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Review: Carnival of Souls

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Carnival of Souls

When a drag race turns deadly, a young woman finds herself trapped in a new reality, uncertain whether she's in her own world or imprisoned some demented type of purgatory.

by Gabriel Gonzalez
Carnival of Souls

Not long ago I had a late night waking jolt. I awoke in a haze of cold fever and with a pounding heart. It was a moment of perfect grey. Time turned her back on me and I glimpsed how it would feel to be truly disconnected from the world; the horrible sense that I no longer existed. After a few moments, I got up, had a sip of water and settled myself back onto planet Earth.

A few days later I rented CARNIVAL OF SOULS. A low budget Independent horror film made in 1962 in Kansas. I found this film in the cult horror section as I flipped rapidly through the aging VHS boxes. Her face shot out at me at once. Her name is Candace Hilligoss and she was a pale canvas of beauty (not unlike Catherine Deneuve or Mia Farrow; the horror queens of luminous loneliness). I grabbed the box and rushed my rental from the grumpy (and I’m convinced Wycan nudist, but that is another tale) clerk-man. I drove home in my zone. My movie viewing experience is quite an elaborate (and surely enlightened) process and I had to begin the process before I entered my home, lest I flounder upon the pressure. When all the components of a perfect movie viewing experience were confirmed (those components will be posted for the public shortly), only then did I allow the tape playing machine to work it’s magic.

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How devilish I thought it was to begin a film with a drag race. Not just any drag race, but one initiated by two hip (and no doubt high) college boys and accepted by three bored but brazen dolls. One of these dolls immediately showed herself to be distinct (and maybe a touch longer in the tooth) from the others. This was Candace Hilligoss and the director/producer, Herk Harvey, wasted no time in delivering the goods. In my mind she was already a lovely ghost (but I am getting ahead of myself.) Their drag race (and flirtation) was off and running. Something about the style of the film struck me immediately but I hesitated to pinpoint what it was until further investigation had been achieved. I greedily followed the awkwardly shot race to its catastrophic end. A bridge over muddy waters sealed the fate of the doe-eyed dolls when the college boys mischievously bumped the enemy motor car into the beckoning lake. Three dolls had been lost to the world. I was shocked.

The search party (mostly male crew members nodding their heads clumsily at the lake) went about there business and all seemed lost. As I braced myself for a "haunted ladies of the lake" type tale, it happened. Like a shipwrecked survivor in an Italian love story, Candace Hilligoss made her miraculous reappearance on the muddy banks of the lethal lake. She stumbled and staggered, but never lost her footing as she emerged from the lake a very wet and truly tattered survivor.

I was looking forward to the trial, however, it must have been a quick lynching (as was the custom in the 1960’s South) for the story skipped formalities and turned to Candace’s departure from this awful town. As luck would have it, Candace was a studied church organist and a town in another state was ready for her services. This is when a crucial character made his entrance into the story; the movie’s music. Candace played the giant town organ one last time with such detached delicacy, that I couldn’t help but search the edge of the screen for The Phantom of the Opera himself to appear. Her song had ended softly when the music supervisor took his cue and concocted a similar score, just as lovely, spare and foreboding, which would accompany Candace throughout her journey. With a promise never to return to the town and an acknowledgement that she felt somehow changed, our heroine drove out of town, past the bridge of death and set out to find her new organ.

The journey to the new town, the road, the motor car, even Candace borrowed dutifully from Mr. Alfred Hitchcock and Ms. Janet Leigh to recreate the nagging sensation that trouble was lurking no matter how fast the motor car could flee. This is when HE appeared. Special effects make-up artists of the world revolt! I wanted nothing to do with this banal and blotchy apparition who seemingly set out to haunt our heroine. Why was Max Factor not hired for the job of special effects makeup? I was completely sympathetic to Candace as she attempted in vain to express horror at what could only ever elicit heckling.

The location scout was obviously a more competent artiste and his remarkable discovery captured the attention of the poorly haunted Candace. In the distance, to the east of the road, lay the outline of an impressive pavilion of some sort with Moorish towers. Candace seemed to be drawn to this pavilion. Only the exit into her new town took her attention away. The first sign of the type of folks inhabiting this town became evident when the ancient landlady (surely the special effects make-up artist’s mother) nervously showed Candace the room then nervously left the room. Candace was now in the town where acting dare not speak it’s name.

The following day is when the CARNIVAL OF SOULS became truly creepy. Our heroine encountered some town inhabitants. From the stuffy church folk, to the sweaty perverted neighbor, I wasn’t sure if I should fear the blotchy apparition who kept showing up or the town and its weirdos. Either way I was beginning to feel uneasy. The stark minimal score and dialogue were taking hold of my senses. I knew Candace’s world would soon begin to unravel. In a department store changing room at that! I appreciated that the special effects supervisor refrained from overdoing this pivotal scene. Instead, Candace felt the odd and creamy breeze which sent her running out into the streets terrified that she was now invisible to the world.

A sip of drinking fountain water brought her back to visibility and into the arms of a passer-by psychologist (this town was truly horrifying!) The Psychologist and his ranting stole from the fevered pitch of Candace’s adventure, but I was determined to hold tight. I would be repaid kindly for my patience. Candace returned to the pavilion with Moorish towers. The pavilion was a magnificent abandoned amusement park adjacent to a salt lake long dried out. Her visit to this abandoned pavilion was shot beautifully. The director must have recently attended a Jean Cocteau retrospective, for so much was done with shadows, reflections, very long and very close shots and little else. Satisfied that the pavilion held no secrets, she returned to town.

Candace’s slimy neighbor was waiting for her at the apartment building. I was so horrified when she accepted a date invitation from this sleazy man, that I almost didn’t recover my wits in time to witness her profanely possessed organ playing. This exciting and Oscar-worthy performance got Candace fired and damned by the stuffy church folk and sent her spiraling into madness and desperation and lots of running.

This movie was becoming a 50’s melodramatic Twilight Zone tale. I won’t give away the ending, however, I must add that the whole experience brought back to my mind the waking jolt from a few days previous. I also didn’t want a blotchy and grey apparition to take away my existence. I understood Candace for running. More horrifying than losing your existence has to be the physical manifestation of the after-life’s welcoming reception. There must be a way to hire a better make-up artist when the time comes to meet our maker…