If you think about it, movies are kind of like ghosts; they can fade from our view, disappear from our sight, and yet still linger in the air like an unexpected chill or lurch from their graves clutching at our memories and minds. That's what happened with Carnival of Souls, a 1962 black-and-white horror film that was made by director "Herk" Harvey and a like-minded group of first-time, last-time film makers taking a break from their day jobs at Centron, a studio devoted to industrial films and educational shorts. Carnival of Souls played a few drive-ins at the time of its release, but truly found an audience as late-night re-run material, popping up in the wee small hours of the morning to haunt and tease viewers with its slow, dreamlike sense of isolation, knockout cinematography, eerie score and the ripe and vital power of the lead performance from Candace Hilligoss. David Lynch and George A. Romero both cite Carnival of Souls as an influence on their work, but Carnival of Souls isn't just influential; it's worth seeing on its own as a very different kind of horror film, one that works as a dream-like slow poison as opposed to the short sharp shocks of modern horror films.
Carnival of Souls begins like a '50s youth-gone-wild film, as a group of joy riders careen down a dusty road; when one of the cars goes off a bridge, though, the fun is over. Mary (Hilligoss) staggers from the river muck like Ophelia saved from drowning, dirty and dazed; we follow her as she goes back to her life, working as a church organist in a small Kansas town. She's taking a job in Salt Lake City, and drives there with a faintly desperate air of aspiration in her gaze; she seems desperate for a new start. But her journey's haunted and troubled; faces materialize in the darkness, and a bizarre pavilion manifests itself out of the flat heartland, calling to her. She takes a room in a boarding house, trying to settle in and fending off the attentions of her boozy, woozy neighbor. But Mary's every effort begins to unravel; she's still followed by specters, troubled when a simple shopping trip descends into a nightmare where no one can see her, drawn over and over to the striking and spooky 'fun fair' she drove past on her way to town. The ultimate revelation of Mary's fate isn't shocking ... but the way Carnival of Souls reaches that destination is full of bizarre visions and troubling sights.