Carnival of Souls is, to these eyes, one of the finest horror films that has ever been made, and certainly one of the most unsettling. It is rare that a genre film carries some genuine scares, and this film continues to deliver even now. Its atmosphere is deeply disturbing, largely down to the stark and frightening score, performed entirely on organ, along with some very creepy visuals that are more dreamlike and surreal that horrific.
This is very much a horror film in the sense of the concept rather than flying innards. Made on a low budget and originally seen as a B-movie, Carnival of Souls went on to become one of the most appreciated genre films that has ever been released.
The film has a unique feel all of its own. It plays like a lengthy episode of The Twilight Zone, and like the classics that Rod Serling brought us, gripping the viewer by forcing them to try and work out what is real and what isn't. Directed (and produced) by Herk Harvey, Carnival Of Souls tells the story of a young church organ player who, following a car accident in which she loses all memory of the incident, begins to have disturbing visions of strange, ghoulish figures chasing her. As the film progresses, she begins to realize that she may not have actually survived the crash...
With one of the most memorable endings in horror cinema history, Carnival of Souls is nightmarish in the most real sense of the word. The fact that it is in black an white adds plenty to the dreamlike quality, but the visuals that are presented have a huge impact. The sight of the fairground at the end, filled with demented, ghoulish figures chasing our heroine as the organ soundtrack whirls ever more chaotic around us, is the basis of countless hellish dreams since the film's release.
While the 'real world' scenes are shot in something of a static manner and highlight the limitations of the production and the experience of the crew, the increasingly strange set pieces are shot with a huge amount of visceral power, and they are edited in a rapid-fire motion that enhances their scare value rather than eliminating it (as with the current crop of horror flicks). It may well have been a cheap film to make, but the atmosphere is priceless.
I have an almost unnatural love affair with this film. It scares the crap out of me, and yet I can't stop putting myself through it. You see, there is something about Carnival of Souls that is much more distressing than gore or other cheap scares. Made for a pittance by a cast and crew of essential unknowns, the film captures a delirious nightmare within its frames, and once viewed, is almost impossible to forget. An amazing film, even if you do need a hug after watching it.
(Incidentally, you can legitimately Download Carnival of Souls for free at the Internet Archive as the film is in the public domain now. It is well worth watching!)