The Reincarnation of ‘Carnival of Souls’
The movies have always fervently believed there is life after death, and many a Dracula remake attests to it. So, in a double sense, does Harold (Heck) Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls.”
Nearly 30 years after it was made, Harvey’s ghoulish little thriller is getting the kind of reviews and playdates it never had when it was first released. In Los Angeles, it opens Friday at Laemmle’s Monica Premiere Showcase complex and, having been a bootleg tape for years, will be out in a genuine commercial cassette later this year.
The delayed acclaim has brought new attention to Harvey, a now-retired industrial filmmaker from Lawrence, Kan., who never made another feature, and to Candace Hilligoss, a New York actress (20 when she did “Carnival of Souls”), who retired from acting in favor of motherhood not long afterward and who is now a writer, living in Beverly Hills.
“I was paid $2,000 for doing the film,” Hilligoss said at lunch earlier this week. “It seemed like a fortune, so much so that my husband quit his job as a waiter to concentrate on his acting career and got his first Broadway part almost immediately.”
Hilligoss had gone to New York from Huron, S.D., to seek her own career. “I took three pairs of tap shoes and $500 and my father said that when the $500 was gone I’d have to come home. That was all there would be.”
She won a scholarship to the American Theatre Wing and found a job in the chorus line at Jules Podell’s Copacabana nightclub to support herself. “I was so naive; I thought Mafia was the name of the house dressing. The customers were right out of Damon Runyon’s ‘Guys and Dolls.’ ” But her legs were appreciatively reviewed by both Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson and she got a young agent who, like herself, was just beginning.
“I invited him to a screening of ‘Carnival,’ and afterward he looked at me and said: ‘You’re weird. You’ll hurt my career.’ He walked out and I never heard from him again.”
It’s a weird role, all right. She plays Mary Henry, one of three young women in a car drag-racing with two of the local swain. Her driver loses control on a narrow bridge and they plunge into a river where all three are presumably drowned. But she reappears, wet and sandy and forever changed, but able to resume her career as a church organist.
Where we are is in early Twilight Zone and the movie’s charm is in its mixture of sophistication of form and naivete of story, its blending of innocence and guile.
In a telephone interview this week, Heck Harvey, who retired three years ago, said he’d been driving back to Kansas in 1961 after making an industrial film in Los Angeles when, just outside Salt Lake City, he saw the great ornate ruin of Saltair, a once booming lake resort that boasted the largest unobstructed ballroom in the world. Changing times and a receding lake (floating in salt water was one of the lures) had put it out of business.
Harvey found he could rent it--for $50. “When I got back to Lawrence, I asked my friend and co-worker at Centron Films, John Clifford, who was a writer there, how he’d like to write a feature. The last scene, I told him, had to be a whole bunch of ghouls dancing in that ballroom; the rest was up to him. He wrote it in three weeks.”
Later in 1961, having gone to New York and cast Hilligoss, Harvey and a crew of six shot the film in three weeks (“working seven days a week and sometimes around the clock,” Hilligoss remembers vividly). The original budget was $17,000, raised in small chunks from local investors. Later he raised another $13,000 to complete the film.
Some of the crew double as actors. Harvey himself played the ghoul, in white makeup with black-rimmed eyes and frock coat to match, who pursues Hilligoss and lures her at last to the spooky ballroom. “That was part ego and more economics,” Harvey says. “Mostly economics. When you’ve only got $17,000 cash, you get thrifty.”
Shooting permits? Forget it. Hilligoss remembers that when they wanted to shoot a sequence in a Salt Lake department store, the crew simply wandered in to the dress department and Harvey gave a pretty sales clerk $25 to let them shoot in a dressing room and then to pretend she couldn’t see Hilligoss at all. (The character becomes invisible at inconvenient moments.)
“When they wanted to have me almost hit by a bus,” she says (a scene that doesn’t survive in the film), “we just went to the bus depot and Heck knocked on the door of a bus that was just leaving on a run to L.A. He asked the driver if he’d just slam on the brakes when I ran in front of him. The driver said sure. On the first take, Heck said I wasn’t close enough to the bus, so the driver backed up and did it again. This time the bus brushed me and Heck said it was fine. The driver said, ‘Want to do ‘er again?’ ”
At the train station, an executive came by and asked what the devil was going on. Harvey, Hilligoss says, took him aside and mentioned that two of the industrial films he’d done had been for the railroad. “When Heck got through,” Hilligoss says, “I think the man would have given us a train.”
When the film was finished, Harvey went to independent distributors, all but one of whom rejected it because of its lack of sex or violence. A small new Los Angeles outfit accepted it, with unfortunate consequences.
“I took off to do a series of seven industrial films in South America,” Harvey says. “When I got back I heard that the film was playing around and I called the distributor and said I figured we had some money coming. He agreed that was right and sent a check. It bounced. I knew we were in trouble.”
In fact, although Harvey had retained the television rights, the distributor sold an estimated 80 bootleg prints to various stations and then tiptoed off to Europe beyond the reach of prosecution.
To this day, Harvey says, neither he nor his investors have seen a cent from “Carnival of Souls,” although now, with a new and enthusiastic distributor, Panorama, and with the film finding playdates in several cities, the drought may well be broken.
The original distributor had at least assured “Carnival of Souls” an underground life. The bootleg prints played endlessly on late-night television and Halloween specials and on film series and in revival houses, including the Thalia in New York. It acquired a small but fanatic following.
One of the followers presented it as a cult classic at last year’s USA Film Festival in Dallas and it has since become a festival favorite. “I’m off to Cleveland next week for a festival there,” Heck Harvey reports.
Last November cast and crew had a reunion at the house in Lawrence where much of the interior action was shot and People magazine did a ghoulish story. The film has been reviewed in The New Yorker.
Harvey, born in Colorado, was stationed in Lawrence during World War II, liked it, returned to major in theater at the University of Kansas there and taught in the department before he got into industrial films, of which he made more than 200. Harvey married one of the investors in “Carnival.” “She’d already lost her $1,000 so I figured she really must love me.” They are still married.
The assistant director and assistant cameraman on “Carnival of Souls” was Reza Badiyi, now a prominent television director in Hollywood, then working at another industrial film company in Kansas City, Calvin Films, with a young director named Robert Altman. “Bob had just made his first feature, ‘The Delinquents,’ and I figured if he could do it, we could, so we made ‘Carnival.’ ”
But, burned by the “Carnival of Souls” experience, Harvey never tried another feature, although he has directed local productions of some three-act plays John Clifford has been writing. Now, Harvey says, with all the belated acclaim that has come his way, “We’re beginning to get some nibbles. John and I had actually prepared another feature, which we were going to do before the idea of ‘Carnival’ came along.”
Hilligoss moved to Beverly Hills 10 years ago, her marriage having broken up after 20 years (“another chapter of ‘War of the Roses’ ”). Her daughters are 24 and 26, and she is writing a novel based on a screenplay she also wrote. “I’m 700 pages in,” she says, “and I want it to do for the Upper Midwest what ‘Gone With the Wind’ did for the South.”
That’s a tall order. Then again, when you make a movie for $2,000 and have to wait 30 years for the favoring reviews to come in, your ideas change about what isn’t possible, and what is.