Carnival of Souls is very noticeably low-budget. So much so that you don’t have to visit the IMDb Goofs section for insight. Sometimes the audio doesn’t sync up; other times there are very obvious continuity errors for something as simple as the shoes worn by Candace Hilligoss. Things done on the cheap can’t help but be a little rough around the edges. What matters is whether the intrinsic quality of the final product is able to transcend its exterior defects, and there’s little doubt that Carnival of Souls does so. Its cult status is not hard to justify: it’s a truly unsettling mood piece that is so full of death and dismay that its staying power is incontrovertible.
A lot of that is down to Herk Harvey, who both directed and starred as the boogeyman who haunts Hilligoss’ character. Harvey, all caked in makeup and leering menacingly, is downright terrifying, but his directorial work is just as accomplished. The film feels like it’s been subjected to the putrescent glow of a thousand fluorescent bulbs, turning even the most reverential spaces into soul-deadening vortexes that offer no hope or salvation. Hilligoss inhabits a semi-animate world as an equally semi-animate being, on the verge of total annihilation whether or not those around her can see her. With such a simple concept comes hair-raising possibilities that Harvey takes advantage of, low budget be damned. It’s too bad he never made another film again. We’ll never know what he could’ve made with an even bigger budget.