Carnival of Souls has a salt-flat feel to it, the middle of nowhere standing with a broad oily pool of water at its feet. But what matters most is the almost entirely internalized geography it spreads before us, the shadowland of Mary Henry's--not "mind" because, from the moment of her coolly observed emergence from the water--a drag-racing joyride ending badly--Mary slips away, closer to the pallid face and pale invitation of the Other Side. So maybe it’s the geography of her refusal to die, to admit she’s not so much being pursued by ghosts as reclaimed by them. A church organist without faith, she fades (as do the sounds and human contact of the world around her), fluttering like a small bird held in soft, cold hands.
This dance of the dead has a surprising resonance--an almost cruelly impartial observation of a nightmare, with its matter-of-fact slow decline, its relentless delivery of Mary into the hands of her fellow dead. It begins with the simple fact of universal mortality, and refuses to provide any reprieve.
And it is beautifully directed--by one Herk Harvey--its lighting and camera placement remarkable--well, OK, perfect. It looks exactly the way it needs to, and manages to overcome its weaknesses simply by staring at its subject without blinking. As the dead rise from the black water, or dance in delirious speed--and as Mary flees under the dark skies and shadowed streets, as the camera looks over, down and up, always holding just long enough to see, but not to break the mood, Carnival of Souls joins the short list of films that move like dreams. Its very detachment becomes an invitation to the danse macabre, and its slim resources force us into the narrow passage Harvey demands we follow, back to the car wreck, the spit of sand, and the thing we've known all along, but had to be told--because we want it so little: that Mary needs to go the way of all flesh. It is a movie that, like Thomas Gray's poetry, tells me to see the world as a graveyard, and ultimately is not so much cruel as clear in that vision; in the end, almost with kindness, it "leaves the world to darkness and to me.”