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Carnival Of Souls (1962, USA)

22/02/2011

Director: Herk Harvey    Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger

I love horror films. Sadly these days a decent scary movie is a rare thing, the majority of them being little more than gore and CGI saturated carnival rides attempting to scare you with cheap theatrics and carnival ghost train tricks. This is all good and well and often results in entertaining enough films but that sort of thing really doesn’t inspire fear and unease in me. Usually it’s a question of atmosphere and ambiguity. For me to find a film in any way sinister it needs both and needs to have a sense that what is unfolding on screen could happen to anyone. Carnival Of Souls certainly sets out with this agenda in mind.

Mary is the sole survivor of a tragic car accident days before she is due to move to another town to take up a position as a church organist. Before long she starts experiencing horrific visions of a corpse-like figure. With a growing sense of paranoia and a fear she is going crazy she consults a local doctor but the visions increase in intensity and seem to be leading her to the abandoned pavillion on the outskirts of town.

It’s an eerie film. Her encounters with the phantom figure are at times quite unsettling and her episodes of altered reality are well executed. The atmosphere is built slowly and effectively, poor Mary being left quite unsure whether she is suffering trauma from the accident, going mad or being genuinely haunted by an honest-to-goodness spirit. As her episodes increase in their intensity she becomes less and less sure of what is real and what is not and sets off to the abandoned carnival to face he fears. Here’s where we get treated to some good old fashioned shocks and scares as Mary wanders the deserted sideshows.

Where it falls down is in the poor production values and bad execution of some of its elements. I’m not one to let the lack of a budget put me off a film, some of my favourite films are shoestring budget masterpieces, but Carnival Of Souls is seriously impaired by its lack of finances. Clearly lacking the ingenuity required to make a budget stretch there are certain elements that are distractingly weak. Take the opening scenes for instance. They obviously had issues with recording sound on the locations for the exterior scenes, the opening scenes all having atrociously re-looped dialogue that sounds like it was recorded in somebody’s bathroom rather than a studio. The make up effects on the spirit figure that plagues Mary are a little underwhelming too, looking more like silent movie makeup than a particularly convincing ghoul effect. I suppose it’s unsettling in its own right but I get the feeling that they could have done better. Admittedly these are relatively minor quibbles, it is after all the ideas that count more than anything and in this film the ideas are of a high calibre. It is a film that is ripe for a remake though, as long as it kept the ideas intact whilst fixing the technical limitations of the original. At least one film springs to mind that is already a remake of sorts but I am reluctant to name it for fear of spoiling either film for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Setting aside these flaws it is a good example of how to do a horror film without relying on blowtorches and butcher knives and if you are a fan of traditional “ghost story” films (such as Robert Wise’s 1963 version of The Haunting) you will defnitely get a kick out of Carnival of Souls.

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