If Ingmar Bergman had grown up in Kansas I could see him making a film like Carnival of Souls. Filmed in grainy black and white, Carnival of Souls is one greatest Midwestern Gothics ever made (it was mostly filmed in Lawrence, Kansas). The film tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of reality after she's the unfortunate passenger in a tragic drag race.
After the car crashes off the river bridge, a scene Tim Burton duplicated in Beetlejuice, young Mary arrives in a new town and lands a church organist job. She gets a room in a boarding house with a nosy landlady, while trying to fend off the advances of her crude neighbor, meanwhile a sinister looking old man keeps appearing at random.
I admire how the film gradually moves from the realistic to the surreal, common everyday activities like shopping and going on a walk take on a sinister quality. Eventually Mary comes to realize she may no longer be among the living.
We're also in the Kansas of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Mary's interactions with creepily bland locals ramps up the sense of foreboding. The minister, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, tries to offer Mary some spiritual guidance to no avail. She also sees the local psychiatrist who advises her to get a boyfriend. All the men come up short in this film. As Mary grows increasingly vulnerable, her innocence adds to the sense of dread.
Carnival of Souls is a must see cult classic, the artistry of the cinematography and skillful use of local setting are expressionistic and haunting. These images really stick with you. The look and feel of the film anticipated George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, David Lynch's weird America aesthetic, Tim Burton's playful creepiness, even Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Herk Harvey never directed another feature film, but left a real gem for movie fans everywhere. Watch it for free.
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