From a forgotten B-movie that fell into public domain, to a timeless classic that influenced both visionary directors and artists alike.
The sight of Candace Hilligoss emerging from the Kansas river, caked in mud with a lost look in her eyes, has to be one of the most enduring images in cinema. The existential dread of being isolated from society is captured in the celluloid of Carnival of Souls like Tinkerbell being trapped in Hook's lantern. The influence of Herk Harvey's lone masterpiece can be seen throughout the world of cinema, art, and music but at one time it could have been forgotten forever.
It was on returning from a vacation that Harvey first had the idea that would become Carnival of Souls. He was driving by Salt Lake City when he happened upon the deserted Saltair Amusement Park. The creepy atmosphere of the dried-out lake, coupled with the eclectic architecture, sparked Harvey's imagination and he took the idea to his friend and colleague, writer John Clifford. Clifford's script was a descent into the troubled mind of the central character Mary, whose life is thrown into chaos and psychic terror after a car crash. Starting a new life in a new city isn't enough to escape the inexorable feeling that she is being followed — both by a sinister man and her humdrum past. Mary's grip on reality teeters on the edge until the inevitable, horrifying conclusion.
Harvey rallied local businesses in the Salt Lake area to invest $500 dollars each in the production and managed to raise $13,000 of the total $30,000 over a weekend. Harvey must have been gifted with the powers of persuasion because he managed to rent the Saltair pavilion from the Chamber of Commerce — where the iconic ballroom scene takes place — for just $50. Working at such a low budget came with its own unique set of issues.
When the production's electrician managed to get the lights on at the long-abandoned park, spooked locals called the police, fearing a fire had broken out. According to Hilligoss, Herk had to confront the officers, whilst dressed in black and wearing ghoulish makeup, to smooth things over. This was just one of Herk's run-ins with law enforcement.
The production couldn't stretch to hiring a stunt double for HIlligoss so it was down to her to place herself in the sinking car. She told the director that she couldn't do it, the water was too cold, but Herk insisted that if she didn't he had no ending to the picture. Desperate, Harvey threw Hilligoss into the water. Her screams drew the attention of a passing police officer. He arrived on the scene, according to HIlligoss, with his hand on his gun. Concerned for her safety, the officer remained at the location while the scene was shot.
For all the effort and community spirit that enabled Carnival of Souls to get over the finish line, it might all have been in vain since the picture didn't make much of a splash upon release. An unscrupulous distributor sold bootleg prints to TV stations then disappeared in Europe, leaving the filmmakers without a cent. However, this unhappy twist of fate was to be the movie's saving grace. It became a regular on late-night TV and its popularity grew to cult status. This eventually led to arthouse screenings in 1989 and a reevaluation of the film.
In his review at the time, Roger Ebert compared the film to the work of David Lynch and George A. Romero. Though there's no direct evidence to show that either director ever saw the film, he points out similarities in tone and style in the case of Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and theme in the case of Lynch. Carnival of Souls, like Lynch's body of work, has its sinister underbelly lurking beneath sleepy small-town America. It's that dark Americana that has continued to leave an impression on fans and artists alike. After all, Lynch's Mulholland Dr. also begins with a lone, shaken woman emerging from a car crash into a mysterious world of nightmares…
Lana Del Rey samples Carnival of Souls in her 2017 track 13 Beaches. The quoted line is: “I don't belong in the world, that's what it is. Something separates me from other people…everywhere I turn, there's something blocking my escape.” Lana wrote the song in part as a result of her experiences with paparazzi; it's a reflection of her isolation from day-to-day life as a celebrity. In the song's lyrics, there are the lines, “Can I let go and let your memory dance in the ballroom of my mind?” and “I've been dying for something real.” There's a longing to be part of the real world, the ordinary world, to love and be loved in return. In Carnival… the real tragedy for Mary is that she never really lived, until it was too late.
Rap artist Drake's video for Knife Talk (directed by Pablo Rochat) features an eerie scene of Mary, reciting the lyrics of the track as if possessed by a demonic puppeteer. She is recontextualised as a voodoo-enslaved mouthpiece, spreading the gospel of gang life — another culture filled with fear and paranoia. Lost souls are the prey of gangs, who seek to recruit them, like the dead seek Mary, inviting her into the darkness.
What Carnival of Souls teaches us is that making a movie doesn't need massive budgets or special effects, but commitment to a central idea and plenty of imagination. The haunted performance of Hilligoss, alienated from the world, has permeated modern pop culture because we're more trapped in the bubbles of our own anxieties than ever before. Its preternatural bleakness can be felt in the music of Portishead and seen in films like Lost Highway.
Lucrecia Martel, the Argentinian auteur behind The Headless Woman and Zama had this to say about the low-budget classic: “Carnival of Souls [is] brilliant. This is what all us filmmakers need to remember…that to make just one film like this is enough. It has everything that frightens me most in life. I know I can't watch it alone.”
Words by Marc Paterson.
Carnival of Souls is currently available to watch as part of the Criterion Collection.