Cinematic Soulmates: Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead
With Halloween right around the corner, it seemed like a good time to take a look at two films that not only redefined the horror genre, but also had a lasting impact on the culture as a whole. Director Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) has developed a strong cult following in the years since its release, but it is not quite so well known among the general public. That’s a shame, because without it, we probably wouldn’t have Night of the Living Dead (1968), a little independent film directed by George Romero that completely changed the landscape of horror cinema, and continues to have a widespread and lasting impact on popular culture in general, if the abundance of zombie related films, comic books, novels, and TV shows are any indication. While they may seem a bit different on the surface, both films are low budget wonders that are connected by similar themes and filmic techniques, and that puts them squarely in the realm of Cinematic Soulmates.
Carnival of Souls tells the story of Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a withdrawn young woman who wants nothing more than to flee the confines of the boring Kansas town she lives in, and start a new life somewhere else. After surviving a car accident during a skillfully shot pre-credits sequence, she does just that, accepting a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City, Utah. On the way there, however, she starts noticing a ghoulish man (Herk Harvey) following her everywhere she goes, and her life is given over to a series of bizarre events, all of which seem to be tied to an abandoned lakeside pavilion on the outskirts of town. Eventually, Mary visits the pavilion, where she is confronted by the Man and his army of ghouls, and she learns a horrifying truth about what really happened on the day of that fateful car crash.
Despite its low budget and amateurish production (or perhaps, because of them), Carnival of Souls manages to transcend its B-move roots, and in the process it becomes a rich, atmospheric film that still manages to be unsettling and effective nearly 50 years after its initial release. It feels more like a long episode of The Twilight Zone, and builds to a twist that may put some viewers in mind of M. Night Shyamalan (but don’t let that put you off from watching it). While it is very much of its era, especially in regards to its rather complicated and somewhat deplorable depiction of male/female relationships, Carnival of Souls feels very modern in a lot of ways, and it is easy to see why it continues to inspire countless filmmakers to this day. After years of cranking out industrial training and educational shorts, and so-called “mental hygiene” films (anyone who has seen Mystery Science Theater 3000 will know what these are), Herk Harvey wanted nothing more than to direct a real film, and he succeeded admirably, even though he didn’t quite succeed in his dream of turning Kansas into a sort of Hollywood in the Midwest. Still, it’s a shame that he never directed another film, because if nothing else, it would have been very interesting to see what he would have come up with for his sophomore effort, even if it wasn’t as successful as his first.
With Carnival of Souls, Harvey proved himself to be a master of atmosphere. In fact, he was so good at it, it’s enough to carry the film over the occasional rough patch, holding the viewer’s attention right up until the startling final frame. Harvey also had a flair for doing a lot with a little, and really used the film’s low budget to his advantage. This is especially evident in the area of sound design, which really goes a long way toward establishing the creepy, almost oppressive atmosphere. Thanks to the film’s modest budget, Harvey shot a lot of scenes without sound, as this was cheaper than wasting money on expensive reels of tape. Some of it is intentional, as in the scenes when Mary finds herself strangely cut off from reality, in the world but not a part of it. At other times, Harvey simply used an old trick; he had his actors remain silent, and simply added dialogue in later, often attributed to characters who are off screen or have their backs to the camera. Even this adds a creepy air to the film: the character voices appear to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once, and the sound of Mary’s heels clicking on the pavement never seem to quite match up with her footsteps. Along with the unsettling, pervasive organ score and the stark black and white photography, it all just adds to the feeling of unreality that permeates the film, and goes a long way toward establishing a tone that leaves the viewer feeling anxious throughout.
Similarly, with Night of the Living Dead, Romero utilizes the low budget to create a harsh, apocalyptic atmosphere, and make some pointed social commentary at the same time. For those unfamiliar with the film, it tells the story of a group of people who hold out in an abandoned farmhouse in an attempt to survive a zombie uprising. The film opens as Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Steiner) stop by a cemetery to visit their father’s grave. They are soon accosted by a pale man shambling stiffly about the graveyard, and he immediately attacks and kills Johnny. Barbra flees, and ends up at an old farmhouse, where she is found by Ben (Duane Jones). Barbra is in shock, so Ben takes it upon himself to shore up their defenses, but the house is surrounded by the undead. Meanwhile, all the ruckus upstairs has caught the attention of the five people hiding out in the basement, one of whom refuses to listen to Ben, presumably because Ben is black. It’s not long before the conflict inside the house threatens to expose them all to the horror that lurks without, and the ragtag little group’s chances of making it through the night looks less likely by the minute.
Romero has cited Carnival of Souls as a primary inspiration for Night of the Living, and nowhere is this more evident than the film’s atmosphere. Much like Carnival of Souls, Romero’s film is propelled largely by a creepy atmosphere that is expertly established early on, but it has the added element of masterful filmmaking and a smart script to keep it afloat. This may have been Romero’s first film, and at times it shows, but he nevertheless demonstrated a totally assured competence right out of the gate, which lends a sort of legitimacy to Night of the Living Dead that is lacking in a lot of other first films (especially horror films). However, the terror stems from the atmosphere, and this is benefitted greatly by the low budget. By confining the action to a single location (with a television providing the occasional glimpse of the outside world) and completely isolating the characters from the rest of the world, the film manages to feel post-apocalyptic in a lot of ways. Right up until the cavalry rides in during the third act, it is almost as if the small group in the farmhouse represents the last people alive on Earth, and they are making a desperate final stand against the seemingly unstoppable zombie horde.
Another common thread that runs between each film is the theme of alienation. In Night of the Living Dead, the characters are surrounded by other people, but remain separated from them by simple virtue of the fact that they are alive. They cannot even reach out to other living people, since all communication to the farmhouse has been severed. Thus, like Mary Henry, we see that Ben, Barbra and the others are truly alone in the world. This goes double for Ben, an African American man living in the South during the era of the Civil Rights Movement. While he is accepted by the younger members of the group rather quickly, he still faces resistance of Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), who constantly refuses to defer to Ben’s leadership. It’s never made explicit, but we can assume there is probably some element of racism there, especially since the film makes a point of drawing a parallel between the rednecks who sweep in to wipe out the zombies during the climax, and those who didn’t give a second thought to lynching African Americans only a decade or two prior to the film’s release. Indeed, the simple fact that Romero made Ben the lead of his film was a radical act at the time, and really sent a message to audiences that were used to white, male heroes. This in itself was a commentary on racism, and went a long way toward establishing the rather uncomfortable subtext of the film.
Despite their low budget origins, both films have gone on to inspire not only countless films, but books, TV shows, and comic books, and their impact can be seen throughout a diverse spectrum of popular culture to this day. From Evil Dead to The Waking Dead to World War Z, all the way up to huge blockbusters like Lord of the Rings (just compare the shot of the Man opening his eyes underwater in Carnival of Souls to the short of the corpse lying in the swamp in The Two Towers), these two little indie films from the 1960s continue to leave an impression on us in a number of ways. And it all started with a guy in Kansas who got tired of making educational films, and decided he wanted to make a horror movie.