Blog Directory CineVerse: Dance of the dead

Dance of the dead

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Horror is one genre where a paltry production budget doesn’t automatically equate to an inferior product. With a little ingenuity and creativity, fright filmmakers can fashion a movie that can be both unsettling and entertaining, despite limited resources.

Case in point: Herk Harvey’s study in disquieting dread, Carnival of Souls, originally released in 1962. Our CineVerse group laid out a case last week that acquits this B-picture nicely, based on the evidence (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What directors or movies might’ve been inspired by Carnival of Souls?

  • George Romero and his Night of the Living Dead (1968), which also features pasty-faced ghouls
  • David Lynch, whose films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet are infused with the same spirit of existential dread, the decay and subversive elements found within small-town suburban or rural life, and haunted characters estranged from others.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Chuck Bowen wrote: “Romero and Lynch took from Harvey a sense of how id and chaos comically and poetically reside underneath misleadingly placid surfaces.”
  • The Argentine director Lucretia Martel
  • What sources might Carnival of Souls have drawn from or been influenced by?
  • The Twilight Zone, which also featured stories about characters supernaturally alienated from fellow human beings, including The Hitch-Hiker
  • Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • The works of European filmmakers, including Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, particularly Cocteau’s Orpheus from 1950
  • Hitchcock’s Psycho from 1960, which also depicted an independent-minded and attractive young blonde who is objectified by men and drives far away to escape from her past.

What did you find surprising, unexpected, memorable, or resonant about Carnival of Souls?

  • The filmmakers accomplish much on a paltry budget – in this case, $33,000, which afforded merely 3 weeks of shooting. This low-rent approach arguably works well for a horror film of this ilk.
    • Bowen further wrote: “Effective fantasy and horror films both thrive on a tactile sense of the reality from which they’re departing, underlining a divide between objective and subjective experience, implying that the distinction might be misleading or arbitrary. This is why micro-budget productions in these genres are often more haunting than their more elaborate and expensive counterparts, as they show the formal, and, by extension and implication, the emotional strain that’s necessary to taking irrational leaps from the established realm of the rational. Slickly produced genre films, particularly in the age of impersonal computer-generated effects, rarely produce such tension, as anything is possible and consequently taken for granted.”
  • The moody monochromatic cinematography and smartly framed compositions are particularly notable; typically, shoestring budget horror movies don’t showcase this kind of visual panache.
  • The consistent use of brooding pipe organ music creates an unsettling atmosphere, underscoring the scenes as a sort of unceasing funeral dirge.
  • Interestingly, much of this film is shot outdoors and on location, in Utah and Kansas, as opposed to on a fabricated set. Film reviewer
    • Film reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “Most horror had existed in a stagebound European never-Neverland, while contemporary horror films rarely strayed outside the unreal confines of studio sets.”
  • While almost all the other actors are subpar and wooden or weird in their characterizations, Candace Hilligoss, in the lead role, gives a strong performance – often using simple and subtle facial expressions and believable reactions to make us believe in her plight.
  • This was a one-off by the crew and cast; director/co-writer Herk Harvey and the lead actress never made another feature film.
  • Many questions are left unexplained and unanswered, including how Mary survived the drowning, why she is inexorably drawn to the abandoned amusement park, and why she plays the discordant organ music that gets her fired. Likewise, the character of Mary is mysterious. We don’t know why she’s acting so strangely or what motivates her, unless she’s slowly losing her soul or identity in some way and passing into another realm of existence that is confusing her.

Themes prevalent in Carnival of Souls

  • Estrangement and alienation. Mary can’t connect with those around her. She acts aloof, icy, and indifferent, finding it difficult to display emotion, passion, or romantic interest. We see how she prefers to be alone, but her surrounding community isn’t accepting of this.
  • Bad omens. Mary is increasingly haunted and disturbed by signs that she is either losing her mind, her identity, or her soul. These signs include sudden appearances by the white-faced man and his minions as well as eerie episodes where she cannot interact with human beings around her.
  • The afterlife is enigmatic. Assuming the obvious interpretation – that Mary actually drowned and never emerged from the car alive – this is a story about experiencing some sort of after-death transformation to another realm of existence or a state of limbo, which for many can be as or more terrifying than the concept of hell.

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