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Carnival of Souls

Though fondly remembered by many horror fans, Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) was close to being a lost film for thirty years. Seminal studies of the horror genre from the late 60s through to the late 80s lacked reference to the film, their indices skipping from The Car (1977) to Carrie (1976) without so much as a by-your-leave. Thanks in great part to the efforts of Texas-based film historian and restorer Gordon K. Smith, Carnival was reborn in 1989 amid renewed interest and appreciation, not all of it backhanded. A subsequent re-release on the midnight show circuit allowed cult film fans to appreciate Carnival's singular charms on the big screen. In 1990, the feature debuted on video cassette, a milestone heralded on the cover of the first issue of Video Watchdog magazine. The next year, Herk Harvey licensed Michael H. Price and Todd Camp to adapt his "weird show" as a graphic novel, illustrated in the monochrome starkness of a Jack Chick comic. In 2000, Carnival of Souls was included in the prestigious Criterion Collection, keeping company with the expressive masterworks of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, Jean Cocteau, Georges Franju and HenrĂ­-Georges Clouzot.

Following the example of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Carnival of Souls chooses as its protagonist a modern, free-thinking, intelligent young woman whose independence is thwarted by a society clinging to gender roles and frowning on women taking the initiative. As Janet Leigh's Marion in Psycho (her name was Mary in Robert Bloch's source novel) has to break the law in order to break out on her own, Carnival's Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) has to defy if not defeat death. When we catch up with both women on the other side of their respective transgressions, they are engaged in long car trips through (to quote cinema scholar Bruce Kawin) "the cheap, raw, ordinary landscape of America." Along for the ride with both women are their pet fears and insecurities, which haunt Marion in the form of an endlessly looping inner dialogue and Mary as a succession of shock intrusions by "The Man" (director Herk Harvey), a whey-faced nebbish in a conservative three-button suit who seems to be acting as a sort of assistant general manager of the dead, rudely invading Mary's personal space with the persistence of a process server.

While Harvey's character name was likely meant by scenarist John Clifford as a blandly mysterious descriptor, the phrase "the Man" would soon enter the parlance of the American counter culture as a synonym for all things restrictive and repressive about the American Dream. Yet what's interesting is that Mary Henry (like Marion Crane before her) isn't un-interested in the Dream, she just wants it on her own terms - which is to say Mary prefers that she be allowed to enjoy it alone. The character was written by John Clifford as something of an enigma, a woman whose aloofness is key to her undying dilemma. Yet as played by Candace Hilligoss (who had to fight her director to make the character more human), Mary does engender sympathy and stands as something of a poster child for anyone who ever wanted, for whatever reason, to be left the hell alone. As nature abhors a vacuum, so society abhors a woman alone. A square peg in a round hole world, college-educated Mary can't resign herself to sharing a life with the pious eunuchs and tactless horn dogs she encounters. She uses words and expresses curiosities men don't understand and women don't share and her passions and proclivities determines her status in society. Like The Bride of Frankenstein's Undying Monster, Mary comes to embrace her fate which mitigates the life she chose for herself. In the end, Mary isn't outclassed, just outnumbered.

Producer: Herk Harvey
Director: Hark Harvey
Screenplay: Jack Clifford, Herk Harvey
Cinematography: Maurice Prather
Film Editing: Bell de Jarnette, Dan Palmquist
Music: Gene Moore
Cast: Candace Hilligoss (Mary Henry), Frances Feist (Mrs. Thomas), Sidney Berger (John Linden), Art Ellison (Minister), Stan Levitt (Dr. Samuels), Tom McGinnis (Organ Factory Boss).

by Richard Harland Smith



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