Monday, September 26, 2022

Carnival of Souls: Dissolving the Line Between the Grind House and the Art House

This review originally appeared in Bob Ham's Portland film screenings newsletter Daily Projections on October 15, 2016.

(Herk Harvey, 1962, USA, 78 minutes

In one-feature filmmaker Herk Harvey's artful head-trip, Carnival of Souls, the line between the grind house and the art house bends and warps until it completely dissolves. 

The 1962 film, which wouldn't see formal release until 1989, starts like most youth-oriented pictures of the time as two thrill-seeking drivers race to see who can go the fastest, but when one car slides off a bridge and into the river, things shift into a very different register. The vehicle sinks beneath the water, and that appears to be the end of that. 

While the townspeople try to figure out how to dredge the car from the river, passenger Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss, a cool blonde with a strangely sympathetic manner) emerges from the water, dazed but unharmed, claiming she has no idea what happened to her companions.

Afterward, she leaves Lawrence behind for a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City, necessitating a long drive through dark roads. Not least because of her job, to which she feels no Christian connection, the eerie music that swirls around her fits perfectly, especially when she starts to see a strange man (played by Harvey) who may or may not exist. 
The pale, spectral figure follows her to her new rooming house, conveniently located next to an abandoned carnival (Harvey used an actual location, the Saltair Pavilion, which was consumed by fire in 1970).

Aside from the intrusions of her boozy neighbor, Mr. Linden (Sidney Berger), her days are going fine until Mary exits a department store dressing room to find that no one can see her. The phenomenon only lasts momentarily, but it leads her to a psychologist who believes there must be a rational explanation. He also gets her to admit that she isn't looking for a boyfriend. No desire for male companionship? She must be nuts!