A Little Art-House of the Soul



Carnival of Souls Directed by Herk Harvey (Criterion DVD)

A small 1962 gem in crisp, clear monochrome Carnival of Souls is a noir masterpiece, a symphony in flickering greys. Deserving a finer reputation than the B Movie tag normally suggests, it is creepy and campy without ever plumbing the depths the genre implies.

This low-budget exercise in masterful editing is completely stolen by the glacial remoteness of the central character, played with wide-eyed distraction by the Lee Strasberg-trained Candace Hilligoss. If ever Hitchcock missed out on a blonde, it is she. A cross between Janet Leigh and Candy Darling, she moves through the movie with supreme elegance.

The plot is simple but effective. A girl survives a car crash; returning unscathed but distracted, she moves to a small town to become a church organist. With no vocation or faith, it is merely a job, which she quickly loses because her playing is more secular than sacred.

Haunted by a spectral figure that nobody else seems aware of, and pursued by her randy neighbor (effectively realized by Sidney Berger as the perpetual cap-sleeved geek with raging hormones), she begins to seem a very odd dame indeed. Her problems are underpinned by her fascination with a derelict carnival on the outskirts of town. Strangely drawn to this place the locals seem to treat with derision and suspicion, she slowly fears for her sanity. When she experiences moments of temporary suspension, in which the world continues whilst she remains a part of it but unseen, she knows a strange fate awaits. She and the audience are not disappointed. The film has a strange quality of spookiness.

The camera work is majestic, and at time intimately claustrophobic. Hilligoss is superb as the girl afraid. She rolls and widens her eyes as though her life depends on it, as indeed it does.

A stunningly beautiful woman, it is a major loss that she only made one other minor movie and appeared with alarming irregularity on television, but if your reputation is to rest on a slender canon of work, then it ought to be Carnival of Souls.

Shot on a reputed budget of $33,000 in Lawrence, Kansas, this slow burner continues to garner a much deserved reputation as a minor classic, and appears to be a major influence on George Romero's The Night of the Living Dead and David Lynch's Blue Velvet. It betrays the craft inherent in its creation. The sets don't wobble, and the actors can act, so it really is an art-house confection on the B Movie shelf. A rare treat, it matures well.

Talk of a sequel came to nothing, and with Hervey's death it now stands as a fitting memorial to a talent bereft of financial security. (Even though it was poorly remade in 1998, the film makers asked for Candace Hilligoss, but she wisely declined.) Hilligoss, however, remains the star. You don't have to make many movies to be one. It's almost like she knew that from the moment the camera began to whirr.

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