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Thursday, February 4, 2010 10:35:11 AM
A car with two young men pulls up next to a car filled with three girls. “Look what we got here!” one of the men tells his friend. “Wanna drag?” he asks the girls. His friend revs his engine.


Still from "Carnival of Souls"
Coming to a nightmare near you: Former KU Professor Herk Harvey (above), directed the 1962 thriller, “Carnival of Souls.” The movie was filmed on location in Lawrence, costing a mere $30,000.

The driver of the other car listens as he tells her: “See that telephone pole right there? We’ll take you to it.”

“Sure,” she replies. Her passengers look at each other, a little worried. The two cars rev their engines and take off. The drivers race each other down the road and onto a bridge. Halfway across, the girls scream as their car is run off and falls into the river below. The boys in the other car jump out, run to the edge of the bridge, and look down. The girls’ car is gone.

After dragging the lake for three hours, a lone survivor emerges. She climbs onto the river’s muddy bank looking dazed, claiming she can’t remember what happened.

So begins Harold A. “Herk” Harvey’s 1962 movie, Carnival of Souls, a horror film made in three weeks with a budget of $30,000. Carnival of Souls tells the story of Mary Henry, the survivor of the drag race car crash, who moves to Utah after the accident to become an organist. Once there, she becomes fascinated with an abandoned carnival on the outskirts of town, and is haunted by the ghosts who inhabit it.

Carnival of Souls was shot on location in Lawrence and Saltair, an abandoned amusement park on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, by Harvey, a former KU professor of film, who made educational films for the Centron Corporation.

Matthew Dessem, creator of the film blog “The Criterion Contraption,” says the amusement park is one of the film’s more striking qualities.

“I immediately responded to the location stuff at Saltair,” Dessem says. “That’s such a great, creepy location.”

Perhaps the most impressive scenes in Saltair involve the main pavilion, a massive room decorated like a dance hall with chandeliers, streamers and ornaments hanging from its ceiling and littering the floor. During Mary’s first exploration of Saltair, she ventures onto a balcony overlooking a part of the Great Salt Lake. She throws a stone into the water, and as it sinks the audience sees a pale corpse lying just below the surface.

The movie’s enduring characteristics, however, are the B-movie elements that stem from its low budget. The movie’s main ghoul, for example, is played by Harvey himself, who wanders around the film staring eerily at Mary, wearing white greasepaint with black around his eyes. Dessem admits that the first time he saw Carnival of Souls he thought of it mostly as a campy B-movie.

According to Bill Sellner, who worked with Harvey at Centron and played a small role in the film, the movie’s premiere in Lawrence received a lot of attention. “Maybe it was because the idea of a theatrical film production by local guys was astonishing,” Sollner says.

Unfortunately the movie didn’t do too well in its initial release. Sollner says it went on to have a cult following in Europe, but Harvey never made a profit from his film. He continued to make movies for Centron, and went on to teach film production at the University. Oldfather Studios, situated in the former Centron headquarters, has a soundstage named after Harvey, who died in 1996. Over the course of his career, Harvey made 400 films for Centron, but “Carnival of Souls” was the only feature film.

In the years since, however, Harvey’s $30,000 movie has found its place in cinema history, inspiring directors like David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and George Romero, who modeled the zombies in Night of the Living Dead on the ghosts in Carnival of Souls. In 2000, Criterion, a company that collects and releases high-quality editions of important classic and contemporary films, released Carnival of Souls on DVD as part of their collection.

Robert Butler, film reviewer for The Kansas City Star, says it’s Harvey’s creative ability to work within a tiny budget that has made “Carnival of Souls” so influential.

“Carnival is a classic example of seat-of-the-pants, low-budget moviemaking in which pure creativity triumphs over financial constraints,” Butler says. “Beyond which, it has a visual sense unequaled even by some big-budget films.”

Dessem says the influence of the movie can be considered even beyond the filmmakers it originally inspired, because the directors who drew from it became so influential themselves.

“Romero’s zombie movies would have been different had he not seen Carnival of Souls, and the same could be said for David Lynch’s films,” Dessem says. “If you take just those two guys and consider the number of films that have drawn from their work, you can trace a pretty widespread ripple effect of people who have been influenced by Carnival of Souls without necessarily knowing it.
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