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Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls has long been a staple of cheapo horror collections of middling quality: a dubious distinction indeed. Seen in a proper presentation, however, it’s one of the genre’s highwater marks, and a key stepping stone in the history of independent film. A thoughtful and carefully crafted chiller, the low-budget production (shot in three weeks with a five-person crew and a $17,000 budget) fell into the domestic public domain when a copyright disclaimer was left off of initial release prints, leaving it at the mercy of any number of unscrupulous distributors. Harvey and his production team, who developed their filmmaking skills creating industrial and educational films in Kansas, saw little, if any profit for their efforts, until legal action in the 1990s returned the copyright to its rightful owners, and led to the film’s canonization in the Criterion Collection.

Eschewing monsters and carnage in favor of Val Lewton-esque psychological horror, Carnival of Souls follows Mary Henry (Candace Hilligloss), who narrowly escapes death in a drag-racing accident and finds herself haunted by a ghostly apparition (played by director Harvey), and inexorably drawn to an abandoned pavillion on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. John Clifford’s scripting creates an intriguing array of tensions; Mary is menaced outright by spectres, but she also has to contend with the more subtle threats of the film’s supporting characters, from the minister who hires her (Art Ellison) and a skeptical doctor (Stan Levitt) to her fellow roominghouse boarder (Sidney Berger), whose increasingly aggressive attempts to romance her ultimately push her to the breaking point.

Woven deeply into the film’s architecture is the eerie organ music which dominates the soundtrack, contributed by composer Gene Moore. Writer Clifford, in his written introduction for Criterion’s DVD release of the film, explained,

While thinking about a character and a story, I was also trying to think of locations that would put atmosphere on the screen at little expense. And one of the places I thought about was the Reuter Organ Company here in Lawrence, Kansas. Reuter builds church pipe organs—and I had seen the room where they assemble and test these exposed pipes. And I decided to use that organ-testing room. And that gave me the idea of making Mary Henry an organist... which led to her going to Salt Lake City to work in a church... which caused her to drive past the old Saltair pavilion and so forth...

Moore’s approach in scoring the film was quite similar to those taken by organists in the days of silent film, frequently relying on improvisation and intuition rather than a fully written-out score. According to director Harvey, the entire film was scored in one session (on November 19, 1961) that may have been as short as six hours:

I gave Gene a 16-millimeter print of the movie, and he looked at it... and said, “Okay, I’m ready.” ...So, we went over to an organ sales company that had a big Thomas organ, and Gene simply sat down and started in. Most of it he had scored, but some of the music, just for general effects, he just sat and ad-libbed. We started [recording] around eight o’clock in the morning and probably by two o’clock in the afternoon we were done.

A key cue from the film, “We Have an Organist Capable of Stirring the Soul,” is a brilliant encapsulation of the film’s musical approach. Beginning first in the placid, soothing modes of traditional organ spirituals, the music soon climbs into dissonant registral extremes as Mary’s haunting visions swim into her head, her terror and dislocation transmitted through the music. Moore’s fluid scoring embraces a number of different thematic approaches, in particular a nightmarish waltz for the ghosts that menace the film’s tortured heroine, and the moody, flowing music gives the film a unique and otherworldly ambience throughout. Citadel Records’ 2006 release of Moore’s compositions, restored from the original scoring masters and featuring a dual presentation (with and without dialogue from the film), is still available both on CD and 180-gram vinyl, and comes highly recommended.


The Moment in Question:

Click [here] to listen to a sample
of “We Have An Organist Capable of
Stirring the Soul,” composed and
performed by Gene Moore

Gene Moore portrait
... ...Gene Moore

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Awesome Websites!

Carnival of Souls at SAE

Carnival of Souls Wikipeida

Carnival of Souls Criterion (Amazon)

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Howlin' Wolf  
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Years ago I held my tape recorder up to the TV to capture this fantastic score. In some ways, the idea of creepy organ music ought to be corny and generic, like something from a Disney Haunted House. Yet, Carnival of Souls ends up being not only a lyrical score, but also an unsettling one. Brilliant choices by the way. We appear to have very similar tastes.
Dino   This film was a great and fun little jaunt of corny, yet creepy. Though the score was a driving force to make it remind us we were not in a large theme park. No it was down that dirt road in the middle of the middle of nowhere.

Thank you for the great memories, also for picking me out of the virtual hat ...I will contact you soon!
Howlin' Wolf   Congrats again Dino and thank you for your contributions! Actually we are "old school" and cut up real pieces of paper with numbers assigned to each name ...so your name was pulled out of a literal rather than virtual hat. It is indeed great fun for us! smiley face
Jonathan   This sounds really interesting. Such a little film, yet I was surprised to see that there is even a CD release. The story behind the movie is classic. Recording the organ live in about 6 hours sounds like a world record.
Scott   Seeing this installment of 13 Chills made me pause. Carnival of Souls sounded so familiar to me ...I know I haven't seen the movie ...so I went digging. Low and behold, I actually have this one ...so I had to blow the dust off of it and give it another listen.

If you don't like organ music this one certainly isn't for you, as the score is just absolutely jam packed with it from start to finish. The Citadel release as Jason stated above is broken into 2 parts, with the first half of the CD containing a ton of dialogue tracks interspersed with the music. The second half of the CD contains one large 30 minute Suite of score music from the film without dialogue. Listening to it again, I remember why I haven't listened to it in a while ...I don't mind an organ filled track from time to time, but a whole score of it is just a little more than I like. It is certainly worthy of a listen if you are not familiar with it though, and it does have a distinct sound to it.
S. Dawg   Haven't seen this little chiller for many a year; looks like I ought to re-visit it. Not sure the score would be that rewarding as a standalone experience though!
Josh   Our copy of Carnival of Souls (the Citadel CD) arrived in the mail on the very day that you posted this article. Talk about a crazy coinkykink. The sound and presentation of the Citadel CD just blows away the previous Birdman Records release. This movie (and its score) are essential watching this time of year, or anytime you want a dose of good ol' fashioned cinematic goosebumps.