Carnival of Souls (1962):

An invitation to a drag race leads a carload of gals into the river, with only Candace Hilligoss somehow emerging alive from the muddy banks, dazed but unhumbled by the experience -- a few days later she's already packing for a new job as an organ player in Salt Lake City, the church nothing more than a "place of business." En route, however, the same balding, dried-up figure keeps materializing on windshields and hotel windows, a siren call in smudged ghoul-makeup pointing the frosty heroine toward the local lakeside pavilion, once the town's good-time center but now, dilapidated, a rendezvous spot for the dead (or, in Hilligoss' case, the in-betweens). Forever a staple of late-night TV, Herk Harvey's shoestring cult chiller is close to a regional Vampyr, organ pipes wailing, far closer to Curtis Harrington's morbid reveries than to Twilight Zone episode, and massively influential: the whole of The Sixth Sense lies within, and, if its slightness lacks the annihilating unrest of Romero's walking-dead masterworks, the zombies are already here, rising out of the lake. In fact, Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford often seem to orchestrate the muted shocks (notably a shopping spree that culminates on the heroine's place in the world suddenly turning nullified) as a way of getting a rise out of the defiantly aloof Hilligoss, whose early bridge detour more than anything crystallizes a cold-to-the-touch lack of belief -- or is it, as another character accuses, her "lack of soul"? Either way, her stunned peepers enhance the Cocteau limbo of the journey, the otherworldly flatness of newsreel grays, worn faces and delayed actions that just as often seem to be playing backwards. Eventually, the structure is revealed as a slow movement back to the waters, a glide toward death, along the way pausing for an empty dance floor to magically fill with twirling undead couples, an image that dances in the mind long after the film is over. With Sidney Berger, and Frances Feist. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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