Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is a passenger in an automobile driving through Kansas with three friends when they are bothered by a group of young men in another car who want to impress them with a race. The driver is trying to get away but the other car continues to pester them until they reach a bridge over a wide river and a terrible accident occurs. Panicking, the driver loses control of her vehicle and crashes through the barrier into the water below. A couple of hours later, the river is being dragged for bodies and a small crowd has gathered, but they are all shocked to see the muddy figure of Mary stumbling out of the water and onto the bank. She appears to be the only survivor...
After a lowly start as an unsuccessful regional American independent, Carnival of Souls built up a strong reputation over the years as one of the most enduring, even influential, cult favourites of its day. It was conceived by its producer and director Herk Harvey and scripted by John Clifford; both were makers of instructional films and anyone who grew up watching public information films knows how creepy they can be. That amateurish air never leaves this feature, and in fact enhances it for a slicker work would not stick so doggedly in the mind as Carnival does.
Just like those instructional shorts, this film is a cautionary tale although the manner in which you apply its lessons may be a little more obscure. As with many of those shorts, it showcases a car crash, but it's as if the filmmakers wanted to go further into that world where danger and indeed death lurk around every corner and the unwary had better watch out, so left their cameras running. Unwary Mary gradually twigs that all is not right in her world as she is pursued by an entity who wants her to accept something she is in denial about, but the story eschews any easy explanations.
It may be the old "Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" tale that Ambrose Bierce brought us, but there's a metaphysical longing about Carnival that rises above its decidedly non-professional stylings. Once Mary gets into town, it emerges that she's a church organist, but not a religious one as she has no faith. She is a dislocated soul in many respects, preferring to to be apart from other people who she feels little connection to, that is until she realises she might be alone forever if she's not careful. Taking a new job in a different town, she moves into a boarding house which she shares with a lecherous, borderline acoholic neighbour, Mr Linden (Sidney Berger) and a nosy landlady, Mrs Thomas (Frances Feist).
Linden does his best to get himself into Mary's bed, but she's justifiably not interested, what she eventually wants companionship after denying it for so long. However, the people she encounters aren't worth her time: Linden is a sleaze, the minister at the church sacks her for playing "profane" music (she's actually having an episode) and the doctor who tries to assist her in her confusion is too wrapped up in his own theories. However, it's the eerie, supernatural sequences that really stand out as the ghoulish mystery man (Harvey in makeup) turns up at unwelcome points to freak Mary out, staring in her passenger window while she drives, looming at the bottom of the stairs, and most memorably dancing at the old and abandoned carnival out in the desert with a collection of his fellow apparitions. The ending may be no surprise, but packed with terrific images, Carnival of Souls is like a dream somehow captured on film. Music by Gene Moore.