Lawrence resident John Clifford leaves behind cult film legacy

John Clifford, 91, passed away Tuesday. The life of this Lawrence resident, who had lived here since 1952, was brimming with an array of remarkable experiences and accomplishments.

Clifford was a World War II veteran who served his country overseas; he taught journalism at Lawrence High School; he was a published novelist, having written the popular Western “The Shooting of Storey James”; along with his musical partner, the famed composer Angelo Badalamenti, he wrote lyrics for songs that were recorded by artists ranging from Nina Simone to Della Reese. Somehow in addition to all of this, John Clifford was also a playwright, a painter, a gag-writer, and – certainly not least of all – a father of two.

But perhaps what Clifford will best be remembered for is “Carnival of Souls.” As the screenwriter of the 1962 horror film, he has forever cemented himself as an icon of cult cinema.

Shortly after moving here, Clifford began working for Lawrence’s industrial and educational film studio, Centron Corporation. While at the now-defunct Centron, where he wrote more than 150 movies, Clifford met director Herk Harvey. Harvey drafted Clifford to write a screenplay based around an idea the director had of a dance macabre at an abandoned pavilion in Salt Lake City. What Clifford produced, his only feature-length screenplay to ever be filmed, was “Carnival of Souls.”

Shot primarily in Lawrence with a paltry budget, “Carnival of Souls” tells the unsettling tale of a woman haunted by eerie apparitions after a car accident. The film was dismissed as a B-movie genre exercise upon its release but was rediscovered in the ’80s thanks to cable and midnight movie screenings. “Carnival of Souls” has gone on to become one of the most influential horror films in recent history.

John Clifford.

“I think it’s kind of funny. Herk said to me, ‘The only attention we ever get is from our first film,'” said Clifford in a 2005 interview with the Journal-World. “It does seem to be a big inspiration to all these young, independent filmmakers. I don’t think a year goes by that I don’t hear from one or two of them. The idea that we did this film independently, and it got rediscovered 27 years later and played houses all across the country, is fascinating. It’s certainly a cult classic.”

Clifford’s impact will continue to be felt not only in horror filmmaking, but in Kansas filmmaking.

“In the last six years, we’ve had eight feature films produced in the Lawrence area,” says Matt Jacobson, professor of film at Kansas University. “There’s a real renaissance in independent, local filmmaking that’s going on right now. None of that would have taken place without the work of Centron and without ‘Carnival of Souls.’ It was a real eye-opener to people who never thought of Kansas and film in the same breath. It transcended its origins. It transcended its location and became a hit as an independent horror film. It really presaged the later independent horror films, even ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ I don’t think there would have been a ‘Night of the Living Dead’ if there hadn’t been a ‘Carnival of Souls.'”

Clifford will be remembered as a groundbreaking artist and a valued member of the Lawrence community.

“John was a terrific writer. Whenever I spoke with John, it was one of the things that reminded you what makes Lawrence a great town to live in as an artist,” says Kevin Willmott, director of “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” and “The Only Good Indian,” also a professor of film at KU.

“John had just an amazing array of knowledge about so many different things. ‘Carnival of Souls’ is a classic. What makes it a classic is John’s script and Herk Harvey’s direction. The fact that John, with all his talent, continued to live in Lawrence encouraged me to live in Lawrence. It made me believe you could be a filmmaker and live here. He’ll be sadly missed.”