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Miss Wilkes Review: CARNIVAL OF SOULS
A TRAUMATIZED WOMAN'S MIND UNRAVELS IN THIS HORROR CLASSIC
★★★★★ (A Must-See)
Director: Herk Harvey
A drag race ends with a car carrying three women flying off a bridge, into a rushing river. As search parties comb the water, only Mary emerges. Days later, traumatized by the event, she drives over the bridge, hoping searchers will find the other girls, to no avail. To get away, she heads out to Utah for a job as a church organist. In fact, the score is made up of organ music that reminds you more of a funeral than a church service.
That’s the set-up, and from there, Mary gets the feeling she’s being followed. On the lonely desert road to Utah, as she nears her destination, she’s attracted to an abandoned pavilion in the distance that once housed dance halls and carnivals. At that moment, she sees a ghoul’s face in her window (played by director, Herk Harvey) and screams before the face disappears. What does he have to do with this place, and what does he want with her?
The rest of the film is Mary pushing people away while losing touch with reality. Harvey’s shots are haunting (his transitions are better than most films made today) and his portrayal of a strong woman in peril, admirable. Played by Candace Hilligoss, Mary is not your typical vintage horror heroine. When the ghoul starts following her, trying to get in her new apartment, she’s frightened but rational. She wants to know what’s wrong with her; she seeks out help from a doctor and advocates for herself. Women in this era were polite, wore high-heels, held their tongues; like children, they were to be seen, not heard. Mary makes her own way in the world and isn’t interested in dating. She has no time for man or God, and confesses, “To me, a church is just a place of business.” She finds her own lodging, drives herself across the desert, and enjoys shopping alone. When she begins to unravel, she does not suck it up for dignity’s sake.
For all these reasons, the minister, landlady, doctor, and suitor are suspicious of her. They’re not afraid of her hallucinations, but of this new version of woman.
Speaking of suitor, Sidney Berger is perfectly cast as Every Asshole You’ve Ever Dated. The character of John seamlessly moves from seduction to hate, to pleading to hate, all while insisting he’s smarter than people think he is. In one exchange, when Mary uses the word “inducement”, he scoffs, telling her he doesn’t have time for big words. “I’m just an ordinary guy that works in a warehouse,” sniffs John. The fact that Mary went to college is a bee in his bonnet, but it’s not like he’s going to marry her; he has only one goal in mind. When she refuses to drink beer or dance, he’s had enough until she begs him not to leave her. This is what Mary’s been reduced to. In order to be safe from the ghoul, she has to keep John around.
Carnival of Souls is a perfect companion to a Twilight Zone marathon, a horror classic that deserves to be in the same room as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Halloween (1978). This is a film for every type of horror fan. The only issue I have with this movie is that its initial failure lead to Herk Harvey never completing another film. After you watch this movie, you’ll feel a loss like that of the Library of Alexandria—imagine the incredible work we’ll never see. Harvey and writer John Clifford beget male directors like Oz Perkins who really understand the female experience. Instead of creating characters from what they’ve seen women do, they create characters by listening to women. Our heroine’s conundrum when she has to keep John around, her flawed personality, her tendency to snarl at anyone who gets too close, is relatable. Unlike recent paranoia horror from certain directors, you’re not on a train watching out the window. You want to be on this journey with Mary. You connect with her.
In the end, Carnival of Souls becomes a silent film until the sound cuts to organ music as ghouls give chase with sunken eyes and maniacal Joker grins. You feel you’re being pursued in your worst nightmare, but instead of waking up like you always do, the monster catches you. In one terrifying moment you recall all those times you ran up basement stairs, afraid clawed hands would reach between the dark space between the steps and grab your ankles. Who knows why Mary is victim to these hallucinations. Maybe she has a brain injury or maybe the universe is punishing her for being the scariest thing the world had to offer in 1962—an independent woman.
GENRES: Atmospheric, Feminist-Friendly, Psychological
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