Carnival of Souls is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge story. If you don’t know what that means then you should get off Facebook and go watch The Twilight Zone. Believe me, you’ve seen some version of this story before.
Our story begins when Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) emerges, muddy but whole, from the river after the car she was in went off the side of a bridge during a street race. Suddenly we’re in a pipe organ warehouse where Mary is expertly playing the instrument. We learn she’s on her way to Salt Lake City (Sal Tlay Ka Siti), Utah where she’s starting work as a church organist. Mary is haunted by the ghoulish visage of a pale man throughout her cross-country trip. He isn’t the only noteworthy sighting catching her eye in the salt flats. She notices the outline of a strange enormous wooden structure in the distance of the great salt lake and becomes obsessed with it for the rest of the film.
Mary gets settled in her boarding house but quickly loses her job at the church after playing music that disturbs the priest so much that he dismisses her with an offer of absolution. They don’t explain what about the music is particularly disturbed but my guess is she mixed up her Church Organ Classic Sheet Music with her personal stash of Iron Butterfly. Mary’s been experiencing other odd happenings in addition to her sightings of The Man. She’s occasionally stricken with spells of deafness where she can’t hear anyone and no one can seem to hear her. In these episodes everyone around her seems to ignore her as if she isn’t there at all. She eventually snaps out of it but she becomes progressively shaken by each event.
Unfortunately for Mary, The Man isn’t the only ghoul chasing her. Another resident of her boarding house has been aggressively hitting on her, even emotionally manipulating her to sleep with him. He eventually convinces her to let him into her apartment only to witness a particularly frightening episode. Fleeing from the boarding house, Mary makes her way to the large wooden structure she saw from the road. Once inside she finds herself witness to a sort of macabre waltz of ghouls inhabiting the structure. She sees herself in the crowd dancing with The Man who’d been appearing to her. Once he notices her outside the ghoul group he leads the charge and the undead assemblage chase her till she collapses in the salt flats. Later, the car she crashed into the river is pulled from the depths, her body still buckled into the passenger seat. See? An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
The extremely low budget guerrilla filmmaking look of Carnival of Souls serves as a forerunner of Night of the Living Dead. Supposedly director Herk Harvey wanted to emulate the look of an Ingmar Bergman film, I haven’t seen too many but I think he succeeded. The Criterion Collection’s Carnival of Souls restoration looks so clean you could’ve convinced me it was shot last year by Robert Eggers.
Earlier I mentioned that Mary is a professional church organist. That’s an important aspect of her character, it’s the skill enabling her to work in Salt Lake City, but the organ also serves as the sole instrument in the film’s score. The movie abruptly transports Mary from the real world to some sort of purgatory populated by ghouls where she can see the living but can’t interact with them. In order to effectively clue the audience into that kind of transition you have to noticeably change the film’s presentation. It could be done with a white flash, you could remove all but one color from the picture, or a do Wayne’s World doodley-do dissolve. Whatever you choose, it just has to work. Carnival of Souls indicates the transition into Mary’s ghostly episodes by introducing scary church organ music. Movies like Don’t Breathe or A Quiet Place depend on the suspense silence brings to a film but Carnival of Souls uses the church organ to heighten a sense of stress like Bird Man used percussion instruments. Don’t let this aspect of the film escape your notice, it’s really quite exceptional.
I didn’t find the plot extremely engaging. I liked the visuals and the location dependent production value but the problem with many influential works of art is the artists they influence improve and expand on their ideas. That’s unfortunately how I experienced Carnival of Souls. There is the exception of the Mary’s harassing neighbor John Linden (Sidney Berger) who’s the perfect mix of all the worst qualities of Kenickie and all the good looks of Tim Roth. Achieving that level of creepiness is uncommon and worth appreciation.