These are notes I made on a recent viewing of the film ‘Carnival Of Souls’. This very low-budget but atmospheric film has become a horror film classic. The full film is embedded here from YouTube where it has been legally made available.
Excerpt from my Utah and Four Corners Trip log:
After we were done walking around the city, we had three hours before our flight. We could have sat around the airport or driven out I-80 and seen the Great Salt Lake. We did the latter. We passed by this large, weird building on the edge of the lake. I pointed it out to Evelyn and said that is where the dead dance after dark. Evelyn chuckled. Then it struck me that ‘Carnival Of Souls’ *was* filmed on the Great Salt Lake. ‘That’s the place!’ I told Evelyn.
Okay, let me tell you what this is all about. December 31, 1966, New Years Eve, I was alone. My parents were probably out at a party. At something like 1 AM there was a film coming on called ‘Carnival Of Souls’. Never heard of it. But, what the heck, it was an intriguing title. What I saw was just about the best horror film I ever have seen. It was made on what had to be a super-low budget, black-and-white, no gore, no special effects beyond stage make-up, but what a creepy film! It owes a lot to ‘Twilight Zone’ and to the traditions of the silent horror film. So for years I would ask other film fans what they thought of it. The response was uniform~…~’never heard of it.’ Eventually, I started running into people who had heard of it and most who like horror films think this one is pretty good. Much of it was filmed in Lawrence, Kansas, but part was filmed in this baroque, crumbling dance hall on the Great Salt Lake.
We went inside, 90% sure that this was the place in the film. Now it is called Saltair. What we found out is that there have been three baroque buildings on this site. The building in the film burned down in 1970 and was rebuilt not quite so ornately in 1983.
Notes made watching the film:
That was my introduction to Saltair and previously to ‘Carnival Of Souls’.
What is amazing about the film ‘Carnival Of Souls’ is that the cheap budget works so much in its favor. There is little unreal to get between the actors and the viewer. Other films have used their low budget to seem more real including ‘Night Of The Living Dead’, ‘Night Tide’ and some of the films done in the ‘found footage’ style (though definitely not ‘Cloverfield’).
The neighbour, Mr. Lindon, who looks really creepy, was actually a drama professor from University of Houston.
To further save on budget the film uses exclusively music from one organ. Much the same thing was done on one piano for ‘The Colossus Of New York’.
The film borrows heavily from the radio play ‘The Hitchhiker’ by Lucille Fletcher. The play was very successfully done on the radio twice by Orson Welles, once in 1941 and again in 1946. Only the second of these recordings survive. It was also done on the radio series ‘Suspense’ in 1942. Then it was remade on TV’s ‘The Twilight Zone’. The main character – male on the radio, Inger Stevens on ‘Twilight Zone’ – is driving across country after having just survived a car accident. Over and over again he/she passes the same mysterious Hitchhiker. If you have seen ‘Carnival Of Souls’, you know where this is going. The film also borrows from stories like ‘Ghost’ in which someone dead cannot get the living to see him.
(As a side note, author Lucille Fletcher was the wife of Bernard Herrmann who scored among much, much else, our previous discussion film ‘The 7th Voyage Of Sindbad’.)
I see some problems with the script. Nobody seems to be amazed or to question that Mary is underwater for hours and survives. It is hard to imagine the minister of Mary’s new church would fire her over just playing eerie music.
It is curious that when the living people cannot see Mary, she never tries touching one to see what happens. Evelyn point out that the other customer at the ticket window must be seeing Mary since he avoids bumping into her when both are at the same window.
It is not explained why a chirping bird is both times what brings her back from being undetectable. But that is an interesting touch. It is sort of nature brings her back into the living world.
Wes Craven re-made this film. I thought it was terrible and he does not seem to understand what made the first version good. More likely he just wanted to make a colour film with an active copyright to trade off the popularity of the older film.
The film seems either in public domain or its copyright is just not defended. That is both bad and good. It is a pity that the creative filmmakers are not getting anything back when this film shows up in a cheap multipack, but at least it is getting seen.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper