I remember as a child staying to watch Carnival on late night TV in the late 80s. It caught me with its striking monochrome photography, classic style, creeping atmosphere and eerie organ score. It has stayed with me ever since.
Many Henry (Candace Hilligoss) survives the film’s opening car race where she and two companions plummet into the cold river waters from a rickety bridge. Mary survives bedraggled but unscathed and soon leaves her hometown to take a job as a Church Organist. Her night drive to her new home is reminiscent of Janet Leigh’s atmospheric journey to the Bates’ Motel in Psycho. This is where Mary Henry first catches a glimpse of ‘The Man’, a ghoulish grinning spectre played by the film’s director Herk Harvey in pasty greasepaint. She passes the pavilion, a lonely haunting structure out at sea, once a mecca of entertainment now abandoned. It draws her closer to The Man and the ghouls that lie in the water waiting for her. Mary has to deal with her pushy landlady and a lecherous fellow lodger played excellently by Sidney Berger, but these two are the least of her problems. Mary keeps losing her place in the world, almost seeming to become invisible. No one can help her. She allows her roommates affections to boil over one night but becomes rigid with fear when he touches her. A psychiatrist also offers no respite from the world of the dead edging ever closer.
Despite her career in the Church, Mary is play-for-pay only. She seems unaffected by the religious imagery she is surrounded by but instead doomed to become absorbed by the derelict ruins of the pavilion, her new place of sanctuary. Mary’s boss, an old Vicar cruelly turns his back on her; the Church like all those around her is unable to offer comfort in a time of need.
Hilligoss brings a cold detached but charming charisma to Mary Henry. She didn’t do many more films after Carnival; the most noted being ‘Curse of the living corpse’, a horror film with Roy Scheider. She was the only professionally trained talent in front of the camera with most of the cast found locally. The result is some delightfully off-kilter performances which adds to the growing weirdness of the film.
Sadly Harvey and his crew never made a feature film again. The distributer for Carnival went bust soon after its release and eventually the film ended up in the public domain often appearing in the early hours on cable TV and now, YouTube. This was part of its success and longevity as many people saw it and it is now considered a classic of the genre. I wonder what the teenagers at the 60s Drive-ins would have made of it.
The film is widely available on the internet and DVD but if you want to treat yourself go for The Criterion Collection DVD. It contains the original cut as well as the theatrical version, extra footage and a short film where the whole cast is reunited at its re-release in 1989. It opened to glowing reviews, a world apart from the lacklustre reception it originally received in 1962.
There was a remake in 1998 produced by Wes Craven but it’s horrible and only notable for a cameo by original star Sidney Berger as a Policeman. There is also German re-imagining ‘Yella’ made in 2007 by Christian Petzold.