There is low-budget, ultra-low-budget and no-budget. I don’t know what term you’d use for a movie that could have been made with the change you dug out of your seat cushions. This is the only dramatic film made by industrial documentary filmmaker Herk Harvey, and you could be forgiven if you think you’re watching a lost episode of Twilight Zone. This simple but moody tale is as long on atmosphere as it is short on production values and running time.
Made for a paltry $30,000, Carnival of Souls was built around the dilapidated Saltair amusement park, which had been built by the Mormons on the shore of the Great Salt Lake during the late 19th Century. After decades of misfortune, fire, depression and war, it finally closed in the late 1950s. When Harvey spotted it while driving past, he thought the lonely structure, perched hundreds of feet from the receding shoreline it had once straddled, would make the perfect setting for a horror movie. He might have been on to something there.
Mary (Candace Hilligoss), a church organist in Lawrence, KS, barely survives when the car she’s in plunges off a bridge during a drag race. Less than a week later, she’s off to her new job as an organist in Salt Lake City. She is an odd duck, emotionally distant and she sees playing a church organ as “just a job” and not a religious calling.
Upon arriving in Salt Lake, Mary finds herself contending with a lecherous neighbor at her boarding house (Sidney Berger), but he’s almost reassuring compared to a cadaverous figure that only she can see (played by director Harvey). Then there are the episodes when it seems that the whole world has gone silent and no one can see or hear here. Somehow, it all seems to be tied to a spooky abandoned pavilion out on the lake shore and Mary finds herself drawn to it over and over again.
This very simple, linear story plays out over a brisk 75 minutes and comes complete with a twist ending that will seem very familiar to anyone who has seen more than a few episodes of The Twilight Zone. Still, given the bread-and-water budget, the film does a lot with very little, building mood and tension very effectively. The film may be short on shock moments, relying on spookiness and a gather aura of dread. It doesn’t hurt that the performances, especially from Hilligoss, is well above what you have any right to expect from a movie made on this level. If only Harvey’s business misfortunes hadn’t cut short his feature film career, he might have accomplished quite a lot in his life. He clearly had a talent.
The film bombed on its initial release, but its growing cult status over the years has enhanced its reputation sufficiently to earn it a spot on the Criterion Collection’s roster of DVD releases. Their current two-disc set contains both the theatrical version and a slightly longer director’s cut, plus a decent amount of bonus features, including a pictorial history of the Saltair. It’s well worth checking out.