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‘Carnival of Souls’

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 06, 1989


Herk Harvey
Candace Hilligoss;
Sidney Berger
Not rated

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In your run-of-the-mill horror movies, someone comes back from the grave, right? But in the case of "Carnival of Souls," it's the fright flick itself that's returned from the dead. This 1961 low-budget sleeper garnered a cult following largely from late-night TV watchers and the folks who visit Video Vault and subscribe to Psychotronic magazine; now it has become The Movie That Would Not Die.

The only feature movie made by industrial filmmaker Herk Harvey, "Carnival" is genuinely creepy in its narrative understatement and masterful naivete. Its minimalist merits shouldn't be oversold, however: Though visually suggestive of the eeriness of the everyday (it is almost self-evident that David Lynch saw this movie before making "Eraserhead" and "Blue Velvet"; George Romero has confessed to being inspired by it for "Night of the Living Dead"), the 85-minute film is quite slight in the story department. It's the movie equivalent of one of those shaggy tales told in the wee hours of a slumber party.

The movie barely introduces us to Mary Henry before it sends the car in which she's a passenger hurtling off a rickety rural bridge and into a muddy river. The searchers have given the car's passengers up for dead, when a dazed and bedraggled Mary appears. She can't remember what's happened, she just wants to carry on with her plan of driving to Utah for a position as a church organist. Haunted now and then by visions of specters, and mysteriously drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion on the outskirts of the city, Mary becomes more and more detached, even feeling that she's invisible to people -- you won't need three guesses to figure out what's the matter with Mary.

"Carnival of Souls" works well enough as chill-up-the-spine cinema, and one might even go further and argue that Mary's anomie, her disengagement from the living, suggests something more -- an existential horror cheapie. But only if one were inclined to argue about such things.

Whatever, Harvey's camerawork gives a new twist to the word "deadpan," making the most mundane places and people imaginable seem like ghastly hallucinations, and the director shows a flair for elegantly employing existing locations and lighting for maximum disorientation value. "Carnival of Souls" is another case for the preservation of the black-and-white movie -- in black and white, even this odd little $30,000 sleeper looks like Art now and again.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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