Movie recap: Carnival of Souls (1962) starring Candace Hilligoss

Posted: September 7, 2013 by The Mummy in movie recaps, movie reviews, stuff we liked, stuff we were terrified by
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This is one of those rare and peculiar things: a film that scares me. Like, really scares me. I spent ten minutes sitting in front of the television bracing myself to start the movie, because even after a break of several years, the mere memory of watching it makes me jittery and prone to screaming and jumping when local political candidates ring my doorbell unexpectedly.

  • Script quality: it SHOULD be silly, and instead is disconcertingly terrifying.
  • Acting quality: amazingly effective.
  • Overall feeling afterwards: That’s okay, I didn’t need to sleep tonight anyway.

It’s IMPOSSIBLE to discuss this without spoilers for the ending, so everything (even the overly informative movie poster) beneath the cut is a potential SPOILER.

This is officially the worst day of Mary's life.

This is officially the worst day of Mary’s life.

Don't look too closely at this until after you've read the recap, okay?

Don’t look too closely at this until after you’ve read the recap, okay?

The movie begins with a guy in a dorky hat leaning out of the passenger window of a car to challenge three people in another car to a race. Was this a thing that actually went on in the 60s? The girl driving the car says “sure,” but her two passengers look nervous, and Mary wisely checks out the window as if plotting her escape. Ha. No, seriously, she really does take a good look at the window frame.

So they race. Both drivers are smoking, and they’re racing past “Danger: road under construction” signs. I must just be from a more cautious generation or something.

The girls’ car goes off a bridge and sinks really rapidly, while the title appears in wavering letters. I should probably be on Valium or something, because I am already on edge. For the record, THIS is when my doorbell rang and I shrieked and leaped off the couch. Nothing has even HAPPENED yet. I mean, nothing scary.

Horrible scary organ music plays over the credits.

A bunch of men are standing on the bridge watching the sheriff and a bunch of volunteers search the muddy water for the car. That’s a nice, morbid way to pass the time. One of the gawkers on the bridge remarks blandly that they might never find the car. There are seriously a LOT of people just standing around the bridge watching.

Then Mary staggers ashore. She looks muddy and terrible, and is barefoot, which you’ll notice if you’re a Beatles fan. When asked “What about the other girls?” she can only tell them she doesn’t remember.

Next you see her — this time clean and in fresh clothes — looking down over the bridge at the guys still searching for the cars. There are only, like, two old men watching now, so I guess time has passed and everyone else got bored or something.

Next we see her playing the organ in a church, and then she talks to some guy who tells her it will be the same as the one she’ll be playing somewhere. She assures him the accident won’t delay her driving to…wherever she’s going to be working; it’s a bit hard to pick out.  According to wikipedia it’s Utah. He asks if she’s going to stop in and see her folks on the way, and she looks nervous and says she can’t; she’ll be driving straight through. They sort of argue: she tells him playing the organ is “just a job,” but he tells her she has to put her soul into her music.

Then the man and a carpenter have a conversation in which they refer to her as lacking emotion, quiet, keeping to herself, secretly a tough little thing, and conclude that maybe in her place they’d do the same thing and just get on with life. Heh. But the first man is convinced she’s behaving strangely.

On the drive to Utah she pauses on the bridge again, staring out at the water. Creeeepy, at least if you’ve figured out what’s going on.

Hey, it is Utah. There’s a road sign. Night falls, and she’s still driving. The car radio starts playing eerie organ music. She changes the station but can’t get rid of it. In the distance she sees a horrible deserted carnival/fairground/whatever. I can’t explain WHY this is so creepy. Just go with it. Then a man’s face appears briefly in the window. I’d go off the road if that happened to me, but I guess she’s had her fill of that.



Then he appears STANDING IN THE ROAD and she swerves and does go off onto the shoulder.



That looks so cheesy, but I nearly had a heart attack when he popped up.

She rolls up her window and locks the door, which is incredibly obviously not going to help. A gas station attendant directs her to her rooming house. The landlady is adorably dowdy. Then she leaves, and Mary sees the horrible Creepy Man staring in the window. GAH.

She visits the church where she’ll be working and declines the minister’s offer of a reception to meet the congregation. “My dear, you cannot live in isolation from the human race,” he tells her, and he is so much more right than he knows.

She sits down at the organ and starts playing something church-y, and a gardener and a cleaning lady are shown listening reverently. She’s looking around as she plays, and there’s a stained-glass window of the casting out of demons bit . Also there’s the CREEPY MAN ENTERING THE CHURCH, GAH. Her playing falters. The minister goes in to find her staring at the window.

Back at the boarding house, Mary’s bath is interrupted by the new boarder, John Linden. He sneaks a look at her while she’s getting her bathrobe on. Creepy. The discordant organ music plays again, which sort of suggests that this guy’s perviness is on par with the supernatural creepy things.

She kicks him out, and the creepy music returns when she sees the Creepy Man downstairs. She hears him coming SLOWLY up the stairs to her room, but then it turns out to be just the landlady, who assures her there’s no one else there but Mr. Linden.

Things get progressively worse. She sees Creepy Man everywhere, and she can’t stop thinking about the abandoned carnival. Mr. Linden keeps hitting on her, which almost comes as a relief (to her as well as me, I think, since she eventually agrees to go out with him).


“So, wanna touch my hair gel?”

She goes shopping, and there’s a strange interlude where she can’t hear anyone talking, and they apparently can’t see or hear her. She’s in a department store, and then out on a sidewalk, surrounded by silent people who don’t look at her. Finally she walks into a park and hears a bird chirping, and then a distant siren. But for a moment there, she’d sort of…drifted out of sync.

She drinks from a fountain, thinks she sees the Man, and runs straight into the arms of Dr. “I’m not a psychiatrist” Samuels. She goes with him to his office and starts therapy anyway, because I guess getting therapy from non-psychiatrists is a thing that goes on in Utah? He actually tells her “I’m not a psychiatrist” and then sits there asking her things like whether the Creepy Man reminds her of her father.

"So is it okay if I write a novel and publish it as your diary? I was thinking of calling it Mary's Memoirs."

“So is it okay if I write a novel and publish it as your diary? I was thinking of calling it Mary’s Memoirs.”

He brings up the old pavilion, and she decides to go out there. Yeah, that’s BOUND to help. I know if I were being stalked by a creepy dead-looking guy, I’d want to go hang out at an abandoned carnival. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, yeah: LOTS OF DEAD PEOPLE COULD SHOW UP. But that’s later. On the first visit, she just wanders around a creepy abandoned funfair and ballroom.


I’ll just leave this here so you know what you have to look forward to.

At church, she tries to practice, but only jangly discordant music comes out. It is UNSPEAKABLY SCARY for some reason. She’s picturing the carnival, and the water of the river, and this:


She’s also picturing various dead people emerging from water, and the dance of the dead people pictured above, and a carnival full of dead people. The minister rushes in and fires her, and I don’t freaking blame him.

She goes on the date with Linden, which just goes to show you how desperate she is. The Creepy Man shows up in her bedroom mirror, thereby preventing Linden from getting laid.  Even the creepy dead have their moments, I guess. Dr. Samuels makes a housecall, and the landlady tells him “only the devil knows” what Mary’s been up to. The doctor confesses he’s baffled. Yes, well: since he’s NOT A PSYCHIATRIST that’s not surprising.

Mary tries to leave town but her car gets a flat, and when she gets on a bus everyone on the bus is dead.



She can’t get anyone to see her or talk to her. She goes to see Dr. Samuels, but he’s sitting back on to her, and there’s absolutely no indication he knows she’s in the room. She talks herself into going back to the pavilion. The chair swings around slowly and IT’S THE CREEPY MAN.

She drives in silence out to the pavilion. The dead people are dancing. They chase her across the beach, and she collapses as they surround her, like that one scene in every zombie movie.

The minister, the not-a-psychiatrist, and two police officers are shown at the beach. There’s a trail of her footprints leading across the sand, then a scuffed area where she collapsed, and then…nothing. She’s vanished.

An image of the abandoned pavilion fades into a scene back at the river. The sheriff and co. have found the car. They pull it from the water, and all three girls are inside, dead.

Questions remaining after rewatching this:

1. Exactly how much freaking willpower would you have to have in order to walk around for several days after dying?

2. Who exactly IS the Creepy Man, anyway? I know he’s dead and all, but what’s his connection to Mary? Is he, like, her husband in Dead World?

3. Seriously, what is up with non-psychiatrists in Utah?

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