If characters in a horror movie are watching an old black and white movie on TV late at night, and it’s not Night Of The Living Dead, it’s almost certainly Carnival Of Souls. So even if you’ve never seen it before, you might have seen bits of it. You’ll definitely recognise some of the imagery, because it’s been borrowed, referenced, and homaged so many times, not least by directors like David Lynch and James Wan.
But while familiarity can sometimes lessen the power of well-known horror movies (no-one’s shocked by the shower scene in Psycho any more, are they?), Carnival Of Souls remains a deeply unsettling, deliriously creepy experience, with moments more purely terrifying than any new release could hope to conjure.
Shot on a low budget using a variety of quick ‘n’ dirty guerrilla techniques for grabbing footage in locations director Herk Harvey didn’t have permission to film, somehow Carnival Of Souls turned out to be one of the most frightening films ever made. It follows the sole survivor of a horrible car accident, Mary (Candace Hilligoss), as she leaves her home town to take a job as a church organ player – only to find herself alone and lonely in a community that doesn’t accept her, stalked by a terrifying apparition, and irresistibly drawn to an abandoned pavilion on the edge of town…
Mary’s a spiky heroine, all sharp edges protecting a deep vein of melancholy. Watching her fending off the advances of a lecherous neighbour is deeply satisfying, even if it leaves her vulnerable to the approach of something even scarier. Her attraction to the pavilion makes sense, too, even though it’s obviously not the kind of place anyone should really want to go late at night. Like everything about this film, it’s as alluring as it is sinister; the whole thing works as an ode to the seductiveness of melancholy.
Criterion’s new 4k Blu-ray restoration only enhances its eerie beauty, so turn down the lights, curl up on the sofa, and prepare to be terrified – in the most nightmarishly gorgeous way possible.