The Ghosts of Saltair
In 1961, after years of directing and acting in hundreds of educational and industrial films for the Centron Corporation of Lawrence, Kansas, Herk Harvey was itching to do something more creative. While driving back from an assignment in California, he spotted something weird – a cavernous structure jutting from the shores of Great Salt Lake. It was once a resort called Saltair, a thriving vacation spot at the turn of the century, now sitting abandoned and empty, except for the ghosts of its past glory. Harvey knew it would make a perfect location for a horror film.
Arriving back in Kansas, he got his friend John Clifford, an author he respected that had never written for the movies, to work on a script for a feature. His only instructions were that the climax would be an army of corpses rising from the lake to haunt a huge ballroom. Meanwhile, Harvey quickly raised $17,000 from local businessmen to finance his first (and last) big feature.
The story starts with something from Rebel Without A Cause – a foolhardy back-roads race between a car full of juvenile delinquents and their prospective girlfriends. But the race goes awry, and the girls’ car plunges off a bridge into the river. A search party works for hours to find anything in the muddy water, with no luck until one of the girls, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) suddenly climbs out of the river onto a sandbar, apparently none the worse for wear.
Mary, a person of strong will, doesn’t spend any time dwelling on her near escape, but sets off for the West. She has a new job as a church organist awaiting her. On the road, she begins to see frightening apparitions of a ghostly, tall, white-faced man (Harvey). What’s more, she feels disconnected from the people in her new life. Her landlady (Frances Feist) thinks she’s a bit odd. Her neighbor, a greasy would-be playboy (Sidney Berger), struggles to make a connection with her, but fails to make any impression. The minister she works for (Art Ellison) at first marvels at the inspiring music she makes, only to find himself shocked when the melody turns sinister and discordant. As the tall man and other ghouls continue to haunt her, Mary’s fear and sense of hopeless alienation grows ever stronger, until she has a period where she seems to walk like a ghost through an unseeing, silent world.
Mary finds herself drawn to the eerie abandoned carnival outside of town. As she grows more desperate, she comes to believe that she may find her answers there. Breaking in after dark, the echoing dancehall and sideshows of the amusement pier only make her more uneasy. Then the dead rise from the lake to dance like demons, beckoning her to take her place among them. Some of the acting is of lesser quality, but Carnival of Souls still retains a creepy power. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, Harvey put his best into his little black and white feature, filling it with interesting transitions, high angles, and many beautiful shots performed by director of photography by Maurice Prather. The music by Gene Moore – performed exclusively on the organ when not played on the radio or jukebox – is an especially disconcerting component, helping create a thick atmosphere without ever becoming intrusive.
Though the Twilight Zone plot is disappointing in its obviousness (Clifford swore that the ending was not premeditated), Carnival of Souls stands today as a testament to what can be achieved by a small band of independent operators – but it’s also baffling that most of them never made another film. Method-trained New York actress Hilligoss, who gave up a part in Del Tenney’s Psychomania for the lead in Carnival because the role required no nudity, found herself doing a bathtub scene opposite Roy Scheider the next year for Tenney’s Curse of the Living Corpse. Assistant director Reza Badiyi became a very prolific television director in Hollywood (and stepfather to Jennifer Jason Leigh).
But most of the cast and crew went back to their local careers in Lawrence. Harvey managed to place Carnival of Souls with new distribution company Herts-Lion, then had to make an extended trip to Central America to make a series of geography films for McGraw-Hill. Herts-Lion cut it down to 75 minutes and put it on a drive-in double bill with Herbert Strock’s The Devil’s Messenger (starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as Satan). It had a short run, mostly in southern states. Harvey returned from his trip to find that Herts-Lion had gone out of business, taking the profits with them, and everyone concerned thought that would be the last they’d hear about it.
However, like the tall man himself, Carnival of Souls refused to stay peacefully in the grave. It played extensively in Europe, where it was embraced, and enough people had seen it – either in the theater or on late night TV – that it was remembered and talked about. I first became aware of it in the early ’80s while working on a novel set in a carnival, and managed to get a rare bootleg copy on video, where even its washed-out image made an impression. Demand for it grew, and finally Herk Harvey became aware of it and spearheaded a restoration and re-release in 1988.
It was at this time when much of the material for this special two-disc set was collected. Disc 1 contains the original theatrical cut of the film, likely only because the people at Criterion think of themselves as preservationists and figure it may become a useful artifact in some way. Other than that, I can’t think who would want to bother with it. The meat of Disc 1 is in the extras included, though some may argue that they could have fit on another layer of a single disc.
There’s a television documentary by Lawrence TV reporter Bill Shaffer entitled The Movie That Wouldn’t Die, shot at the time of the 1989 re-release premiere that brought many of the players together again. Shaffer also put together a short, Carnival Tour, which shows what the film’s locations looked like then. Worn-looking clips used in these features prove just how good a job Criterion has done in presenting the film on video. Many shots included in the disc’s thirty-nine and a half minutes of outtakes look as good as anything in the film, but a lot were obviously not used because of flaws in photography. Some reveal scenes that were left out entirely.
Here you can also see the rare trailer, which promises “a new dimension in picture making,” complete with the Herts-Lion logo (and an advisory note that there would be “positively no refunds!”). The best feature by far is a detailed and illustrated article detailing the full fascinating history of the Saltair resort. Built in 1883 (and designed by the same architect as the Nevada State Mental Hospital), it suffered through fires, wars, droughts, floods, and economic failure – and was rebuilt every time. The latest incarnation can be seen in the trashy sci-fi film Neon City.
Disc 2 serves up the main course: the full 83-minute director’s cut, which is richer and more satisfying. It has a more deliberate pace, and includes many creepy shots of the carnival ghouls stalking about. An extensive interview with Harvey and John Clifford recorded in 1989 has been edited into an engaging commentrak, although the track drops out for extended periods. It would’ve been nice to have interviews with other surviving principals to fill in the blank spots, but that’s a minor quibble, considering Harvey died in 1996 and we’re lucky enough to hear him – speaking from beyond the grave – give his own impressions.
A section of the disc is given over to generous excerpts from a few of Harvey’s Centron films, accompanied by a chapter on Centron from Ken Smith’s terrific book Mental Hygiene. Some of his productions are delightfully corny, as when Harvey himself plays an heir forced to tour Kansas to earn an inheritance, or in the one where they got to recreate thrilling accidents with big construction machines. But others reveal their true impact – 1962’s “To Touch A Child” is credited with revolutionizing the after-class use of public school buildings across the country. Harvey was also the only filmmaker to shoot footage in Haiti during Papa Doc’s reign of terror, and his series of films on Korea won many awards.
The set is rounded out with print interviews by Tom Weaver with Harvey, Clifford and Hilligoss, and is presented in one of Criterion’s better designed packages, despite the oddity of the original poster art.