And finally, a regular here at the lair surfaces!
I have raved about the wonder that is Carnival of Souls for quite some time now, and yet I continue to hear it described by fellow horror hounds as “the best movie never seen.” As a full-on fan of this movie, I feel that it’s my duty to continue to sing its praises and encourage as many people as possible to see it.
That being said, I almost didn’t include Mary Henry as a possible Lady of Horror May-hem. She spends a large portion of the movie being reactive rather than proactive. However, because I’m a generous soul and because I really do love this movie so much, I allowed her to attend. After all, she is the one who sets into motion the entirety of this story thanks to her actions at the beginning. That counts! Also, she does it all by drag-racing a carload of hot-rodders. Drag-racing grrls, FTW.
Mary, as portrayed by Candace Hilligoss, also stands as the first bad-ass lady to go up against the modern cinema’s take on zombies (no, they aren’t really zombies…then again, most “zombies” we see in movies aren’t zombies either…they’re simply plays on this prototype). She stands at the pinnacle, even above George Romero’s Barbara from Night of the Living Dead. Romero even states that director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford inspired his perennial zombie favorites.
Carnival of Souls is not your typical horror. It’s not burdened by special effects that would have aged in noticeably awkward ways. It’s streamlined and stunning, a firm and fit tale presented in the most delicious black and white shots imaginable. Harvey knew how to work that monochromatic palette. And Hilligoss’s portrayal of Mary’s downward spiral into terrified confusion is such that even when she tipples over into campiness, you never feel like she’s insincere. Just really overwhelmed by all that’s happening around her.
Another aspect that marks Mary as unique among early horror movie heroines is her unexpected hardened edge, especially regarding her take on religion. One assumes that a woman who has made church organist her profession would have a profound respect for the religion that employs her. Not so, Bob. She’s just in it for the Benjamins. In fact, she really doesn’t give much of a damn for anything other than her work and being left alone. Is this a side effect of the events of the movie, or is this her true personality? Regardless, it’s who we meet, who we observe, and who we ultimately follow to that penultimate dance that keeps luring her closer and closer as the dusk descends upon the carnival.