Is there death after life?
After writing nearly 100 DVD reviews, one begins to run out of superlatives to describe the better discs which pass before the eyes and ears. Hopefully, this will not be the case with this disc, as it deserves all the praise this writer/reviewer can heap on it. I only hope I can do it justice.
Carnival of Souls was a lost gem of a film until only recently when it made the fantastical trip from obscurity to cult classic, seemingly overnight. Well, that may be a bit of a stretch, but it is quite nearly the truth. The film was directed by Herk Harvey and written by John Clifford, two full time employees of the Centron Corporation, and industrial film giant based in Lawrence, Kansas. During one filming trip on company business, Harvey was driving back to Kansas where he stumbled upon the derelict and dilapidated Saltair Resort on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah. Fascinated by the unique and eerie structure, Harvey returned to Kansas and asked compatriot Clifford if he would like to write a script for a film. Clifford was then instructed to write a film about dead people and center the film on Saltair. A few short weeks later, the script was completed and Harvey approached a friend in town about financing the film. That was on Friday. By Monday, $17,000 was raised and Harvey was in business. Harvey and Clifford took a few weeks off from Centron to film Carnival of Souls in and around Lawrence, Kansas and on location at Saltair. $30,000 and two weeks later, Carnival of Souls was born.
Probably the best part of the story is none of the investors ever saw a dime of return on their investment due to a distribution deal gone bad (VERY bad—as in absconding from the country with the proceeds BAD) and the film languished in near total obscurity for many years. Rediscovered rather recently by cult film fans and fanatics, it was re-released for a brief art-house theatrical run in 1989 and now, we have it to cherish on our favorite digital medium, DVD, for all eternity (or at least until some better format comes around).
As usual, Criterion have completely outdone themselves with this double disc set of Carnival of Souls. Disc one of the set includes the original theatrical release of the film, cut down by its con-man distributor to 78 minutes (for what reason is anybody's guess, but the theory is he needed the extra five minutes shaved off to include the film in a double bill), as well as several intriguing extras. The extras include 45 minutes of outtakes, an illustrated history of the Saltair Resort, a video update on the film's locations, a theatrical trailer and an original documentary crated for the cast and crew's 1989 reunion entitled The Movie That Wouldn't Die! The Story of Carnival of Souls. Disc two of the set includes the original director's cut of the film, stretched to 83 minutes and even more extras, including a selected audio commentary from Director Harvey and Screenwriter John Clifford, one hour of excerpts of footage from Centron Corporation industrial and educational films, an essay on the history of Centron and printed interviews with Harvey, Clifford and star Candace Hilligoss illustrated with vintage photos and memorabilia.
The film itself is sort of a dance around death and contains many interesting scenes, all of which are beautifully shot. An acknowledged precursor to Night of the Living Dead and certainly a progenitor to the likes of The Sixth Sense, this film should not disappoint the most rabid horror fans. Candace Hilligoss plays Mary Henry, a young woman who endures a terrifying car crash off a bridge. Quite a while after the crash, as the authorities are dredging the river for the car, she emerges apparently in shock with no knowledge of how she survived or the whereabouts of her compatriots who were in the car with her. She then sets off for Salt Lake City where she has taken a job as a church organist, only to stumble on the aforementioned deserted resort, which has an otherworldly lure about it. Once in Salt Lake City, she is far removed from the world around her, to the point of being accused as a cold fish by her sex-crazed neighbor and at one point stumbling through the city completely unable to hear her surroundings or be perceived herself by those around her. These make for some interestingly scary moments as Mary sprints through town, seemingly in search of herself or her identity, wildly flailing about, trying to understand her situation. But that's just it. Her situation is far beyond comprehension, as we learn by the end of the film, but that doesn't keep Mary from trying.
Carnival of Souls has earned every bit of its reputation as an intelligent horror film. It is not scary in any real traditional sense—certainly not Exorcist scary by any means. Its strength lies in the sensation it evokes through a general creepiness, and that can only be attributed to the original story and well paced filming of the dynamic duo that created Carnival of Souls, Harvey and Clifford. Harvey sets up some interesting shots which are all well framed and cleanly composed. Some early shots of interest are during Mary's time in the organ factory where she is practicing in preparation for her new job in the Church, and again later in the church itself as Mary's playing takes on a supernatural aura about it, as though she is being controlled by something beyond herself.
Through it all, the disc exhibits some of the best black and white images I have yet seen. Criterion does a fantastic job with these full frame images. Both discs sport new digital transfers. According to the disc insert, the transfers are made from a duplicate negative, which may explain the insanely good transfer we see here. Blacks are dead on—rich and inviting, while whites are bright and aggressive, without being overly sharp. Grays are subtle and edge enhancement is nearly non-existent. Everything about this transfer screams reference quality, and for a 1962 B-movie, that astounds me. Kudos to Criterion for, yet again, getting it right.
The sound is nicely done as well. Gene Moore's freaky organ score highlights the mono soundtrack. And I would have it no other way—the mono part that is. Unlike many of my compatriots in this area, I would prefer the original soundtrack to a re-made 5.1 track on a classic gem of a film like Carnival of Souls. That said, Criterion would definitely earn a few brownie points around here if they did decide to offer something like that up as an option, even though I could care less. I hesitate to even call this a dialogue driven film, because it is really a visual feast, rather than an audible one. That said, this is clearly not an effects driven film so a surround sound mix is really not missed. There are a few funny moments where sound effects are badly misplaced and out of synch with the visuals, but that is part of the charm of the film—and Harvey addresses these issues in one of the many extras on the disc (I'm not going to give everything away—go buy the disc, for goodness sake).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There really is little to complain about with this new addition to the Criterion Collection. The commentary would have been a bit better had it been a complete track, rather than the sometimes on, sometimes off affair we get, but how can you really quibble that much? Herk Harvey is no longer with us, having passed away in 1996, so going back for more commentary would have been impossible. Still, comments from other directors inspired by this film would have been a joy to hear, or perhaps a few serious horror fans could have chimed in about the film and what it means to them. Often times, it's just as nice to hear from an enthusiast or a scholar as it is from those involved in the production.
Carnival of Souls is a rare treat—a gem of a film undiscovered by most of America and, I would guess, most of the world. Discover it here, for the first time, on DVD, courtesy of Criterion. You will not be disappointed. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Definitely worthy of purchase by fans of film across the globe. For horror fans, this is a must have.
Criterion is once again thanked for delivering the goods on this double disc set. All those involved in the production are commended for their hard work, creative thinking and dedication in delivering one of the finest special editions I have seen in some time. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Movie That Wouldn't Die! The Story of Carnival Of Souls," A Documentary on the 1989 Reunion of the Cast and Crew
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