This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
"Carnival of Souls" is an odd, obscure horror film that was made on a low budget in 1962 in Lawrence, Kan., and still has an intriguing power. Like a lost episode from "Twilight Zone," it places the supernatural right in the middle of everyday life and surrounds it with ordinary people. The movie is being revived in art houses around the country for Halloween, and it's possible that it plays better today than when it was released. It ventures to the edge of camp, but never strays across the line, taking itself with an eerie seriousness.
The movie stars Candace Hilligoss, one of those worried blonds like Janet Leigh in "Psycho," (1960) as a young woman who goes along for the ride when two hot-rodders hold a drag race. On a narrow wooden bridge, one of the cars crashes through a railing and plunges into the flooded river below. Police and volunteers search for the wreckage in vain, and then Hilligoss appears on a sandbar, dazed and covered with mud.
What happened to the others? How did she escape? She doesn't know. Indeed, she doesn't care. She's a brittle, cynical woman who works as a church organist but doesn't take religion seriously. That's despite the fact that the organ seems to be trying to tell her something. There is a sensational overhead shot in an organ factory, looking down past the steep and angled pipes to her diminutive figure far below, and another effective moment when she's in a car on a deserted highway and the radio only picks up organ music.
A few days after she crawls out of the river, the woman leaves town for a job playing the organ in Utah, and in one of the movie's best shots, a cadaverous face appears in the car window. It's the face of a ghostly figure who will follow her to Utah (the figure is played by the film's director, Herk Harvey). In Utah, she checks into one of those B-movie boarding houses, presided over by the cherubic Frances Feist. There's one other boarder, a Mr. Linden (Sidney Berger), who is a definitive study of a nerd in lust.
Unlike most of today's horror movies, "Carnival of Souls" has few special effects - some wavy lines as we pass through various levels of existence, and that's it. Instead, it depends on crisp black-and-white photography, atmosphere and surprisingly effective acting. It's impossible to know whether this movie was seen by such directors as David Lynch or George Romero. But in the way it shows the horror beneath the surface of placid small-town life, it suggests "Blue Velvet," and a shot of dead souls at an abandoned amusement park reminded me of the lurching undead in "The Night of the Living Dead."
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