Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Frances Feist
Director:  Herk Harvey
Video:  Standard 1.37:1
Audio:  PCM Mono
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  78 Minutes
Release Date:  June 12, 2016

Film ***

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.

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 4K 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 PCM 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 ****

The extras sadly don' include the (better) director's cut of the movie that Criterion originally released on DVD.  It does, however, have selected-scene audio commentary featuring director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford, plus more:

·        New interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould

·        New video essay by film critic David Cairns

·        The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!, a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the film’s cast and crew

·        The Carnival Tour, a 2000 update on the film’s locations

·        Excerpts from movies made by the Centron Corporation, an industrial film company based in Lawrence, Kansas, that once employed Harvey and Clifford

·        Deleted scenes

·        Outtakes, accompanied by Gene Moore’s organ score

·        History of the Saltair Resort in Salt Lake City, where key scenes in the film were shot

·        Trailer


Criterion triumphs once again with this incredible Blu-ray 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 view it in high definition and learn plenty from the extras.

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