organ music on the soundtrack.

Mary stares at her salesgirl in a mixture of befuddlement and insult at being ignored while she was speaking to her. She starts to wonder what the matter with everyone is. She walks up to a man and asks why the saleswoman and the elderly lady didn't answer her inquiries, but he also walks by her without any acknowledgement.


Scene 31: Next, Mary wanders through the mall and outside onto the street with a growing sense of unease and wrongness. Nearby, a pair of men are jackhammering a sidewalk, but there isn't any sound. Just the organ (for us, presumably).

Scene 32: A short time later, Mary is wandering through a park when the silence is suddenly replaced by a bird song. The natural sounds of the world quickly return to normal, leaving Mary in a wonder over what just happened.

She sees a water fountain, and stops to get a drink of water. As she's drinking a dark suit stands next to her. When she looks up, she drops her purse with a gasp and rushes off, but collides with another man. He asks her what is wrong and she turns and points at the man in the suit. We think that it will be Pasty-Face, but it turns out to be an ordinary elder who apologizes for startling her.

Mary has a small freak-out as she insists that it was Pasty-Face standing there, not random elder. She looks around wildly for Pasty-Face. Mary tries to run away, but good samaritan won't let her go, explaining that she's getting hysterical and must calm herself.

It turns out by fortune that he's a doctor, and further that he has an office across the street from the park. He offers his assistance, as she's obviously had a shock, which she accepts.

Commentary: I thought for a moment she was actually going to dash off in her heels the moment he released her arms -- which came off to me as a bit aggressive -- but she doesn't, even when he releases her to gather her purse for her.

This is about where I start to wonder at the story structure, too. I get the eerie ambiance of what they're doing, but these day-to-day scenes in Mary's life are wandering and long. I think this story has been better done in shorter segments elsewhere. Really, this movie strikes me as a Twilight Zone episode being stretched too long for the premise.

Also, the organ music is starting to wear on my nerves more everytime it makes its return to denote odd occurances.

Scene 33: In the doctor's office, Mary has explained about what happened earlier and insists that it was more than the temporary loss of hearing. She explains being unable to connect to the people around her... as if she suddenly and dramatically had no place in the world anymore, for a short time. Mary has also apparently explained about her car wreck of less than a week ago and that she keeps seeing Pasty-Face following her.

The doctor questions Mary more as he tries to convince her that she's suffering from the emotional fallout of her being involved in a fatal accident and that her imagination is playing tricks on her. He further wants to delve into why Mary feels like she has no desire to connect with other people.

He admits as they speak that he isn't a psychiatrist, but offers that perhaps the figure she claims is following her is a hallucination representing her survivor's guilt [and presumably, her guilt at not being more emotionally affected by the deaths of her two friends].

The doctor is able to convince her partially that perhaps the Pasty-Face is her imagination, and she resolves to settle things by turning the tables on the apparition. She has also apparently mentioned her growing preoccupation with the abandoned pavilion, because she also now resolves to go out to the place at his mentioning it to put that to rest as well.

He advises caution, and that she not attempt to face these things alone, but she offers that he himself admitted that she has a remarkably strong will and she will not be put off from her course of action to end whatever this oddness is that is happening around her....

Tags: review carnival of souls

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened