I'm a junior in college, lying in my dorm room bed, tossing and turning. It's 3:00AM and I can't sleep.
Finally, I throw the covers off of myself and jump out of the bed in frustration. If I can't sleep I might as well be doing something I love. I go to my movie shelf where I pick up a box set of 30 old copyright-free horror movies, the kind of box set you'd find at the bottom of a 5 dollar bin at a store like Wal-Mart or Target. I'd received the set as a Christmas gift, mostly because it had one of my favorites, "Night of the Living Dead", included in it's roster.
I go down the list of B to Z grade movies that time has mostly forgotten and stop on a particular title, "Carnival of Souls." The name is intriguing enough and I think I've heard of it before. (I had, thanks to the Criterion Collection.)
I put the disc into my laptop and start watching. The movie literally wastes no time in getting started, opening with a car race that ends in a car full of young women careening over the edge of a bridge into the muddy waters of a river. A rescue attempt does no good, although they do find one survivor, Mary Henry.
Mary Henry had plans to leave her little town, in search of a new job as a church organist in another state. Even though she's advised to postpone her trip after the accident, she sets out anyway.
That night, as she drives down a lonely stretch of highway, a ghostly face appears at the side of her window and then suddenly right in front of her car, but when she slams on the brakes, no one is there.
This was the moment of that film that absolutely gripped me and never let me go afterward. There's something so sudden and jolting about the scene that has spooked me more than most other horror pictures have. Because of this scene, I had to turn the lights on to watch the rest of the movie and then subsequently fall asleep. I wasn't going to risk a ghostly specter coming out of the darkness to drag me back with it.
From that point on, the film is a weird and wonderful nightmare as Mary is continuously hunted by the ghosts and strangely drawn towards an abandoned carnival on the outskirts of town. It's the best Twilight Zone episode that Rod Serling never thought to make. It's a simple story with a fascinating idea behind it. For someone like me, who has a lot of anti-social tendencies, its easy to relate to Mary's struggle to try to relate to the townsfolk around her while still trying to make sense of the mystery on her own.
Re-watching "Carnival Of Souls" on the fantastic Criterion blu ray release reminded me of just how much I love this scrappy little picture and why it's so inspiring to anyone with a desire to make independent genre films.
There's a lot about "Carnival of Souls" that would make a more cynical viewer snigger more than once. Everything about it is amateurish, from the editing to the make-up to the performances, yet it has so much heart that it carries you away into a dreamlike fable of isolation where you hardly notice the strings attached. Everything about the film that some viewers would discount as cheap or hokey serves to create the disconcerting feeling of a waking dream and I would argue that "Carnival of Souls" achieves this better than a lot of modern films. One of its most impressive elements is just how good it looks for a small budget horror picture. The black and white cinematography is striking, both haunting and beautiful at the same time. The simple organ score keeps the atmosphere heavy and unnerving.
And to top it all off, the fact that industrial film workers made this film for practically nothing is the most appealing factor of this production. This is a film that could have been lost in the folds of time, but instead has survived as a beloved cult classic. This real life underdog story is enough to warm my heart and bring a tear to my eye. If they did it, so can we.
"Carnival of Souls" may look like a no budget picture, but it feels like a million dollar movie with a heart of gold.