R077 Carnival of Souls (Three Riffer Version)

(1962, Horror, colorized)


Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett

Every minute spent listening to the organ is penance for our sins.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

Waterlogged spooks haunt a young church organist.


Welcome to the Undead Cabaret![Summary borrowed from the first time I reviewed this film.]

The movie kicks off in Kansas with a cautious, low-speed drag race gone horribly wrong. A car full of boys accidentally nudges a car full of girls over the side of a one-lane bridge; volunteers drag the river for hours, but find nothing. Just as they’re about to give up, one of the passengers—a sodden young woman named Mary—hauls herself onto the shore.

Despite the trauma of the accident and the apparent deaths of her carmates, she remains unmoved by recent events, leaving town to start a previously accepted job as a church organist in Utah. En route, she sees an abandoned amusement park and several visions of a waterlogged zombie (played by the director, Herk Harvey).

Mary arrives and tries to go about her life as usual, checking in with her new boss and her landlady and fending off the advances of her oily fellow boarder. She remains troubled by visions of the undead, however, and sometimes no one can see or hear her. Throughout, her clergyman boss, doctor friend, and oily fellow boarder all remark about how detached she seems, as if she has no interest sharing her life with her fellow men.

The director, ladies and gentlemen.She eventually loses her grip on the real world; one day at church, she falls into a trance and plays creepy organ music while she hallucinates a tribe of watery undead dancing at the abandoned amusement park. Her boss calls the music “profane” and makes her stop. He fires her from her job and offers religious comfort in the same breath. The doctor friend and the oily fellow boarder are no help either. She tries to flee the state, but car troubles and further undead shenanigans prevent her.

That night she goes to the amusement park to confront her fears. She watches the water zombies dance; one of them with her undead self. She screams and flees, but the zombies pursue and capture her. Later, the police find her car, as well as the footprints of the chase through the sand, but the footprints vanish at a point in the middle of the beach. Even laterer, the volunteers back in Kansas finally find the car at the bottom of the river. Inside they find the remarkably well-preserved corpses of Mary and her companions.


You'll find yourself wishing the actors involved really looked that good.So water zombies like ballroom dance and practical jokes? Kind of makes them less scary. I know I’m far more comfortable with a form of undead that doesn’t want to eat my brain, and is only liable to haunt me if I’m already undead myself. Still, though slow and largely plotless, Carnival of Souls is an effective and reasonably spooky horror film from the days when horror directors had to make do with mood instead of gore.

Commentary-wise, I think I have to take away Little Shop of Horrors’ “Most Improved Three-Riffer Do-Over” award and give it to this film. Not that the end product is any funnier; in terms of laughs per second, I think three-riffer Little Shop and three-riffer Carnival come out about the same. While Little Shop has good pacing and comedic timing to begin with, however, Carnival of Souls starts from much further down the riffability scale. That Mike, Bill and Kevin can make something this slow this funny is a minor miracle. A sampling of the commentary: when Mary struggles to explain her move to Utah to her coworkers, Kevin says, “I’ve heard that Utah is a glittering paradise, filled with scads of eligible bachelors.” As yet another shot lingers on the deserted Saltair amusement park, Mike says, “The mood of this thing would have been wholly different if she had become obsessed with, say, the St. Louis Convention Center during their wood flooring sale.” When the sheriff follows Mary’s footprints near the end and says, “And then nothing,” Bill describes it as his “three-word summary of Carnival of Souls.” Kevin steals the show when things slow down too much, occasionally taking his co-riffers hostage and sending Disembaudio into the movie with a list of demands. It makes the commentary hysterically funny in parts, while remaining at least reasonably funny all the way through.