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  • Writer's pictureJohn Parker

Carnival of Souls: Criterion Collection Blu-ray review

Fancy something a little different for your Halloween nights of horror? Then you’re in luck, as the Criterion Collection’s latest UK release is the highly influential, cult-classic guerrilla-horror, Carnival of Souls.

Director Herk Harvey was a prolific filmmaker throughout the 50s and 60s, producing countless industrial and educational short films for the Centron Corporation. But he only ever made one feature film: Carnival of Souls. Shot quickly, with a mostly unknown cast, and for a budget somewhere in the region of $33,000, Harvey’s one and only contribution to horror cinema has incredibly stood the test of time, and gone on to influence countless filmmakers along the way.

The film begins with a drag race, which results in a car crashing off a bridge and plunging into a river. With all involved feared dead, and to the complete surprise of all the local gawpers, Mary (Candace Hilligoss) emerges from the water. Mary is unhurt, but following her ordeal she decides to leave town. She takes up a new job and drives across the country to start a new life. But she can’t shake the feeling that someone or something is following her. Ghoulish faces appear to haunt her at every turn. When her dreams start bleeding into reality, she knows she is in real trouble.

Thanks to years of working on the tight budgets and even tighter schedules of corporate films, Harvey produced a film that technically and aesthetically looked far more expensive than it really was.

The use of light and shadow by still photographer Maurice Prather to create the stark monochrome visuals is incredible, and proof that budget is no obstacle to talent and ingenuity. The imagery in the film is deeply unsettling, drawing on the angular surrealism of German expressionism, and the isolating neorealism of Bergman. Yes, Carnival of Souls might be a cult, midnight B-movie, but its ambition and inspiration come straight from the art-house.

Additionally, when talking about Carnival of Souls, it is impossible not to mention the score – a near constant belching of discordant church organs, which significantly adds to the uneasy atmosphere of the film. Moore’s music is grating and jarring, and will set your teeth on edge. But for this film, it really works. Accompanying the now iconic image of Herk Harvey’s uncredited performance as the stalking Ghoul, it is genuinely the stuff of nightmares.

It’s been widely written about that Carnival of Souls was an influence on the career of David Lynch, though Lynch himself has never confirmed this. However, the keen-eyed among you will find many comparisons. Eraserhead, Lost Highway, and the third season of Twin Peaks in particular all share a peculiar DNA with Herk Harvey’s film – specifically in the use of the iconography of 50s and 60s Americana, and the subverting of these wholesome images into a surreal gothic nightmare.

But the film’s far reaching influence doesn’t stop with Lynch. You can see echoes of Carnival of Souls in the films of George A. Romero and M. Night Shyamalan, the Insidious franchise, The Twilight Zone, Donnie Darko, and the terrific modern horror It Follows.

When it was initially released the film essentially disappeared without a trace before enjoying a brief revival in cinemas in 1989. But it was on late night television that it finally found an audience, and achieved the cult status it still carries today. I like to imagine some poor insomniac flicking through the channels at 3am and stumbling across this. The poor soul would never sleep again.

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