You don’t need a big budget to make great art—you just have to get a little thrifty.
Some of the best and undeniable classic films were made with a budget of $150,000 or less. While that tight budget seems to limit the artistic vision, these micro-budget filmmakers seem to understand what is necessary to make their film work and how to make their visions as realized as possible.
This couldn’t be more true than with the cult arthouse horror classic, Carnival of Souls. Made with a budget of $33,000 (roughly $319,400 today with inflation), the film follows Mary Henry (Candance Hilligoss) as a mysterious man haunts her after she ends up being the sole survivor of a fatal car accident through mysterious circumstances. The film would eventually become one of the main inspirations for horror and surrealist filmmakers like George A. Romero, David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman, and M. Night Shyamalan.
The film is a breathtaking look at filmmaking on a tight budget. By creating a mesmerizing and unnerving visual language through guerrilla filmmaking and limited resources, Herk Harvey's one feature film can teach us a thing or two about micro-budget filmmaking.
Making a Classic on a Micro-budget
On a drive from California to Kansas, Harvey saw the shadow ruins of the abandoned Saltair Pavilion in Salt Lake City, Utah. Enchanted by the mystery of this grand building in the middle of nowhere, Harvey decided to stop and look around the building. Inside, he discovered a ballroom that had a bewitching air of faded grandeur and came up with an idea for the final scene of a film.
Harvey had little filmmaking experience at that point but wanted to break in. He worked as a payroll director and producer of industrial and education films in Lawrence, Kansas, for the Centron Corporation. Harvey asked his coworker and writer John Clifford if he would write a feature-length screenplay based on the idea of ghost dancing in a ballroom. Three weeks later, the screenplay was finished and ready to be filmed.
Harvey took a three-week vacation from his job at Centron to shoot the film in Lawrence and Salt Lake City. Harvey was able to raise $17,000 in cash for the initial production by asking local businessmen if they were willing to invest $500 in his production. The other $16,000 of the $33,000 budget came later in production.
The crew was made up of five people–Harvey, cinematographer Maurice Prather, editor Dan Palmquist, assistant director Reza Badiyi, and production manager Larry Sneegas.
Harvey was very diligent about what he had to pay for. Hilligoss, who was excited to be cast in her first feature, was paid approximately $2,000 for her work on the film, and Harvey played the villainous ghoul, known as "The Man," transforming himself with white greasepaint and wet salt in his hair to create a crusty, dead-man appearance.
While recalling the chaos of production to the LA Times, Harvey noted, “When you’ve only got $17,000 cash, you get thrifty.”
Being thrifty to Harvey meant that shooting permits were “optional.” While Harvey did properly secure the rental of the Saltair Pavilion for $50—and even managed to track down the pavilion’s original technician to turn on the ballroom lights and had students from the Mormon School of Modern dance volunteer to act as the ghouls—many of the scenes were shot guerrilla-style, with Harvey paying locals to allow his crew to quickly film the scenes. This worked in favor of the film as the character (and cast) become invisible when necessary, but it also proved to be a dangerous method of filming at times.
Hilligoss told the LA Times about a scene that didn't make it into the film.
“When they wanted to have me almost hit by a bus, we just went to the bus depot and Herk knocked on the door of a bus that was just leaving on a run to LA," she said. "He asked the driver if he’d just slam on the brakes when I ran in front of him. The driver said sure. On the first take, Herk said I wasn’t close enough to the bus, so the driver backed up and did it again. This time the bus brushed me and Herk said it was fine. The driver said, ‘Want to do ‘er again?’”
The opening sequence of the car falling into the river was done practically on a bridge located right outside of Lecompton, Kansas. The town did not charge the crew a fee to use the bridge but instead asked that damages done to the bridge’s rails be replaced. After filming wrapped on the bridge, the production ended up only having to pay $12 to fix the damages.
Harvey used many of the techniques he had learned while working on industrial films to limit production costs. There was not enough money to create a rear-projection effect, a method typically used at the time to create the impression that a scene was taking place in a moving car, so Harvey combined footage shot inside a static car with separate footage of a moving background.
Using a battery-powered hand-held Arriflex camera, known also as the “battlefield camera” since it was typically used to capture newsreel footage, Harvey was able to move the camera without the need for gear like dollies or cranes. With the Arriflex, Harvey was able to get unique high angles that made specific spaces feel otherworldly and all-consuming.
The production was a quick process as the cast and crew worked seven days a week, finishing production in three weeks.
Unfortunately, the film ended up being distributed by Herts-Lion International Corp. which released misleading ads about the film, causing the film to underperform at the box office, and the distribution company ended up selling an estimated 80 bootleg prints to various TV stations in the U.S. and Europe. Harvey ended up not making a cent from the film and lost hope in his career as a filmmaker, which is a tragedy in itself.
Carnival of Souls became an underground hit as it played on late-night slots on TV stations across the U.S. and gained a fanatical following, finding a place in the Criterion Collection as one of the most atmospheric, eerie, and beautifully shot horror short stories. Made with a very tight budget, the film can be noted as a transformative moment in horror, inspiring filmmakers of all budgets to push the boundaries of beauty and terror.
Harvey, who was fueled by a desire to make a movie based around a single location, can teach us to have faith in our vision and to get "thrifty" when we need to. People are always willing to help out (especially for a little bit of money) and help someone create a project that they are passionate about.
Don't feel like you can't create something great because you don't have a big budget. Instead, feel empowered that something memorable and remarkable will have a lasting influence on those who watch it. Who knows what will happen at the end of the day? Just create what you can make with the people who believe in your vision.
You can watch Carnival of Souls on HBO Max or the Criterion Channel now!
Do you have a favorite shot and sequence from Carnival of Souls? Let us know why you love it in the comments!