There’s an old folk tale about a man who spies the Grim Reaper in a crowded marketplace, and who is seen by the Reaper in return. Death looks surprised to see the man, and clearly recognizes him. The man, fearing for his life, buys the fastest horse he can find and rides to a far off town by nightfall. There he is killed, and Death greets him, explaining that the reason he was surprised to see him earlier is that he had an appointment to pick the man up in the faraway town that evening. The lesson of the fable is that one can’t cheat death. Of course, cheating death — and the consequences for doing so — is a moderately common theme in horror films. While the best known example nowadays is the Final Destination series of films, an earlier example is Carnival of Souls, starring Candace Hilligoss.
Hilligoss plays Mary, a young woman who is out drag racing with her friends when she accidentally drives through the rails of a wooden bridge. She is the sole survivor of the crash.
Mary picks up her life quickly after she pulls herself out of the river. She has recently accepted a position as a church organist in Utah, and so not two days after losing her friends, she leaves town with the intention of never returning. Even in her new town, Mary is cold and distant to those around her. To her neighbor, a likeable lush (Sidney Berger, who had a cameo in the remake), she is occasionally civil but never truly warm. And she admits to both him and to the minister that although she has taken a job as a church organist, she is not particularly religious herself; to her, it’s just a job. The minister, played by Art Ellison, warns her that she needs more than that to truly be an organist, but she dismisses the idea. She’s never needed human connections before. She doesn’t need them now.
But she soon finds that life after near-death isn’t quite so simple. She starts seeing a strange man (director Herk Harvey) everywhere, a man who looks as if he has died by drowning. He’s watching her, apparently stalking her. Even more terrifying, she keeps having episodes where she goes deaf and where nobody seems to be aware of her existence. And she finds herself irresistibly drawn to an abandoned carnival on the outskirts of town.
This is a film with a small cast and crew, and most of the actors were involved only in it and a few other works. The independent, low-budget nature of the film is obvious, but it is seldom to the film’s detriment. Hilligoss does a wonderful job as Mary, portraying somebody who is at times stoic, at times in a trance, and at times wondering if she’s losing her mind. It’s almost all shown entirely through her facial expressions, with very little hysteria. And the surreal nature of the scenes works reasonably well at building suspense, although it does sometimes get a little bit incoherent in places. It also suffers just a bit from how easy it is for a modern viewer to figure out the story arc from the beginning.
It’s a slow burner of a film, relying more on mild interest than out-and-out excitement, but it’s not hard to see how this movie could have influenced many successors in the genre. It’s not going to scare the audience any, but it makes it quite easy to believe in the fear of the main character.