Not So Empty is the… – Carnival of Souls (1962)

Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls is an independent feature that ended up doing everything right. It was spooky and ethereal thanks to the cinematography of Maurice Prather and it would hold the interest of the viewer despite the almost lackadaisical pace it would perpetuate throughout the entire affair.

If there was a single negative, it was the fact that Harvey made it too easy to guess as to what happened to lead character Mary Henry as played by Candace Hilligos. The second she would emerge from the water, the audience would immediately know what the twist to it all was. Even so, Harvey would continue on as if he had not given anything away and it would captivate thoroughly. A large part of it would come from the visions Mary would have, of a man following her wherever she went and not just any man, one that was obviously a ghost or a zombie given his makeup and demeanour. It is not just that which follows her though that creates the atmosphere found within but the organ music which can be haunting in the best of cases and the aforementioned cinematography that would feature some great camera shots to make it all come alive. It culminates in an abandoned theme park, the ‘carnival of souls,’ as it were and it is the cherry on top of the cake as it creates a sense of foreboding and eeriness in the viewer that is hard to shake.

What makes this film more interesting than not is the fact that there are no scares per se, no blood and guts, no monsters or the like and for some, it might turn them away. As far as horror movies go, this is not the norm but it is effective at creating a feeling of dread, something that many pictures of the horror persuasion cannot make claim to have. It is also of some interest that Hilligos and the rest of the cast are not exactly professional actors of any experience and while the performances are not as polished as they might be, they shine a little brighter because of it. It feels more natural despite the rough edges and Hilligos who leads the pack proves to be a perfect fit for the role and the movie.

All of this dread and fear and eeriness that had built up minute by minute culminates at the theme park in a sequence that pulls at the senses, the quiet of it all working for the scene as Mary looks for the truth in the vast emptiness that is the carnival. Hilligos is good enough to make one believe the fear she exhibits when she does finally come to the realization of it all and yet even then she refuses to accept it, even while swarmed by the dead and that truth is all but staring her in the face. The final shot of the film when the police pull the car from the river is the icing on the cake and delivers a solid ending to what is ultimately, a beautiful film.

4 out of 5

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