20 October 2017



This is one of the best horror movies ever made. It's more than on a par with THE HAUNTING, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO and yet, if it hadn't been for a revival of the film in 1989, we might not be talking about it in such glowing terms today.

Beautifully filmed in black-and-white, it has a nightmarish quality to it right from the get-go, as the Americans say, and when you watch it, you can't help but be drawn into the nightmare right along with the main character, poor Mary Henry.

Mary is an attractive blonde small-town girl who also happens to be the sole survivor of a car accident that leaves her two girlfriends dead after a drag race or 'chicken run.' She takes a job as a church organist in a different town in order to start over again in a place where no-one knows her. That's the plan, anyway, and as we all know, the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft a-gley, isn't that how it goes...?

Mary Henry hops in her car and drives and drives and drives, much as Janet Leigh does as Marion Crane in PSYCHO. Much as in Janet Leigh's case, however, Mary doesn't entirely succeed in leaving her near-tragic past behind her.

One might even go so far as to say that, from the moment she climbs into her car, she's haunted by horrific visions that seem to be trying to tell her something, or maybe even steer her in a particular direction. A man with a chalk-white face and a knowing smile keeps popping up in the most unexpected places to leer at her. It's not long before Mary is thoroughly spooked.

In her new town, she takes a room at Mrs. Thomas's respectable boarding-house, where she is sexually harassed by the thoroughly un-respectable other tenant, Mr. John Linden. Sidney Berger, the actor who plays Mr. Linden, has a marvellous face. It's simply made for sneering, leering and jeering, and he does all three with aplomb. I know, by the way, that I'm using the word 'aplomb' in the right context but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what it means, so maybe I shouldn't be using it...!

Linden is the very epitome of a late 'Fifties/early 'Sixties greaser with an attitude problem. He comes on strong to Mary right from their first meeting and is the kind of guy that calls a woman a bitch, a dyke, a prick-tease or just plain frigid if she spurns his advances.

Mary, a normally aloof woman who seems to naturally reject the company of others, gives Linden some seriously mixed messages. One minute she's friendly, the other she's pushing him away. A man like Linden always turns nasty when his head is wrecked by a dame. It's a miracle of sorts that Mary doesn't get a slap in the mouth from him for her trouble.

Man-trouble isn't her only type of trouble. Mary is almost fatalistically drawn to an abandoned carnival site a few miles from her new home. When the local priest, Mary's new boss, refuses to do more than show Mary the place in passing, telling her that the police have banned people from wandering there because it's unsafe, Mary goes alone to examine it.

The carnival site Saltair is a real place, built on the shores of Salt Lake in Utah in the nineteenth century by the Mormons. Apparently, they wanted to show the rest of the world that they could be as fun-loving and carefree as other folks, haha.

The site once boasted the world's largest dance-floor, and musical icons like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey have each played there with their bands. It would have been a magnificent venue for such performances, anyway, if a bit out of the way. It's nothing if not off the beaten track, that's for sure.

The place has a remarkably troubled history, having burned to the ground twice and been
rebuilt, before being swallowed up completely by the waters of Salt Lake. I can't even begin to tell you what a marvellously atmospheric location it is for a horror film. 

Mary is certainly drawn to the place like a bee to a particularly fragrant and exotic flower, only she doesn't have the foggiest idea why. Any more than she has a clue who her pallid-faced stalker is, or why she has these terrifying episodes in which she genuinely fancies that people can neither see her nor hear her.

She tells a doctor, who wouldn't have been nearly as kind and soliticious towards her if she'd been male or a less attractive female, that she feels somehow disconnected from the world she inhabits. What's the matter with Mary? Why is she plagued with such eerie occurences...?

Candace Hilligoss, a beautiful blonde woman with fabulous expressive eyes and amazing bone structure, was the perfect choice for the attractive but neurotic Mary. She's the sort of woman men naturally gravitate towards, and certainly Mary is surrounded by men who are all trying to dominate her, lecture her, save her soul and her sanity and just generally exert their superior male influence over her.

I believe that the stunning Ms. Hilligoss made only one or two more films after CARNIVAL OF SOULS. She's not a household name and she doesn't seem to have attained the level of fame achieved by Janet Leigh, that other attractive blonde lady driver on a road to nowhere and a big fat hiding to nothing.

God knows why not, though. Hers is as flawless a horror movie performance as you're ever likely to see, and there must have been many, many films that came afterwards, not least of all George A. Romero's iconic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, that were influenced for the better by CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

The fabulously eerie organ music soundtrack by Gene Moore is the other factor, aside from Ms. Hilligoss herself, that sets CARNIVAL OF SOULS head and shoulders above other horror films. It's the single most effective and frightening movie soundtrack I can think of, along with the music from both PSYCHO and Stanley Kubrick's excellent and chilling THE SHINING.

The good news is that this fantastic low-budget independent film, this absolute little gem of a horror movie which was Herk Harvey's only feature film, is out now on special Blu-Ray release, along with some terrific special features, from THE CRITERION COLLECTION.

I strongly advise everyone to buy, like, a dozen copies each, haha, and distribute 'em to family and friends with a view to broadening their horror horizons. All going well, they should hopefully thank you for it...!

Go behind the scenes with the lovely Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, the film's writer John Clifford and the writer and director Herk Harvey, who made some rather interesting cameo appearances in the film himself. This film is a work of art. We don't put our foot through a work of art, we value it and treasure it and preserve it forever. That's no more than CARNIVAL OF SOULS deserves.


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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