(Not So) Famous Firsts: Halloween Edition — Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls”

Written by (Not So) Famous Firsts, Film

Halloween gets all the movie nerds excited. This is the season where it becomes not only socially acceptable to watch gory films, but it’s almost mandatory. It’s also the time when people can fight over the most worthless things. (“How can you be a horror fan if you’ve only seen two Dario Argento movies?!”) The best part is how many of those conversations will inspire people to make their own cheap horror films.

For decades, horror and science fiction were the only seemingly acceptable genres for low budget films made outside of Hollywood’s control. While the filmmakers’ skill often didn’t come close to their ambition (see Edward D. Wood Jr for the best example) there are a few cult classics from the era that remain among the most influential films of all time. As films became less conservative in the New Hollywood, people like George Romero took the trappings of Roger Corman and used them to create socially conscious horror that responded to the tensions boiling over in America.

Herk Harvey never really got to enjoy that boom. He made one film right before the socially conscious horror film became fashionable. That movie, Carnival of Souls, was largely forgotten for almost 25 years and its failure lead him right back to where he started.

But somehow the film still managed to make an enormous impact. Romero cited this film as the one that impacted him the most when he made Night of the Living Dead. There are also parallels to Eraserhead, especially with the creepy organ score and the black and white cinematography. Even Rosemary’s Baby, which is similarly about a young woman who isn’t quite sure what’s happening to her, borrows from Carnival of Souls.

How could such a skillful filmmaker only make one film?

Background

Well, Herk Harvey didn’t just make one film. For decades, he was one of the primary directors of industrial films for the Centron Coporation. They’ve pretty much been forgotten except by smart alecs at bad movie festivals and Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows. Centron made short films designed for students to learn about things as varied as manners and basic anatomy lessons, instructional films about workplace safety, and general interest shorts about different countries. While these shorts have aged very poorly, Centron won numerous industry awards and even received an Oscar nomination for their short documentary Leo Beuerman.

Harvey did not direct that film. But he did direct several shorts that gained a cult following after they were screened on MST3K, including Cheating, Why Study Industrial Arts, and What About Juvenile Delinquency?

It’s unfair to judge Harvey by the quality of those films. After all, he couldn’t really contribute much regarding artistic input and I’d be surprised if he helped write any of the scripts. But in a few of those shorts, we do see some kernels of Carnival of Souls.

Take Cheating. The dialogue is terrible, the scenes are poorly lit, and the morality is so ham handed and condescending I wouldn’t be surprised if it caused more students to cheat.

But there’s a foreboding atmosphere permeating through throughout the short. It starts with a student awaiting his fate, looking lost and afraid in his dark bedroom. Of course, in context this is about him finding out whether he’s going to be removed from the student council, but Werner Herzog and Ingmar Bergman have started their films with the exact same tone. It’s difficult to get through the “golly, gee whiz” dialogue and the cliched narration, but there are some interesting things going on in the film. It’s obvious why Herk Harvey thought he could make his own horror film after making these shorts.

 

Carnival of Souls

The film follows a young woman named Mary Henry (names Lynch borrowed for his main character and the mother of his deformed child in Eraserhead…what a coincidence) who was in a serious car accident during an impromptu road race. She survives, emerges from the wreckage after several hours, and uses the accident as an excuse to build a new life in another town. She takes a job as a church organist and rents a room in a boarding house. But she’s continuously haunted by visions of a pale faced man in a suit (played by Harvey) and suffers from moments where no one can see or hear her.

It’s fortunate that the film was written so that it could be shot with such a low budget. Harvey often shot without the proper permissions and had to pay for the damages done to the bridge in the opening scene. Star Candace Hilligoss was only paid $2,000 and never appeared in another movie. Carnival of Souls had the sort of production that Tim Burton lovingly mocked in Ed Wood.

But Harvey, in his own way, accidentally kick started several independent film innovations. Harvey got the idea for the movie after driving past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion and later shot the climax there. Finding your sets and using them as they currently exist became one of the tenets of Dogma 95. The film became famous for playing at midnight on TV, about a decade before midnight movies were popular in New York City. And the acting isn’t particularly good, but it seems more authentic because these aren’t professional actors. Two years ago, The Florida Project did the same thing.  

Yet there’s a simpler reason that Carnival of Souls had the impact it did. When it was first released, horror was changing. The old Universal Monster movies were still popular but for nostalgic reasons. The state of theatrically released horror movies in the 1950s and the early 1960s were, except for a few gems like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Les Diaboliques, dire. This was the era of William Castle and even fans of 50s horror tend to look at them as exercises in camp rather than genuinely frightening movies.

The best horror to come out of the decade was on The Twilight Zone. It was the only thing that focused on the tensions of the era. Carnival of Souls takes a few notes from the show, especially with how it treats its protagonist. Mary Henry is a woman who doesn’t fit into the buttoned-up conformity of the era. She’s referred to as blasphemous by a priest and (in a scene that plays quite differently in the #MeToo era), turns down the advances of her neighbor. The Twilight Zone was also about societal outsiders who didn’t see the world in quite the same way as everyone else. Mary fits right into that mold.

I would also be remiss to not discuss the film’s “twist” ending. (It’s a 57-year-old movie. Sue me.) We find out the specific nature of Mary and why she is having these ghostly visions – and what exactly happened in the car wreck. It’s a twist even a ten-year-old could guess, but it’s effective because there’s a massive build up full of creepy images that other horror filmmakers have borrowed. And it leaves a touch of ambiguity about what Mary’s ultimate fate is or what exactly happened during the last few months. That’s the key to any successful horror film.

Carnival of Souls is an ambitious b-movie with a great head on its shoulders. Most horror films these days depend on random loud noises or graphic violence to make the audience squirm. Carnival of Souls has no gratuitous violence, no gore, and no attempts to at jump scares. But nonetheless, it manages to be terrifying.

Follow Up

Carnival of Souls didn’t do well in its initial release. It was cut by distributors and played as part of a double feature to, unfortunately, a collective shrug. What didn’t help was that the film immediately entered the public domain in the United States because there was no copyright notice during the credits. The film could be found on late night TV for decades since stations didn’t have to pay to air it.  This helped it gain a cult following and helped cement its reputation.

As for Harvey, he continued working for Centron for decades, producing exactly what you’d expect. His shorts still routinely pop up on Rifftrax because they’re the perfect thing to mock.

Strangely, his only other noteworthy contribution to a feature film occurred in the 1980s when he was cast in The Day After as “Farmer Jenkins.” Seriously – he had a speaking role in one of the most famous TV movies of all time and barely anyone noticed. He wasn’t even credited for the role.  

Harvey eventually retired from Centron in 1985. His last director credit on IMDB was for a Reading Rainbow segment in 1983. In 1989, Carnival of Souls received its first legal release on home video and prestige screenings around the U.S. Roger Ebert reviewed it that year and Harvey was in demand for public appearances and interviews related to the film. Harvey unfortunately passed away in 1996, but he lived long enough to see his film vindicated by history.

As for Centron, it closed its doors in 1994. Their archives now belong to the University of Kansas, which also bought their facilities.

Could Herk Harvey have done it again?

We shouldn’t feel too bad for Harvey. By all accounts he had a successful career at Centron that allowed him to travel the world. And he’s not even remembered as a schlockmeister who made bad educational shorts but an influential horror filmmaker who managed to inspire many careers with only one film.

But this isn’t about whether Harvey was never given a fair chance. It’s about whether he could have done another film that repeated the influence of Carnival of Souls. And there’s an obvious template for Harvey – George Romero.

For ten years after Night was released, Romero struggled to repeat his success. His films were mostly ignored when they were first released and he took work making TV documentaries about athletes like O.J. Simpson (this was in the ‘70s, remember). Even films like The Crazies, the most similar thing he made to Night, were barely distributed and did poorly at the box office. It wasn’t until he made Dawn of the Dead that he was able to reestablish himself.

I can see Herk Harvey plugging away at the fringes, trying to get people to notice his work again. He undoubtedly would have had a cult following but I think his films would have played to smaller and smaller audiences. Maybe he could have made some sort of sequel to Carnival? Well, a different producer tried to remake it in the ‘90s. I haven’t seen it, but that 3.2 star rating on IMDB doesn’t inspire confidence.

So, Herk Harvey probably was a one and done filmmaker. But how many filmmakers make a horror movie as good as Carnival of Souls?