Carnival of Souls should have befallen a watery grave decades ago, and yet, like its inveterate crash zooms, or the nagging figments of a nightmare or a half-imagined shard of memory, it lodges itself somewhere in the dankest, most indecipherable thickets of the mind. Who knows where it is stored precisely. Probably in the muddy, constantly-slipping-away but always-haunting-you halls next to Eraserhead and you parent’s wedding videos, a duality that very much encompasses the film’s bemusing, off-off-Broadway existence.
It’s the sort of cinematic accident that couldn’t have been actively constructed, but simply siphoned up from the cracks of the earth and into the vaguely malevolent air around you, air that is first tested when Candance Hilligoss, as Mary Henry, wanders up the dusty shoals of a mud-caked river as the lone survivor of a car wreck. Inexplicably, she continues on her mission, driving the salt flats of the American West in search of a job as an organ player she’s been offered, all while the film trails her like a phantom, life clinging to her at a remove as spirits and visions haunt her with increasing frequency.
Director Herk Harvey’s sabbatical from his day-job as an industrial filmmaking is easily discussed as a mystery or a behind-the-scenes story, a film notable for its sheer existence, as the product of a group of non-professional women and men with a camera, if you will. Fine, but I prefer to focus on how the miracle of its existence – its inauspicious insouciance and dreadfully simple, unmodulated-by-the-rules filmmaking – functions within the film, rather than as backstory for its production. The fact is, Harvey’s middle American milieu casts an ennui over the film that haunts it like a ghost, evoking a sort of diminutive humanity constantly pestered by a world that seems to exist at a distance from one’s heart. The film’s bargain-bin economy envisions a minimalist world troubled by its lack of ornamentation, stripped away to the barest of essentials as a woman wanders and an empty world fights back. The film’s cheapness, its inability to afford the niceties of set dressing or evocative lighting, is its very beauty. The more expressive, action-packed style of the canonical horrors from the era would sabotage the ghostly gloom of Harvey’s vacant vision of life as an unoccupied, desolate night of the living dead.
Speaking of which, visions of Romero dance around your head in the guerrilla-style short-selection that seems perpetually fluid, fluxional, and in danger of ripping apart until the celluloid fractures before our very eyes. Lynch, too, likely views Harvey as his real film school, borrowing Carnival’s grotesque, uncovered Americana for his own portraits of American melodrama (and the beguiling mixture of maximalist melodramatic camera gestures and acting clashing against the barren minimalism of the sets and mise en scene is the defining oddity, and wonder, of Carnival of Souls). Still, Harvey’s work isn’t Lynch’s, less prone as it is to playing tricks on us or tendentiously tightroping around our own sanity; Carnival seems too lost to begin with to actively play around with its audience’s mindsets.
A lost aimlessness that is a boon for its existence, all things told. Shambling around is Carnival of Souls‘ middle name, and the cold desolation beset on the film by its discount production affords it an oddly matter-of-fact terseness that contrast with the heated, bubbling B-pictures of its era. The initially amusing gracelessness of the scene transitions eventually transform into an immutable harbinger of discombobulation, an almost surrealist accident-of-edits that buttresses the film’s oblong shape and discordant texture, as though the film isn’t sure of where to go next. Unlike many (most) modern films, Carnival of Souls bamboozles us not with the byzantine, carefully-calibrated machiantions of a contorted screenplay, but via its seeming harmlessness, its sloppiness, and its simplicity.
Case in point, the anti-elegance of the manic carnival near the end of the film is all the more unnerving for how efficiently cruel the film’s shot-selection is; this is not the hedonistic filmmaking of a Welles or a Kubrick (wonderful as they are), but something more decrepit that is troubling precisely for how unmodulated it is. This isn’t a manicured vision of walking death abetted by grandiose lighting or serpentine shadows, but a bruised portrait of a person barely making it through life from a group of non-filmmakers who knew the turmoil of day-to-day industrial 9-to-5 living; the film itself barely seems to be surviving from scene to scene, like it might pass away from gauntness right before our eyes. A ghostly pallor encircles the film via its very undoctored existence as a rock-bottom specter that just happened to slip into the cinematic cult realm. The dirtiness in the film’s visuals wasn’t ironically primped and prefigured, as is true for most films; instead, the oddly from-the-heart Carnival captures the docudrama dirtiness and instability of filming the world around while uncertain as to the future of your film’s very existence.
The sublimity of its death-marked existence aside, the film does exhibit a winking playfulness in Harvey’s undeniably cheeky behind-the-scenes gestures, the result of having seen too many midnight fright flicks. The camera occasionally loses itself in moments of tempestuous fear, radiating in fits of frenzy or floating off like a phantom on a carousel. The orgiastic organ – overbearing music almost constantly played at a low hum so that it festers in our mind until it attains a grim, unending deathlessness – slips from the film’s non-diegesis to its diegesis in an amusing not-quite-metatextual gesture that foretells the film’s eventual conclusion.
But again, it’s the odd concoction of such wishful stylistic bravado set against the bare faculties of improvisational, DIY reality that allow the film to leave its mark, the latter turning the former into respites of torrid chaos creeping into an otherwise crestfallen, distressed film. The energy of the film’s more cinematic gestures becomes less ornamental and more devious and damaged when they’re carried off with such graceless gusto, as though the film is slipping from catatonia into a fit of life itself. No longer are we watching preordained moments of baroque grandeur with specific, clear meaning appended to them. Instead, watching the camera slip from a crawl to a flurry in Carnival befuddles us because it does so seemingly without purpose, acclimatizing us to the tensions in its very existence, like the film is anxious and unsure of itself and testing out new tones before our eyes. Like it is forever incomplete.
This contradiction in style is distinctly off-kilter, surreal as an end product rather than an intention. The camera runs away from obvious, prepackaged symbols (Harvey didn’t have the funding for symbols, obviously, nor did he have the same pseudo-intellectual stodginess more successful filmmakers were often prone to). Instead, the from-the-hip style comes to life via the fact that should never have found life to begin with – the film’s barely-existent, obviously cheap look and rejection of normative narrative flow are so successful because the film never seems to follow a prescribed channel. It’s always slipping away from itself, and us. Without the quality of life improvements most films afford us – good taste and common sense and all that – Carnival truly lives a life apart. Because it constantly seems to be threatening its own death before our eyes, each moment is all the more momentary and without a defined end-point, and thus more alive
While overburdening a film with event can result in a water-logged feature mechanically prey to its script, Carnival always seems to be swimming around in its watery grave like Davy Jones itself, raised from the dead before our very eyes in a feat of not-quite-complete necromancy. And with all due respect paid to those perpetually tested by spoilers (as though plot secrets bear meaningfully on a movie’s value), The Sixth Sense has absolutely nothing on the 54 year old Carnival of Souls. Its ghostly existence, foibles and fallibility encrusted as strengths, always seems tentative to say the least, and for the film’s eventual, existential subject matter about the tentative nature of life, no influx of money could stylistically accentuate the content with more effect than that.