Carnival Of Souls is one of the most influential horror films to stem from early 1960’s cinema. Some of the most honored contemporary film-makers – such as George Romero, Wes Craven, and David Lynch – have cited Carnival Of Souls as a major influence on their works. Upon watching the film, it’s not hard to see why it’s so cherished. Unlike a lot of other horror films that were released around the same, Carnival Of Souls is a quiet, subdued cinematic spectacle that’s more artistically daring than it’s contemporaries. Unfortunately, Carnival Of Souls was passed over by critics at the time, but today, the film is regarded as a classic of horror cinema by many critics and horror aficionados alike.
However, what struck me about Carnival Of Souls, is how the film is very characteristic of the traditional low-grade, low-budget horror films of the late 1950’s/early 1960’s. The characters are stale, melodramatic stereotypes who are portrayed by actors who give either poorly underwhelming, or awkwardly over-expressive performances. Candace Hilligoss, who plays the Mary Henry, gives a very poor performance. Her character is supposed to be quite sympathetic, but, unfortunately, she doesn’t have the acting talent needed to pull off such a role; she’s trying, but the emotional impact just isn’t there. The film does contain a few actors who are able to give convincing performances, but unfortunately, those actors aren’t the ones playing the main characters. The writing doesn’t help things either as the film’s dialogue is very blunt with barely any character specific quirks, expression or flair. At times, the dialogue comes off as unnatural and stunted; it directly harms some of the more emotional parts of the film. Again, this was very indicative of early 1960’s film-making, but for how ambitious Carnival Of Souls tries to be, these generic conventions just wind up diminishing the whole experience.
Despite it’s flaws, however, Carnival Of Souls is definitely one of the most atmospheric horror films that I’ve witnessed. Carnival Of Souls is very slow paced with intensely creepy scenes that utilize harsh shadows, chilling make-up effects and unconventionally strange cinematography. What makes Carnival Of Souls different to it’s contemporaries, is that, instead of rushing from scene to scene, Carnival Of Souls takes it’s time building atmosphere and suspense, thus allowing the tension to linger. As a result, the entire film feels uncanny, like it’s detached from reality, similar to a dream, or a nightmare. This is enhanced by the fact that throughout the film it feels like there is an ominous, over-arching element that the film eludes to, but never reveals until the last moment, a moment which leaves more questions than answers. All in all, the experience of watching Carnival Of Souls is a moderately uncomfortable one, because the film fully embraces it’s strange qualities, and artistically exaggerates them to nightmarish degrees.
In my opinion, Carnival Of Souls is a film that was way ahead of it’s time. Although is has a few flaws that stop the film from being considered a timeless classic, Carnival Of Souls is a memorable, yet unnerving viewing experience. Roger Ebert described Carnival Of Souls as “a lost Twilight Zone episode”, upon viewing, I completely agree with that comparison as there’s a lot of similarities between the distinct strangeness of The Twilight Zone and the distinct strangeness of Carnival Of Souls. There may have been much better horror films that were created in the 1960’s, but I feel that, through it’s style and execution, Carnival Of Souls definitely stands out. It may not have had a deep cultural impact, but Carnival Of Souls is one of the few films from that era that can still deliver a creepy, uncomfortable viewing experience. In conclusion, I feel that Carnival Of Souls is a very understated horror film, it may have problems, but the film’s artistic flair more than makes up for the film’s negative aspects, and I believe it should definitely be considered a classic of horror cinema.