He’ll Geek is a multi-part exploration into one of my favorite movie sub-genres, creepy films set in carnivals. Nightmare Alley, discussed last week, was by no means the first, but was one of the best. I'm guessing the first was 1920’s German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. The King Kong of dark carnival epics has to be, hands down, Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks. My personal favorite is a super low budget, independent horror movie shot in Lawrence, Kansas in 1962 called Carnival Of Souls. Carnival Of Souls plays like Night Of The Living Dead before there was a Night Of The Living Dead. Fun fact! It owes its existence to the strange intersection of the Russian satellite Sputnik and the Mormon Church’s need to party.
On October 4, 1957, Americans learned that the Soviet Union had successfully launched the first man-made satellite into space. Dubbed, “Sputnik” it prompted a national panic prompted by the inconceivable reality that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in the space race. The finger of blame was pointed directly at the American Educational System, which had failed to produce a group of scientists that could beat the Ruskies.
This resulted in the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which poured over a billion dollars into American schools with an eye towards a new, reinvigorated approach to teaching science.
One of the ways science was introduced to students was the relatively new concept of educational films. Anybody who attended a public school in America prior to the 2000’s has seen these gems, whether they were explaining how volcanoes are formed or how different animals survive the winter.
One of the producers of educational films was a scrappy little outfit based in Lawrence, Kansas called Centron Films. Centron made shorts like “Halloween Safety” and the what-happens-if-you-get-VD classic, “The Innocent Party.” The Innocent Party was directed by the company’s in-house auteur, Herk Harvey.
One evening, late in 1960, Harvey was driving back to Kansas after directing a shoot in California. As he passed through Salt Lake City, Utah, he caught sight of a rambling, haunted structure, swallowed in shadows on the shores of the Great Lakes. Harvey was looking at the remains of the Saltair Pavilion. Resembling a brooding, Moorish castle, Saltair was built by the Mormom church in 1893. It was intended as a family destination, a place where God-fearing Mormons could God-fearingly frolic within the boundaries of God-fearing Mormon law. It does makes one wonder why God let it burn to the ground in 1925, but so it goes.
Saltair was rebuilt, and in 1931, almost burned to the ground again. It was repaired, but then The Great Salt Lake receded, and it was left standing there on two thousand pilings over a bunch of stinky wet salt and dead fish. Fun fact! The Pixies’ song Palace Of The Brine is about Saltair. It was this abandoned, spooky structure that Herk Harvey drove past at dusk on his lonely drive back home from L.A. He thought, “Gee. That would be a great place to make a horror movie.”
Harvey spoke with John Clifford, who wrote many of Centron’s films, and said, basically, “I want you to write a horror movie. All I care is that it ends with a bunch of dead people coming out of the Great Salt Lake and dancing around this abandoned pavilion.”
John said, “Okey doke” and went to work. What would emerge from this collaboration would come to be considered a cult classic. Like Nightmare Alley, it would have to wait a while to achieve its lofty status.
Carnival Of Souls was shot over three weeks for a budget of only $ 33,000, paltry even by 1961 standards. The film starts like a Centron-produced red asphalt movie. Mary Henry, played by Candace Hilligoss, is driving with her friends when they take part in an ill-advised street race. Their car plummets off a bridge into a river, and when it’s finally fished out, all of the occupants are dead. All except Mary Henry.
Mary goes back to her life. Or does she? She moves to Utah, where she’s been hired as a church organist, even though Mary casually professes to be not very religious at all (rare for '62). Once Mary hits the road for Utah, the existential shit hits the fan. She finds herself being followed by a strange, pale, cadaverous looking man, known only in the credits as The Man (and played by director Herk Harvey). Here the film reveals its biggest influence, The Hitch-Hiker by Lucille Fletcher. The Hitch-Hiker is about a young man on a cross-country road trip who is continually haunted, if that’s he right word, but a mysterious hitchhiker who, it turns out, may or may not be Death itself. The Hitch-Hiker was done as an episode of the radio series Suspense starring Orson Welles. And was later adapted by Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone.
Mary makes it to Utah where, like Herk Harvey, she finds her self inexplicably drawn to the Saltair Pavilion. She also suffers strange lapses of reality. She randomly appears as if she is invisible to those around her. In one quietly terrifying scene, she tries on dresses in a store, but then discovers that she can’t hear anyone. Nor can anyone hear, or see, her. No one save the mysterious, cadaverous Man.
After this episode, Mary becomes obsessed with the question of whether or not she’s actually alive, and is inexplicably drawn to the Saltair Pavilion. Things go from bad to worse as she finds herself wandering the Pavilion alone.
And then... not alone.
Carnival Of Souls didn’t make much of a splash when it was first released. It played mostly in drive-ins on a double bill with The Devil’s Messenger. Around 1989, as Twin Peaks and David Lynch fever hit in a big way, Carnival Of Souls made a comeback, being, as it was, a David Lynch film made before David Lynch started making them.
Carnival Of Souls is a great movie. It was made in too little time with too little money, but nevertheless, looks amazing. With their extensive experience making industrial films, Herk Harvey and the Centron crew knew what they are doing and managed to create a gorgeous, haunting, crisp little film. Story-wise, it’s a neat cousin to The Hitch-Hiker and An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, and is the predecessor to the Final Destination franchise. Carnival Of Souls. Essential viewing!
Next up, Tod Browning makes his dream project and trashes his career.