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CARNIVAL OF SOULS (CRITERION)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Frances Feist
Director:  Herk Harvey
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  78 Minutes (Director’s Cut:  83 Minutes)
Release Date:  May 16, 2000

Film:
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 memorable.

Video ***1/2

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.

Audio **1/2

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 nothing distracting.

Features ****

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.

Summary:

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.