Considering that Carnival of Souls is largely populated by zombies, it’s somehow fitting that the picture has been ressurected after nearly three decades. A flop 1962 horror flick turned cult item — its initial reputation derived from infrequent screenings on late-night TV — ”Souls” was rescued from cinematic limbo last year when it appeared at a number of film festivals and became a hot media item.
By contemporary standards, Souls isn’t really a horror film at all. The story — a church organist (Candace Hilligoss) survives a car wreck only to be hounded by the undead — has supernatural overtones. But there’s no gore, the pacing is deliberate, and the imagery is surreal and dreamlike. If that sounds somewhat arty, it is. In fact, in a brief prologue to the tape, director Herk Harvey claims he wanted to create a drive-in movie as it might have been made by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
But does this mutant genre piece deserve its recent accolades? The answer is yes, with reservations. Souls offers elegant black-and-white cinematography (by the director), a canny use of locations, a leading lady with an offbeat, saucer-eyed beauty, and a script that sustains its Twilight Zone-style mystery. It also has some awkward nonprofessional performances, a wearisome romantic subplot, and obvious low-budget technical crudities. But like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (which it inspired), Carnival of Souls ultimately benefits from its rough-hewn amateurism. The fact that it couldn’t look less Hollywood serves to make the supernatural elements that much more resonant. The picture finally draws you in; it’s like watching someone else’s nightmare.
Harvey never directed another feature after Carnival of Souls. But what this beautifully restored version of his near masterpiece demonstrates is simple: They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore. And they should.