Two cars, one black, the other white, wait at traffic lights. One of the passengers goads the other driver into a race. The lights change and both cars lurch forward. They jostle, pulling tightly together before crossing a bridge. Speeding toward the other side, one of the vehicles nudges the other, pushing it through the crash barrier and into the river. Three hours later a survivor, Mary Henry, drags herself out of the dirty water and up onto a sandbank. She can barely stand, still lost in the current she has just emerged from, the voices of those who have rushed to help her muffled by her catatonic state. So begins Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962).
Self-financed and made with local talent, Harvey’s film is a true cinematic oddity: a one-off hit for its director, Carnival of Souls is not quite a fully-fledged horror film. Its imagery and style push it more toward art-house or underground cinema, albeit one tainted by too many episodes of The Twilight Zone. The narrative unfolds like a funereal dream, a bizarre juxtaposition of a mundane life splintered with moments of the uncanny. Such qualities have earned it seminal status in the horror canon, and its storyline and imagery have reverberated throughout the genre – George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1978), Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and the recent series of Final Destination films are just a few that borrow from Harvey’s film.
Following her emergence from the river, Mary becomes increasingly isolated from those around her. Her distance and, at times, antagonistic interaction with men suggests sexual repression whilst positioning the many male characters she encounters – her lecherous neighbour, the priest for whom she works, the doctor and other incidental characters – as either sexual predators or further suppressors of her fragile psychology. Out of these only one is truly suspect, the ominously named ‘The Man’: played by the director himself, this suited, pale-faced ghost haunts Mary throughout the film. As a figment of her imagination, this spectre manifests all of Mary’s repressed fears of the opposite sex, personifying them as a dark and malevolent force she cannot communicate with, touch or understand. This sense of repression is consolidated by the film’s saturation in water imagery: the lingering close-ups of the river, the bath which Mary takes and the water fountain she drinks from, salt-water bathing at the abandoned pavilion and finally an image of The Man submerged in filthy water, his eyes wide open and unblinking.
Originally distributed by Herts-Lion, Carnival of Souls was edited down in order for it to fit into their drive-in double-bill circuit. Scenes of character exposition and the background history of the film’s antagonistic location, the abandoned Pavilion, were all cut to reduce the running time. Network’s release restores these ‘lost’ scenes and, although not adding significantly to the experience of the film, they do lend a perverse sense of reality to this dream-like film and act as further signposts to Mary’s progressively delusional state.
In addition to these scenes, the DVD features a commentary from Kim Newman and Stephen Jones and a booklet, also written by Newman. The commentary is conversational and spiked with moments of erudite analysis as much as with production trivia and humour, making it a valuable insight into a film that has somehow managed to escape in-depth critical analysis.
From the very start to its unpredictable ending, Carnival of Souls is a startlingly dark and atmospheric film. As either horror cinema, art-house experiment or study of an increasingly deranged mind, its narrative has currents that run far deeper than the drive-in exploitation it was often double-billed with. Herein lays Harvey’s legacy, a template of plot, images, characters and subtexts for cinema’s rich and horrific dreams.