Herk Harvey had a successful career as a director and producer of educational and industrial movies in Lawrence, Kansas, but he longed for something more. After all, fellow Kansas filmmaker Robert Altman had made the leap from industrial flicks to Hollywood, so why couldn’t he?
The resulting movie, Carnival of Souls (1962), became a cult classic influencing the likes of George Romero, James Wan and David Lynch. Mary (played by Candace Hilligoss, the only trained actor in the cast) mysteriously surfaces after an ill-fated drag race sends her car off a bridge and into a deep river. Unmoored and unable to remember what happened, she flees her hometown and ends up in Salt Lake City where she takes a gig as a church organist. She tries to make a life there but is plagued by an otherworldly stranger with a paper white mask of evil (played by Harvey himself.)
Now in the public domain, Carnival is a slow burn of dread that relies on few cheap jumps and little gore. Instead, Harvey creates a sparse world of alienation and creeping hysteria like an Edward Hopper painting gone psychotic. Harvey’s inspirations were clearly more art house than Hammer horror. Echoes of F. W. Murnau, Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau abound. Yet the curiously somnambulate acting exhibited by most of the cast along with the movie’s freaky organ soundtrack gives the film the vibe of a particularly nightmarish Ed Wood movie.
Carnival made a modest showing on the drive-in circuit when it came out but it didn’t become a cult classic until later in the 60s when it started playing on late-night TV. Harvey, however, never made another feature.
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.