Follow TV Tropes


Film / Carnival of Souls

Go To

"What happened to the others? How did she escape? She doesn't know. Indeed, she doesn't care. She's a brittle, cynical woman who works as a church organist but doesn't take religion seriously. That's despite the fact that the organ seems to be trying to tell her something. There is a sensational overhead shot in an organ factory, looking down past the steep and angled pipes to her diminutive figure far below, and another effective moment when she's in a car on a deserted highway and the radio only picks up organ music."

Carnival of Souls is a low-budget ($33,000 in 1962note ) American B-Movie horror film produced, directed, and co-written by (and co-starring) Herk Harvey, which did mediocre business upon release but has become enough of a Cult Classic to merit inclusion in The Criterion Collection. In fact, some people consider it to be the best "B" movie ever made; both David Lynch and George A. Romero have cited it as an inspiration, with Romero stating that Carnival of Souls gave him the idea for Night of the Living Dead.

A young lady named Mary (Candace Hilligoss) is riding in a car with her girlfriends when another car pulls up and challenges them to a drag race. Mary's friend unwisely accepts, and the two cars zoom off on a high-speed race, which ends when Mary's car plunges off of a bridge and into a river.

Police and first responders are dragging the river in search of the car when a dazed Mary staggers onto dry land. After she recovers she leaves town, having been hired to play the organ at a church in Utah. All is not well, however, as Mary starts to experience terrifying visions of a ghoulish, undead man (Harvey) stalking her. When she isn't having these horrifying visions, she is experiencing other terrifying interludes when, for no apparent reason, no one can see or hear her. And then there's the creepy abandoned old amusement park, which Mary inexplicably finds herself drawn to...

One of only a few films to be riffed twice by Mike Nelson: First on the colorized DVD released by Legend Films, the second time with help from Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett on RiffTrax.

In 1998, a Wes Craven-produced In Name Only remake was released, which received mixed, mostly-negative reviews. While it, too, is available on DVD, it's a pretty safe bet that it won't ever get a Criterion release.

This Movie Contains Examples of:

  • Christianity is Catholic: The priest wears a collar, and the church looks like it could be a cathedral, but he could also be an Episcopal priest (in Real Life, the church was an Episcopal church in Lawrence, Kansas). He amusingly notes that it's not the biggest church in Salt Lake City.
  • Cold Open: Opens with a guy asking Mary's friend for a race.
  • Dances and Balls: Part of the Carnival's backstory. Played for Horror later on in the main story.
  • Dead All Along: Mary drowned in the car crash, and the rest of the story unfolds with her as a ghost, instinctually resisting the trip to the underworld.
  • The Dead Can Dance: Mary spies a danse macabre in the carnival tent.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mary when she has coffee with John. This part honestly plays more like a period sit-com than a horror movie.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: At times it seems like Mary will start loosening up when she's with John, but she sees The Man and freaks out, and goes back to being cold and anti-social.
  • Downer Ending: Mary is chased down and swarmed by the Man's ghosts. The next morning, the other main characters manage to dredge up the car she crashed in with her body still inside.
  • Evil Laugh: It's subtle but you can hear the ghouls let out an evil chuckle as they chase Mary down.
  • Finally Found the Body: How The Reveal is made.
  • Foreshadowing: There's a clue early in the movie. One of the searchers at the river says that the car has been in the river for three hours. Shortly after this, Mary is staggering up on the riverbank. Where has she been all that time?
  • Gilligan Cut: After Mary freaks out in front of Mrs. Thomas, the landlady warns her not to drink any coffee, but Mary insists that it won't keep her awake. Cue the next shot of Mary lying in bed, wide awake.
  • The Grim Reaper: What The Man seems to be.
  • Haunted Heroine: Mary, once a calm and self-possessed woman, grows steadily more unglued as The Man stalks her every movement.
  • Hazardous Water: Mary's friend has an accident while they are driving, with the car veering off a bridge and into a river.
  • Hot And Cold: John sees Mary as this. First she acts cold and doesn't want to see him, then flirts with him when he brings her coffee, before turning down a date and then agreeing soon after. She acts bored on his date before telling him she wants to be with him that night before finally acting disinterested. He's understandably confused.
  • I'm Standing Right Here: One of the clues that Mary is a ghost is that a during a few scenes, people stop being able to perceive her at all.
  • Ineffectual Loner: Mary, until she no longer wants to be alone. This entire movie could arguably be summed up as "being Mary sucks".
  • Informed Attribute: The song that gets Mary fired sounds slightly dissonant, but not much different from everything else we hear her play in the film, including the song she played when she introduced herself to the Priest. But he acts like she used the organ to open a portal to Hell itself.
    • The reason for the Priest's offense is more obvious when you consider that Mary's music changes from sacred church music into profane, carnivalesque music during her trance.
  • In the End, You Are on Your Own: Finally Mary has to go to the pavilion and face the ghouls by herself.
  • Jerkass:
    • John, who is sleazy, creepy, temperamental, and all-around unempathetic.
    • The priest turns into one when he snaps at her and fires her for playing "blasphemous" music when she's clearly disturbed. He feebly tries to offer the church's help as she walks out, but it just makes him seem even more insensitive. Downplayed, as he is later seen in the search party looking for Mary.
  • Jump Cut: There's a jump cut from Mary trying to get through a locked gate at the bus station to Mary outside, walking down a sidewalk. This just underlines the unreality of her situation.
  • Kubrick Stare: The Man gives a positively chilling one when he emerges from under the water of the amusement park pool.
  • Looks Like Cesare: The Man, to some extent, with his pale skin and dark-circled eyes. Later we see a bus full of ghouls, and a danse macabre at the pavilion, with all the ghouls having that same Cesare look.
  • Match Cut: From Mary turning the ignition on her car to Mary pushing a button on her pipe organ.
  • Mirror Monster: A especially creepy scene has The Man appear in her mirror and lay his head on her shoulder.
  • Motifs: Water is either present or referenced to in a lot of the scary stuff which makes sense given the opening and the Twist Ending. It's inconsistent though as some of The Man's appearances have nothing to do with water.
    • The soundtrack is mostly pipe organs, which is what Mary's job is - church organ player.
  • Mr. Exposition: Several examples.
  • No Name Given: The Man
  • Oh, Crap!: An oddly-delayed version of this occurs during the second visit to the psychologist.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: If you love this sort of thing, Carnival of Souls will be your dream movie; if you hate it, steer clear.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: The Twist Ending reveals that Mary's a ghost. Sometimes she is corporeal and can interact with the living world, but sometimes she seems to pass into some sort of ghost dimension where no one can see or hear her (and she can't hear them).
  • Parental Abandonment: Inverted. Mary refuses to visit her folks after the accident.
  • Perpetual Smiler: The Man and not in a comforting way either.
  • Practical Effects: The scene where The Man's face appears on Mary's car window as she's driving had to be done in camera due to the film's low budget. Herk sat in the back seat with a flashlight while a mirror rigged to the car's side projected his reflection on the window.
  • Preacher Man: The minister who hires Mary as an organist.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The Twist Ending leaves many unresolved questions: was the whole story Mary's Dying Dream? Or did her ghost travel to Utah and did the characters who interacted with her not realize that she was an apparition? Or were they also ghosts? Who was The Man? The Grim Reaper? Someone she knew in a previous life? Her consort for the afterlife coming to claim her for himself?
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: John bails when Mary's screams of terror in her room freak him out.
  • Silent Antagonist: The Man never speaks, only smiling evilly.
  • Slasher Smile: The Man is almost always like this, but the other Undead only break into a smile near the end.
  • Stalker with a Crush: John, as well as a possible way to interpret The Man.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Mary is oddly inconsistent in her behavior towards John. She blows him off when he first tries to talk his way into her bed, which makes sense enough as he is a creep. But the next morning she is friendly and flirty when he comes over with coffee.
  • Surreal Horror: A young woman plagued with a series of terrifying visions of a ghoul stalking her.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Mary turns out to be a ghost.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The original one-sheet for the movie gives away the ending at the bottom, in the middle.
  • Twist Ending: Mary actually drowned in the car wreck, and she's been Dead All Along.
  • The Undead: Eventually a whole host of undead ghouls are chasing Mary.
  • The X of Y: Carnival of Souls