Some call CARNIVAL OF SOULS, the cheap as they come, sometimes poorly acted, sometimes barbarically edited, sometimes inadequately dubbed drive-in movie from 1962 a masterpiece and one of those “some people” is me. If you have never seen CARNIVAL OF SOULS before, rather than continue reading this flimsy appraisal, watch it HERE. I don’t want to spoil the surprise ending for you even though chances are that just by reading the words “surprise ending” you instantly know the score. Watch it now. I’ll still be here when you are done.
Yep, it’s that OWL CREEK BRIDGE, “Guess what? You’re dead!” zing again! Don’t let that final reveal spoil the whole movie for you, back when CARNIVAL was released everybody and their brother SHYAMALAN hadn’t milked the concept into oblivion yet. Honestly, I think you can just take that last scene out of the movie if you want. When all is said and done I’m not sure it really matters. It’s not that unique to be “already dead.” If you look far enough into the future every one of us is submerged in our own version of that car and we too are “already dead.” Just because we are all dead in the eventual future is no reason to feel blue. Life is a carnival of rich and exciting experiences to enjoy. Not convinced? Get in line behind Mary Henry, the driving force of CARNIVAL.
CARNIVAL is a beautiful film; it’s just plain cinematic poetry. Point out any flaw you like and I’ll tell you how it only enhances the overall ambiance. Minimalist, pure, gushing with the title’s promised “soul,” this is a film that transcends beyond mere entertainment to become a work of art. Made by moonlighting educational filmmakers, CARNIVAL has the omnipotent gusto of a monument that built itself. Director HERK HARVEY was inspired by a chance sighting of an abandoned pavilion and writer JOHN CLIFFORD admits that the script came to his mind fully formed and seemingly wrote itself. In other words, the universe demanded this film be made so naturally it’s a perfect beast that can be interpreted a zillion ways until the world explodes! We can go on and on about the stark, vivid photography, the haunting all-organ score and the film’s vast influence (go ahead and imagine a world where CARNIVAL OF SOULS never came to be, just don’t be surprised when some of your GEORGE ROMERO and DAVID LYNCH movies disappear too!) but let’s move past that because more importantly in my opinion, there’s something about Mary.
Mary Henry as portrayed by the STRASBERG trained beauty CANDACE HILLIGOSS is one of the most fascinating and unique characters in all of horror. With the exception of being easy on the eyes, Mary relies on none of the characteristics usually employed to gain audience sympathy and she’s all the more remarkable for it. Mary is a play for pay church organist with an apathetic stance on religion. I’m thinking that in 1962 this may have appeared a worthy sin to conjure supernatural comeuppance but today she simply appears frank. She’s clearly conscious of what she’s supposed to say to please others but it’s just not in her to do so. From what we get to know about Mary her stance makes perfect sense. Religion in a way requires you to give in to something bigger than yourself, to hand your reigns over to another force, something Mary is clearly loathe to do. Furthermore, anything that even vaguely tempts rhapsody might revolt her. Mary is just not feeling it.
Once again, the fact that Mary’s experience is revealed to be posthumous does not matter. I’d say the nightmare maze she endures is an exaggerated display of her genuine feelings about her place in the world. Not only does she find no joy or solace in religion, she appears equally ambivalent about psychiatry, romance, alcohol and apparently ballroom dancing. She’s basically crossed off and rejected every life-crutch in the book! The pinnacle of her dreads involves coupling with “the man.” (Director HARVEY portrays “the man” I’m sure officially due to budget constrictions but in reality due to this film just can’t stop being genius.) I’m sorry but Mary is some kind of wonderful. She’s an existentialist outsider and if you think she’s quick on her feet attempting to outrun death, just see how this gal books when she’s trying to outrun life!
When we first encounter Mary Henry she is passively involved in a drag race that ends with her female companions dead. Next she’s off to start a new life in a new town with a new job. Mary is a young woman who is just starting off in the world but the only thing she encounters in it is alienation. Various parental or authority figures attempt to maneuver her in the directions that they desire, to teach her the “rules of the game” but she just won’t budge. It’s tempting to chalk her position up to residue left by her accident but that just can’t be the case. Mary has a distinct viewpoint, a firm, fully formed outlook that could not have come to her overnight. She’s quite simply not buying whatever everybody is trying to sell her and the consequence of not going with the flow is exclusion. She adamantly states that she has little interest in the comfort or company of other people yet she eventually ends up yelling, “I don’t want to be alone!” Oh, if only you could have it both ways Mary!
On the surface CARNIVAL glides around like a ghostly supernatural spook show but many of the scenes of horror we witness have more than a passing resemblance to what you’d expect to find in an alien “pod people” scenario. There are plenty of shots of Mary running down oppressive city streets obviously estranged from the general public and she eventually succumbs to being stomped out by a mob. Death is omnipresent but “death” means meshing and succumbing to the crowd. Above all else the message seems to be that she can either join/integrate or slowly cease to exist. I read the ghouls that chase her as dark shadow images of the “living” who are attempting to snuff her out with equal determination.
Mary experiences two specific dissociative episodes. On the surface they read like periods where death has caught up to her or foreshadows of her ultimate fate. The first occurs after a rare pleasant experience with another human being, a notably androgynous sales lady. Is Mary so rigid that she can’t allow herself even a moment of pleasure? Has the saleswoman thrown her into homosexual panic? Mary’s existential dilemma overrides such notions. I believe she has come to the reverse SEX AND THE CITY conclusion that the approved uniform offers her nothing and that low and behold, consumerism does not fill the void. Her plight to maintain her sense of identity is not aided by the purchase of a dress. Yet another life-crutch kicked to the curb.
During Mary’s spell she spies workers jack-hammering in the street. The jack-hammers are powered by an engine marked “joy.” Is this some heavy handed symbolism backing up the idea that Mary’s issue is merely some sort of sexual repression? I see them more as accidental representatives of the oppressive forces trying to bully Mary into feeling something she doesn’t.
Mary’s next “loss of self” episode occurs when her primary bugaboo is triggered. Her car needs fixing and feeling vulnerable she asks if she can remain in it as it is repaired. As the car is placed in a lift and raised into the air, Mary has lost all control. (You can’t blame her for freaking really, the last time Mary let someone else be in control of the car things didn’t end up too good.) The underbelly of the vehicle is exposed and “the Man” draws closer. She is thrown into another frenzy of identity crisis and she ends up roaming the streets pleading to be acknowledged but invisible to all. This episode concludes like the first with Mary touching a tree and noticing a bird song in order to gain entry back to herself. Is Mary connecting to a more “natural” existence the answer?
If Mary wants to find a more “natural” existence she’s going to have to do it on her own and with zero support from those around her. I believe we do get a glimpse of her with her guard down at one point as she is playing her organ. It’s the closest thing to a sex scene we’ll get. If you approach CARNIVAL as simple horror she seems possessed but if you consider her larger drama she is at last free. Mary “gets down” playing the organ. She is filled with spirit and soul as she free styles some crazy goth tuneage. (Her shoes even disappear. ) Her one act of full self expression is thwarted by a priest that reprimands her for being “blasphemous.” Just like that bird in the tree, Mary does have a song to sing. It’s just not a song that some people want to hear.
Women were under much societal pressure to conform to certain roles in 1962 but let’s not throw out the universal baby with the feminist bath water. The world has expectations for all of us and those expectations are not always based on who we are as individuals. To me this is not a movie about death or heaven or hell and it’s most certainly not about a fragile gal in need of the boinking cure. To me the real undercurrent of horror throughout comes from the fear of losing one’s personal identity to the crowd and the counter fear of expulsion if one does not march in line. Ghouls or no ghouls, reality or dream, Mary buries the lede mid-film when she states simply, “I don’t belong in the world.”
It’s possible that Mary was designed by her architects to be a cold, frustratingly distant glass blond. If that’s the case they have happily failed, thanks in large part to the depths of HILIGOSS. I don’t really care about a filmmaker’s intentions anyhow. I’d never let a chef tell me what their food tastes like. If CARNIVAL is meant to be a simple, “You’re dead!” ghost tale, well, I’m sorry guys, you screwed up and made something more. Victory and heroics do not necessarily walk hand in hand and regardless of her outcome I see Mary as a noble figure. Her sword is her ability to question the status quo and to reject the false identities that are thrust upon her by others. She may end up submerged in a car but like I said before, don’t we all? I’ll close with my favorite frame in the whole film. In the top right hand corner you’ll see the face of the world’s preferred version of Mary; dead or alive, the bottom left displays the enigmatic real deal.