“Reporters have asked why Carnival of Souls is still recirculating when hundreds of other low-budget black-and-white films have been long forgotten. All I know is that the movie was created, directed, filmed and edited by people who loved the idea of making a picture—not to exploit anything or fit into any special niche, but just to make the best film they could with the limited resources available to them.”
– John Clifford, screenwriter, Carnival of Souls.
One of the iconic moments in director Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls is when heroine Mary Henry, presumed dead, staggers from a murky river and trudges through thick mud, finally collapsing into the arms of her rescuers. Metaphorically, it is a sequence that perfectly captures this odd, eerie film's journey.
Shot by a crew of six for US$33,000, the late director's first (and only) film premiered in 1962 to meagre box office and critical indifference; in one of the more favourable reviews, Variety called it “a creditable can of film”. Starring the Lee Strasberg-trained actress Candace Hilligoss as the wide-eyed church organist who survives a car accident only to be stalked by a ghostly vision (director Harvey, in white-face and black eyeshadow), Carnival of Souls would have evaporated into that netherworld of disposable drive-in fodder from the period (it screened on a double-bill with the Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle, The Devil's Messenger) had it not been for the loving embrace of midnight-movie programmers and after-dark cable channel viewers in the mid-1980s.
When renowned auteurs George Romero, David Cronenberg and David Lynch began to speak out about their passion for the film (Lynch cites it as directly influencing Lost Highway), the retrospective love began to flow. Wes Craven executive-produced a 1998 remake. And by 2007, respected film historians such as Peter Wilshire were publishing 4000-word essays on Carnival of Souls; though acknowledging it does contain “stilted performances, bad lip-synching, clunky editing and a few continuity errors,” he ultimately declares it “strange, atmospheric and unforgettable”. The respect that now exists for the film earned it a full remastering of both the original version and Harvey's director's cut for a 2-disc release by the esteemed US DVD distributor, Criterion.
The film's journey continues with the Australian premiere of Long Live Cinema: Carnival of Souls, a theatrical event that re-invigorates Harvey's film by using live sound effects from Foley master Gareth Van Niekerk, an all-new voice cast led by Chelsie Preston Crayford (most recently seen as 'Tilly Devine' in the series Underbelly: Razor) and a bold new score from Leon Radojkovic.
From a professional standpoint, Van Niekerk was not immediately enamoured of the film. “There may be different versions of the film out there, but with the one I saw, I did notice that the sound was out of sync. It was a very run-of-the-mill soundtrack. The organ stuff was kind of cool,” he says, referencing Gene Moore's original score (now jettisoned in favour of Radojkovic's, which the New Zealand Herald called a work of “epic sadness”). From his self-contained onstage sound booth, Van Niekerk applies old school sound effects techniques to convey the scariness (and, occasional cheesiness) of Carnival of Souls; to replicate the sound of Mary's aforementioned trudging through riverbank mud, he utilises a bucket of shaving cream and plastic drink bottles. “There are definitely some parts where we are having a bit of fun,” he admits, “but overall we stayed respectful, just tried to do our version of the film.”
The task of re-voicing Candace Holligoss' performance was particularly challenging for Crayford. Holligoss, who only made two films in her short career (the other being 1964's The Curse of the Living Corpse), appears in almost every scene and her tonally inconsistent acting has been both lauded and derided over the years. Crayford recalls seeing the performance “oh, hundreds of times,” and believes it to be a landmark portrayal. “Candace is amazing, though that's not to say it's a flawless performance,” she tells SBS Film from her family home in New Zealand. “It is an exceptional role for that time. She is filled with an existential angst, which you didn't very often get in women's roles. There are some dubious moments, for sure, but I just love watching her. The more you watch, the more you notice.”
With regards to the film's reputation, Crayford has her feet in both camps. “It's an absolute B-grade gem!” she enthuses. “It [will never] be seen as a masterpiece but it is a masterpiece, in its own way. It is hard to imagine how it came to be [in its finished form]. It is so endearingly fun in some areas yet so effectively scary in others, and so ahead of its time in its impact.”
Long Live Cinema: Carnival of Souls will be performed at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre, Jan 20-22, as part of the Sydney Festival; then at the Festival Gardens, February 21-22, as part of the Perth Festival.