A Discussion: Carnival of Souls

Today Ashley and I talk about Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. Considered a cult classic, with a Criterion Collection BluRay and a spot on the streaming service FilmStruck, it is beloved by many as a psychological horror film. Where do we stand? Read on…

Ashley: This is one of those films that I truly enjoy almost every aspect of. The wooden acting lends itself perfectly toward setting the haunting mood, the score, especially, really builds the tension and suspense. I think what I appreciate most is the tonal shifts between such sophisticated techniques and ones that are so obviously used due to the small budget of the film. This unevenness, to me, really captures the desperation of our protagonist Mary, and builds a world as daunting as the one she lives in, or between I guess.

Peter: Okay, well…you already know I hate this movie, so I’ll try to be gentle with it and not overly reactionary. But, UGH! I don’t feel any suspense; more accurately, what’s there isn’t really done in a compelling way. Small budgets and clever film making are great in a film like Night of the Living Dead, but Carnival of Souls is no Night of the Living Dead. The first 20 minutes of the movie is Mary playing a church organ, and this movie is about as boring as church on Sunday.

Ashley: I appreciate your gentleness! I’ll respond to your thoughts completely, but you really aren’t enchanted by that score?

Peter: The score is okay; it serves its purpose, but no more. It isn’t transcendent or anything.

Ashley: Well that is a huge selling point for me as far as building the tension and suspense, so I can see if one is not particularly moved by that aspect that the suspense won’t exist, for them. It’s so haunting, for me. Whenever I see the cover art for CoS I hear that deep organ tune and it gives me chills a little at just the thought. Where do you think that NotLD does more with its small budget than CoS?

Peter: I decided to play the main title while you were commenting just to double check my thoughts, and I stand by them. That being said, I get exactly what you’re saying about a score being sort of a connecting thread. There are some scores that evoke emotions and make you think of a movie or get you in whatever mood is necessary. I’ve always found that the more effective score is one that enhances a mood rather than tells you what mood to be in, if that makes sense. As for NotLD vs CoS…it’s just more of an iconic feel for me. It’s all about the effectiveness of the fear that is used; I feel no fear with CoS, but zombies scare the living shit out of me, and Romero knows how to hit that note.

Ashley: I think that this is one of those films that is dependent upon its score for emotional impact, and though (of course) I can’t think of any examples, I know there have been film experiences that weren’t as positive for me because I did not connect with the score, so I definitely know what you’re saying and agree with a score guiding the way for emotions. I am really glad that you brought to mind NotLD because it’s so much closer for comparison than any film that came to mind while I was watching CoS this time. Sadly, I only recently saw NotLD for the first time (the day Romero passed away) and only the one time, but I definitely agree with you that he taps into a very specific fear zone. I’m not usually afraid of zombies as they’re commonly depicted but Living Dead was definitely unnerving. I still think that Herk Harvey taps into terror in CoS though. Besides the score, I found his juxtaposition between the rough effects, yet sophisticated shot placement, especially jarring. For me, the purposeful unevenness of the film Harvey created was enough to keep me up nights.

Peter: Another quick comment on zombies: they freak me out more now that I’m a parent than they ever did as a kid. It’s the element of something beyond my control, and an inability to protect my children that fills me with dread during zombie movies. It’s weird. Anyway, some of Harvey’s shots are definitely good, especially as his zombies are coming out of the water and dancing. He deserves some credit for composing something interesting there. How does the fact that CoS is basically a one-off impact your opinion of it?

Ashley: The more I think about it, the happier I am that you brought this comparison. It seems as though there’s a lot of CoS in NotLD, and I don’t think I would have made that connection (embarrassingly) without this discussion. I was going to ask through this conversation if Harvey made any feature films before this one, I knew he didn’t make any after but wasn’t sure about before. I get the same kind of feeling with this film that many do with Night of the Hunter. I wish there were at least 10 more films by Harvey because I would really love to watch more. I was completely mesmerized by the composition of some of his shots, then again by how they were edited. I actually wondered last night, while I was watching the film, how you felt about those aspects as it brought to mind for me the French New Wave. I know a lot of what Harvey was doing was certainly a product of necessity based on his three-week shoot of the film and low budget, but he was able to make it work and create some iconic imagery.

Peter: I can’t disagree with you about the shots. He did good work with what he had monetarily and with his time.

You just had to bring French New Wave into it, didn’t you? That’s far more haunting than this movie, to be honest. In looking at Harvey’s filmography, I see that he actually directed an episode of…………READING RAINBOW! Yeah, I’m at a loss with that one. Imagine how messed up that episode is. What you make a good point with is wanting to see more from Harvey after CoS. Although I’m not a fan, I can see how he could maybe have turned into something bigger if given half a chance. Maybe he wouldn’t have been on the level of a Romero or Bava, but he could have been solid nonetheless.

Ashley: Well now I have to seek out that episode of Reading Rainbow! Yes, your favorite film genre had to make an appearance here because so many of those editing techniques reminded me of more than a few films from the French New Wave. Another comparison I drew was when Mary was driving, near the beginning of the film just before seeing the first (zombie?) despite her obvious physical similarities, her focus was so intent that she reminded me a lot of Marion Crane driving away from her troubles in Psycho. I guess, even in his only feature film, Herk Harvey displayed splashes of greatness.

Peter: That’s a nice comparison to Psycho. Good call.

So, let’s talk about the ending. Was she dead the whole time?

Ashley: I think she was. Mary seemed to be a stand-in for all of us. Most of us, anyway, have a fear of not being remembered after they die, or not finding a place for themselves in the world. Shortly after being “ignored” in the dress shop, Mary remarks that “It was as though, for a time, I didn’t exist, as though I had no place in the world. I found that particularly powerful and saw the film as a sort of illustration on our existential subconscious. She seemed to be teetering between death and life and wasn’t happy with either prospect, as later she would proclaim “I want to get out of here” What are your thoughts?

Peter: I figured she was dead from the moment the car hit the water and that what we were seeing was this “in between”, or limbo, kind of existence. I also got the impression that, since we then see the car being pulled out of the river at the end, that everything we saw between the beginning and end was basically a flash; it was almost like her life flashing before her eyes, but not a remembrance of her childhood. It was like what her life would be like if she were to make it out; there would be a survivor’s guilt; that’s what those zombies represented to me. They were there to take her from a place she didn’t belong.

Carnival of Souls (3)

Ashley: I really enjoy that read! I had a similar read through the “in limbo existence” part, but there were still aspects of the rest of the film that I couldn’t work out based on my feelings of her being dead the whole time. I guess I saw it as she had something she needed to finish while she was still sort of alive, and that was the symbolism of her need to play the organ. I like your take better.

Peter: This is probably one of the failings of Harvey’s film; it just doesn’t make much sense either way we look at it. Really alive, or really dead? That’s why we watch the films and talk about them, I guess. Everyone will have their takes, and because this is sort of all over the place, no one is really wrong (not that anyone needs to be right or wrong) in their interpretation of CoS.

Ashley: You’re definitely right to point out what a particular strength interpretation is to art in general, but especially to the medium of film. I see this ambiguity, however, as one of Harvey’s greatest strengths. Of course, I don’t know his intention, but it seems like he was trying to leave plenty of room for differing takes and left enough rope for the audience to pull in any direction.

Peter: Do you find that making your own interpretation of a film beyond the director’s intentions is a better way to engage with a film, or do you try to connect more with what is probably intended?

Ashley: That is such an excellent question, and one I grapple with all the time. I hover over some kind of middle ground there. I don’t think I should be able to do whatever I want with a film, or manipulate it in anyway to make a more personal connection, but I also understand watching a film as an intensely subjective experience where it is almost impossible not to bridge certain aspects of what you’re seeing to something a bit more emotionally relatable. What is your tactic with this issue?

Peter: Middle ground all the way. I’ll look for what the director is saying, but there may be different aspects of the film that I connect with in different ways. There really isn’t a wrong way to do this, unless it’s just way out there like “Star Wars is about that time I didn’t get what I wanted when I was a kid”, you know what I mean? There are definitely opinions that just don’t make sense, but overall people are pretty good about making normal interpretations. Directors definitely have a message, but it isn’t out of the ordinary to get a little bit more out of it than s/he maybe intended.

Bottom line, we all have opinions, and this subject alone would be another post in and of itself. As is the subject of the importance of a score and how invasive should it be.

Ashley: I see what you mean and I wholeheartedly agree with you. That’s one reason I’m so glad we have these discussions. It’s nice to break apart from the echo chamber and discuss differing opinions about these films.

Peter: We can probably agree that more often than not, Twitter is NOT a great platform to discuss differences.

Ashley: As much as I would like it to be, Twitter is definitely not that place. But I am thankful for being able to know so many film fans there.


For more movie opinions, follow Ashley on Twitter @oOoOoBarracuda, and check out her Letterboxd page, too. You can find me on Twitter @PeterPutzel, Letterboxd, and right here in the Back Row, Center Seat. See you next time!


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