I have said over and over again how horror is my weakest genre. Due to a few mishaps when I was younger, I have stayed vehemently away from this section of film. But I am older now and I am stronger than I used to be. And man I have lived. So why does a movie I probably should have seen a long time ago and is so comparably old creep me out so much?
Before I get into the overt creepiness, let me explain some essential plot points. Mary Henry walks out of a sandy river after her girlfriend drove off of a bridge. She is the lone survivor of a disastrous drag race (kids these days, I tell ya!). But she doesn’t want to dwell on her accident. Instead she escapes to a town in Utah to play the organ for a church she doesn’t believe in. Right away something is not right for her in this town. On her way to town she sees a large creepy building in the distance. After she sees this building, a man pops up in front of her car and she almost wrecks. But the man doesn’t look quite right. She gets a room in a boarding house and tries desperately to live a normal life, but she keeps seeing these men. And soon there are women too. These visions interfere with her job and her horrible love life. (That man is super rapey.) The only way to get these visions out of her life is to go back to that large creepy abandoned building.
Carnival of Souls was a low-budget film made in the mid sixties. It barely made a peep at the time, but was rediscovered by the VHS obsessed generation of the eighties. Ever since then, the movie has gone on to legendary cult status next to The Night of the Living Dead and other genuinely creepy movies made at that time.
Just like Night, Carnival of Souls takes a simple premise and is able to pull so much horror from it. The men Mary sees aren’t particularly menacing by today’s standards. But they are creepy because the protagonist is so fearful of them. She understands that everything is happening in her head, but it seems so real. What is particularly creepy are the scenes where she sees no undead men, but rather when she cannot be heard or seen by the people of the town. That is our greatest nightmare. That we don’t actually exist in reality. But this horror is more psychological than physical. I think that psychological horror has a more lasting effect on the film audience than physical horror. I can watch a man get his Achilles tendons sliced and that would make me feel horrible for about five minutes. But watching a sympathetic protagonist go through her world seemingly fine one moment and then no one can see her or hear her the next will make me think about those scenes for days, even weeks afterward.
I have to mention the phenomenal look of the film. Every man she sees that she knows is not there, they have the same sort of make up on and ragged clothing. But nothing else alters their appearance. The makeup just makes the skin white and the area around their eyes dark black. Each set piece felt lived in, from the gas station she pulls up to when she first gets to town to even the abandoned circus that focuses all of her attention. All of these locations existed and thus grounds the horror into reality. All of this is good, but I want to highlight a particular scene that made the use of practical effects great. I’m sure if you have seen this film, then you know which scene I am talking about. Near the end, Mary is sitting at her organ playing this truly creepy song. While she is playing this song, she begins to see men and women rising up from a body of water and dance at the old abandoned circus. But they dance in a herky jerky way that only dreams can manifest and can’t be replicated in real life. I am no expert on camera movements, but I am sure this effect was achieved of slowing or speeding up the camera much like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton did in the silent era. (Only with more advanced technology) That simple effect makes the film transcend horror and wade into the art film world. I hope that more directors look at the simple effects achieved in this film and realize that all you need is a great story, a great characters and a few creepy images. No CGI is necessary. At least in my opinion.