Time is On Your Side: Time and Transitions in CARNIVAL OF SOULS

21 October 2012

Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls is known as “the film that wouldn’t die.” In 1962, when the film was originally released, Carnival of Souls was cut down to 72 minutes (from 84) and partnered with another horror film, shown as a double feature at drive-ins.  This type of release should have sealed Carnival of Souls’ fate, however in the 1980s Harvey’s film was revived from the celluloid underworld.  This time Carnival of Souls found its way into theatres, art houses primarily.  The once slighted, B-rate horror flick suddenly became an achievement in independent filmmaking and garnered a huge cult following.  Although restricted by a minuscule budget, Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, written by John Clifford, is a haunting, cerebral exploration into the human psyche, and Harvey’s filmmaking, while experimental and unrefined (or perhaps experimentally unrefined) deepens the degree of horror in Carnival of Souls, particularly when dealing with time and its elusivity.

Carnival of Souls follows Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), the sole survivor of an automobile accident.  Mary, disoriented and confused from the crash, leaves her small town in Kansas and takes a job as a church organist in Utah.  While on the road to Utah, Mary begins seeing haunting apparitions of The Man (Herk Harvey), a white-faced, suit-clad figure.  His appearance coincides with an old seaside pavilion Mary notices on her travels.  This structure, which fascinates Mary, is visible from the room she rents in Utah, and she inquires about it, finding out it was once a carnival, but is now an abandoned and restricted area.  The Man continues to haunt Mary, and she begins experiencing other strange occurrences: hallucinating, being inaudible to others, and sporadic deafness.  Mary visits the carnival several times, but as the film’s climax approaches, she finds herself back there, with zombie-like beings draped in black, and, of course, The Man narrowing in on her.

Time is vague in Carnival of Souls, and right from the film’s opening time’s elusive nature is made clear.  For example, after the fatal car accident, as police drag the Kansas River for the wreckage, one officer mentions three hours time elapsed since the accident.  Just then Mary Henry emerges on a sandbank; she is wet and covered with mud.  Where has Mary been for three hours?  She couldn’t have been underwater all that time.  She could not have treaded water for three straight hours, especially directly after such a traumatic experience.  Not to mention, how did she manage to get out of the car? When confronted with some of these very questions, all Mary can say is, “I can’t remember.”  By casually mentioning the three elapsed hours, Clifford’s dialogue introduces a problem regarding time, but Harvey’s direction keeps the audience from pondering this detail too long by focusing viewer’s attention in a clearly disheveled, stumbling Mary and the crowd forming around her.

Moreover, there are breaks in continuity throughout the film, perhaps most notably in the first half of Carnival of Souls.  Just before Mary leaves Kansas, she visits the bridge where the accident took place on.  Feeling the need to move on, physically and emotionally, Mary gets in her car and motions to turn the ignition.  In a close-up on her hand, Mary’s wrist twists to start the vehicle and Harvey cuts to another close-up of Mary’s hand, this time adjusting an organ knob.  Transitioning through similar hand movements, Harvey cuts from one moment in time to another, sometime in the not-so-distant future.  Exactly how much time was lost is unknown, and what happened in that lost time is also unknown, beginning a series of transitions between scenes, and through time, highlighting the elusive nature of time in Carnival of Souls.

Another such transition occurs shortly after, when Mary leaves the Kansas organ factory for Utah.  As Mary leaves the factory’s supervisor, there is a quick cut to the inner workshop of the factory where a man is cutting large pieces of wood with an electronic saw.  The shot is curious because Mary is not in it and this is one of the few shots, post her emergence on the sandbank, that she is not in.  Nevertheless, the shot helps Harvey transition.  The factory worker’s use of machinery is the catalyst Harvey uses to cut to Mary operating machinery, her car, which is finally on the road to Utah.  Once again, time has elapsed between the factory worker cutting wood and Mary driving, but it is unclear just how much.

In the following scene, when Mary stops for gasoline, the gas station attendant offers her directions to the house she rented a room in.  He tells her it is “..right over that way,” pointing in the direction she should follow.  The camera pans rapidly to the left, following his point, and the scene immediately cuts to Mary’s landlady opening the door to her room; Mary enters from behind.  The gap of time between Mary leaving the gas station and entering her new living quarters is all lost.  The continuity of time continues to be broken, which, ultimately, reinforces the confused, uncomfortable tone of the film.  By distorting time in this seeming subtle way, Carnival of Souls maintains an air of perplexity, as though viewers are looking at a puzzle, trying to assemble it, but there are pieces missing, symbolized by those gaps of time missing in Harvey’s transitions.

While all the aforementioned transitions twist time, there is one transition that takes the distortion ever further.  In the beginning of the film, when Mary emerges on the sandbank, it is unclear where she came from or how she got there.  In the film’s climax, when The Man and the zombies chase Mary along the sand at the abandoned carnival, Mary mysteriously disappears in the sand.  Several men from the town come to the beach along the carnival and investigate Mary’s disappearance.  They see her footprints—only hers—and an area that looks like she fell and struggled on the sand, but Mary is gone; there are no footprints, or any other tracks indicating where she may have gone.  Therefore, Mary both appears and disappears in sand in Carnival of Souls.  When read on a slat, this is another manipulation of time in the film.  It is almost as though the film circles back to the beginning in its conclusion.  Mary disappears into the sand to reappear on the sandbank at the scene of her accident.

Of course, the audience learns Mary actually died in the car accident, so the entire film does not reflect reality, instead, perhaps, the inner working of mind as it is dying, or the limbo souls find themselves in when they are unwilling to accept their own death.  However, because the film begins where it ends (or ends where it begins), there is the strong suggestion that, although this film is over for the audience, it is not over for Mary. Perhaps Mary is now in some bizarre limbo, trapped in a cycle in which she emerges from her accident, makes her way to the carnival, only to reemerge at the scene of her accident.

Considering what a vital role time plays in the film, it is ironic how important time’s role has been for Carnival of Souls.  When exploring such depth in the film it seems evident why 1960s drive-in audiences did not take to the film.  It is a movie that makes audiences’ think, and cutting down the running time and pairing it with another feature impedes audiences’ ability to discover Carnival of Souls.  When the film found its way into art houses during the late 1980s, and eventually made its way into the Criterion Collection, Carnival of Souls founds its true audience and its rightful place in film history.  Apparently it really is all in the timing.


~ by Kate Bellmore on 21/10/2012.

One Response to “Time is On Your Side: Time and Transitions in CARNIVAL OF SOULS”

  1. This film has really stuck with me since the first time I saw it. I think I will watch it again. Your excellent essay above shows me there is more in this unlikely gem that I had not considered the first time around.

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