CARNIVAL OF SOULS (CRITERION)
Review by Michael Jacobson
Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Frances Feist
Director: Herk Harvey
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Features: See Review
Length: 78 Minutes (Director’s Cut: 83 Minutes)
Release Date: May 16, 2000
Theatrical Cut ***
Director’s Cut ***1/2
Carnival of Souls is
indicative of one of my very favorite types of movies:
the low budget horror film that still manages to unnerve, and create a
world of mystery and possibilities despite lack of funding.
It’s the only feature film made by the late Herk Harvey, but it is one
that has never been forgotten, despite a lackluster initial release.
It fits almost perfectly the definition of cult film, except for the fact
that it’s actually quite good.
One of Harvey’s best decisions was to take a considerable
amount of his meager budget…$2,000, to be exact…and spend it on a quality
leading actress in Candace Hilligoss. She
wasn’t well known before, nor was she since, but she was talented, and
certainly perfect for the role of Mary Henry. Harvey knew instinctively that poor acting in a low budget
horror film always takes the viewer out of the proper element, and crosses the
border into camp. Thankfully, he
was able to avoid that pitfall by and large.
The film opens when a car filled with guys challenges a car
filled with girls to a drag race. Drag
races in movies rarely yield pleasant results, and in this case, the girls’
car plunges off the side of a bridge and disappears into the murky river below.
As the local law enforcement attempt to drag the river, complaining
because of its current height and low visibility that the car might never
be found, one of the victims, Mary Henry (Hilligoss), comes crawling up out
of the water, covered in muck and obviously in a stupor. She remembers nothing.
She seems pretty resilient, though…in spite of the
tragedy, she continues with her plans to pack up and move west to Salt Lake
City, where she’s been offered a job as a church organist.
She’s ready to get on with her life, but something seems out to prevent
that from happening…an eerie, ghoulish face and figure that constantly appears
out of nowhere, that nobody seems able to see except for her.
She takes a boarding room just down the hall from John
(Berger), who quickly tries to move in on her.
(Berger was always proud of the fact that Roger Ebert called him the
definitive portrait of a nerd in lust). In
her state, she sometimes rejects him, but sometimes welcomes him just because
she’s beginning to fear being alone.
An abandoned carnival ground on the outskirts of town
catches her attention, and she begins to be drawn toward it, as though that
strange setting might offer some sort of solution to her problems.
What follows is two terrific set pieces, one involving her practicing her
music in church only to be overcome by visions and a mysterious power that turns
her playing into something ‘profane’, and the first of two Twilight Zone
scenarios when, after a watery visual wipe, Mary seems to have become invisible
and inaudible to all around her.
I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to call the ending a
surprise…many have speculated that it was in its day, but in modern times a
bit too easy to figure out. It
certainly has no bearing on the overall effect of the picture. Even if you think you know where it’s going, there’s
still an impressive journey getting there.
What Harvey lacked in special effects, he more than made up
for in atmosphere. His undead
creatures are startling to look at, and they way he films their bizarre, macabre
dances is both strange and unnerving. When
he claimed his influences were Jean Cocteau and Ingmar Bergman, it was more than
just talk. Fans of those directors
will notice time and time again how much homage is paid to them in this film,
and how much those were the right two filmmakers to emulate to create the
surreal mood of the picture. And
that organ score by Gene Moore is quite unforgettable, too.
The original version of the picture had five minutes cut
out of it by Harvey’s distributor, simply to make the movie fit better on a
double feature billing. With this
DVD, you can compare that version with the restored director’s cut, and having
watched both versions, the latter is definitely the better version.
Most of what was cut came from two scenes near the end, the second
adventure of invisibility for Mary, and the final confrontation at the carnival
grounds. Harvey’s version is
decidedly creepier, with much better flow and ebb.
Carnival of Souls was
one of the first truly good low budget out-of-the-mainstream horror films, but
it wouldn’t be the last. This
picture would inspire and influence future directors from George Romero to David
Lynch, to even Rod Serling. And
like all of the good movies of its genre, it proves that talent, vision, and
imagination can triumph over funding issues to create something lasting and
Criterion has once again offered an amazing, pristine
transfer of an older film. I’d
dare say that Carnival has never
looked this good. I’ve watched
the film three times now, and if the flaws or distractions (save for maybe one
bad splice), are very few and far between.
The black and white photography is gorgeous and beautifully rendered,
with a wide range of grayscale colors with solid blacks and clean whites. All images are crisp, clear and sharp, with no noticeable
grain or softness, even in the darker scenes.
An excellent presentation.
This Dolby Digital mono track is completely serviceable, if
unremarkable. No real complaints,
and the wonderfully surreal organ score sounds quite nice.
Dialogue always comes through cleanly.
There are occasional bits of pop and noise indicative of older films, but
Disc One, which contains the theatrical cut, features the
trailer, 45 minutes of unused footage with Gene Moore’s organ music, “The
Movie That Wouldn’t Die” documentary about the film and the 1989 reunion of
the cast and crew, an illustrated history of the Saltair Resort, and a video
update on the film’s locations. Disc
Two, the director’s cut, contains an hour of excerpts from films made by the
Centron Corporation (where Harvey got his career started), an essay on the
history of Centron, printed interviews with Harvey, screenwriter John Clifford
and star Hilligoss, and a commentary track with Harvey and Clifford.
It’s a little sparse, with long stretches of silence, but contains some
interesting gems and is worth a listen.
Criterion triumphs once again with this incredible DVD package of an important classic film. Carnival of Souls has never looked so good, and fans of the film and students will appreciate the opportunity to compare the two existing cuts and explore the history of this influential, low budget horror films. Rank this title with Brazil, Grand Illusion and Armageddon as one of this company’s finest offerings.