• Introduction to Carnival of Souls

    By John Clifford


    Herk Harvey described to me a strange outdoor ballroom he had seen rotting on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. . . and said he’d like to make a film about creatures rising from the lake and doing a dance of death in this pavilion. That was the image he had and he asked if I would create a script encompassing that.

    We decided the film would feature someone being chased, and since there wouldn’t be much budget, we couldn’t indulge in a lot of expensive effects.

    While thinking about a character and a story, I was also trying to think of locations that would put atmosphere on the screen at little expense. And one of the places I thought about was the Reuter Organ Company here in Lawrence, Kansas. Reuter builds church pipe organs—and I had seen the room where they assemble and test these exposed pipes. And I decided to use that organ-testing room. And that gave me the idea of making Mary Henry an organist. . .which led to her going to Salt Lake City to work in a church. . .which caused her to drive past the old Saltair pavilion and so forth. . .

    Once I established the lead character and the mood, the story flowed easily. I had one of those writer’s experiences where a film story just sort of unreeled in my mind—and night after night it was there on the mental screen like a serial.

    I didn’t so much invent the story and write it as I did write the story and then see what I had invented.

    From the writer’s angle, I was freed by the fact that I had no need to worry about Hollywood formats. I didn’t have to conform in any way. I knew who the producer and director would be, and that he would be open to whatever I proposed. It is, for instance, one of the few films from that period, or even today, that has no love story or romance, even as a subplot.

    Also, you know, considering the miniscule budget, there are some good things in Carnival of Souls as far as direction and cinematography and so forth. I don’t know all the director’s secrets, but I do know I have a writer’s secret in Carnival that helps make it stay in the minds of some of its fans. Apparently, none of the many people who have written about the film has noticed it: I decided early on to give the heroine no real sympathy or understanding from any other character. For the viewer, there is no relief from her dilemma, no catharsis except what viewers create for themselves. I believe that is one reason the film tends to linger in the mind.

    I wrote fast and had little time for revision, and it was my first film, so some of the lines translated into awkward and overblown dialogue. While many commentators noted that flaw, surprisingly few seemed to know that screenwriters also write the quiet, eerie, atmospheric scenes.

    Reporters have asked why Carnival of Souls is still recirculating, playing theaters 30 years after it was made—when hundreds of other low-budget black-and-white films have been long forgotten. All I know is that the movie was created, directed, filmed and edited by people who loved the idea of making a picture—not to exploit anything or fit into any special niche, but just to make the best film they could with the limited resources available to them.

4 comments

  • By Wes Shepherd
    October 08, 2009
    04:31 PM

    I just watched this movie a couple of weeks ago, and thought it was one of the best works I've ever seen The story works, the filming is excellent, the mood is perfect. Even the little things, like the voice in the background of the young drag racer lying about what the girls had been doing---it all fits to form a great film, well deserving the classic status it has achieved.
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  • By sakara
    April 09, 2011
    10:42 AM

    A great movie, which obviously inspired George Romero's LIVING DEAD series. The scene of the CARNIVAL ghosts in the water was used in lots of late night horror movie tv credits in the 1970s. The scenes of a long-ago bus terminal, and long-ago arcade games are also terrrific. But, this and such movies like THE SHOOTING and HELL IN THE PACIFIC could still be regarded as lengthened TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, though that isn't neccesarily a bad thing.
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  • By Anemone
    October 17, 2011
    06:58 PM

    Unbelievably thrilling and professionally done for an independent film of early 1960s. Few works i.e. HAUNTING could stand close to 'Carnival of Souls' . The protagonist is strong and keeps the viewer's attention tied to her all the way. And til the end we wonder - where does she belong Even after we' ve seen the end of the story we still wonder because not everything seems so clear as it could be. And this constant ambient eerie feeling the whole story exudes and wider space left for imagination than other films of the time is what makes this work great. One can feel and praise the writer and director for not crushing the flow of story with ridiculous special effects, cheap sexploitation tricks like vampire flicks and out-of place romance. I dare not place this film in B category only in independent filmmaking section - much more prominent and sophisticated than so called A-list. Saltair Carnival pavilion is enchanting and spooky - a stunning asset of the film. One day I would love to see it.
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  • By Cinematic Cteve
    October 20, 2013
    10:21 PM

    One of the greatest no-budget chillers. I first saw this during its rediscovery in 1989, and eventually came to own an itchy and scratchy VHS tape of the film. Later I found a cheap DVD with a poor transfer of Carnival -- and I still watched it to death. Now, finally, I am getting the Criterion edition and I cannot wait to see it again with what promises to be a pristine transfer to digital. This is a picture best enjoyed well past 2 a.m., preferably during a wild thunderstorm. That eerie organ score and stark black & white cinematography will get under your skin and lease permanent space within your mind. Fair warning. The craftsmanship is remarkable for a film that was purportedly made for $30,000. Unquestionably influenced Romero and Lynch. You can see its lasting imprint on everything from Jacob's Ladder (1990) to Insidious (2011). Carnival of Souls is essential viewing for horror fans, those who are intrigued by the offbeat, and philosophers of certain disciplines, especially devotees of Heidegger. Approach this film with an open mind and receive it on its own terms. You'll be rewarded.
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