I watched Carnival of Souls today in preparation for the Rifftrax performance coming out later this month. It was extraordinary.
Yes, the basic story — a woman survives a near-fatal car accident only to be haunted by a mysterious creepy stranger — is lifted intact from the Twilight Zone episode “The Hitchhiker.” But this version expands on that basic premise with so many ideas, motifs, and stylistic moves that I recognized in later works, including Night of the Living Dead (also a Halloween Rifftrax choice), Jacob’s Ladder, Silent Hill, Lost Highway (tons of David Lynch, really), and The Sixth Sense, in addition to odd and poignant lines and moments I can’t remember having seen anywhere else. Mary’s strange dissociative emotions felt oddly familiar and resonant to me, and after a while I realized that they felt, in addition to what they were meant to suggest, like a fantastical portrayal of a certain type of depression.
It’s true we’re not talking about a “good” movie in the usual sense. For a start, almost all the performances were forgettable at best (and unforgettable at worst), though the lead actor herself was actually fairly impressive, which contrast actually helped the atmosphere. This movie is sometimes considered “Lynch before Lynch,” and so much of his weird nightmare-like work is enhanced by eccentric, unnatural acting choices. The plot itself is fairly thin, but this too is perfect for the story being told, which is more about Mary’s emotions and her growing feelings of dread than what little is actually happening to her.
This is definitely a Rifftraxable film, and frankly the guys have their work cut out for them. But it’s surprisingly watchable on its own, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it this way first.