Armed with a $30,000 budget for their first (and only) film, director Harold Harvey and writer John Clifford were shooting for “the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau.” Somehow, they nearly pulled it off – Carnival Of Souls is a unique cult curio.
Skewed, eerie and stylish right from the opening credits, this dream-like ghost story sees a brittle blonde (Candace Hilligoss) and two of her friends crash off a wooden bridge into the river below after a drag race goes wrong.
Dazed and dripping, the woman surfaces from the muddy depths. But she finds herself pursued by a ghoulish man (played by Harvey), emerging from mirrors and pools, even as she flees to become a church organist in Utah. Her bizarre fantasies continue to swirl as the ghoul lures her into a dance of the dead at a decaying amusement park.
Even at just 80 minutes, this Twilight Zone story is pulled too thin. But with virtually no special effects, weirdly off-kilter performances and a creepy score played out entirely on a church organ, Harvey conjures an atmosphere thick with crawling dread.
As well as inspiring George Romero, its intriguing power is also the secret source for one of modern Hollywood’s most famous spook-stories (no spoilers – watch and see). The critics’ commentary is great, but fans should seek out the Region 1 DVD. It packs two different cuts, docs, outtakes and a yak-track from Harvey and Clifford.