Judge Brett Cullum doesn't hate all colors, just the useless ones like chartreuse and burnt umber. Especially when they're forcibly applied to a perfectly decent black and white horror film.
"I don't belong in this world!"
Submitted for the court's approval…a classic black and white horror film that has been colorized, with commentary by Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. If you are asking "WHY??!??" at this moment, you may want to drift over to the review of the Criterion Collection version of Carnival of Souls found on this website. If, however, you have a love for general irreverence and tampering with classic films, then be my guest as we take you inside the now-colorful Carnival of Souls.
Facts of the Case
Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss, The Curse of the Living Corpse) is the only survivor of a car accident that claimed the lives of two of her friends. She's due to leave town to pursue her glamorous career as a church organist, and nothing's going to stop her. Not her lack of religion; not her lack of soul; not the loss of her friends; and not the creepy guy in black she sees everywhere she goes (director Herk Harvey). Mary's afraid that she's on the wrong side of crazy town, and things only seem to be getting weirder. People ignore her in a department store while she's shopping, and there's an abandoned Mormon amusement park that she seems drawn to again and again.
This disc presents Carnival of Souls in two versions: a black and white director's cut, and a fully colorized print of the same director's cut. There seems to be some confusion on the packaging, which lists the running time of the feature as seventy-eight minutes—but it is in fact the full eighty-three minute director's cut that was previously released in the late '80s. In addition to adding the yummy colors, the distributor has enlisted Mike Nelson to provide his own sardonic brand of humor on a bonus commentary track. Fans of the "Satellite of Love" rejoice! One-third of the team is back on the case.
I'm not going to bog you down with too much history or analysis of Carnival of Souls. Suffice it to say that it was made in 1962 by Herk Harvey on a small budget. The film was a labor of love for a man who normally made industrial films. It was initially shown in drive-ins (in a truncated form to accommodate double bills), and quickly disappeared until the late '80s. Cinephiles rediscovered it, driving its renewed popularity, when an "original director's cut" was assembled and re-released. The film has been cited as being an influence on George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, as well as being a spiritual precursor to the work of David Lynch (Eraserhead). It was considered significant enough to get the Criterion treatment, and has long been the unsung hero of many a horror fan's collection. Some people say it's a classic that predates modern thrillers like The Sixth Sense, while others say it's just a really good feature length Twilight Zone episode.
Like Night of the Living Dead, this film has now entered the public domain, and has had many releases since (over a dozen to date). Off Color Films is the distributor of the colorized version—it appears that this company may be concentrating exclusively on releasing a handful of cult classics that have been colorized and given Mike Nelson commentaries. They did a rather interesting job with Reefer Madness, giving it a cartoonish revamp that fit the film quite well. That colorization actually enhances the sheer lunacy of the film, and I highly recommend it as a good-hearted lark. They have also released a fully-colorized version of Night of the Living Dead—which ranks in the same "Why do we need a color version?" category as Carnival of Souls.
The black and white nature of the original Carnival of Souls enhanced its spookiness and dread. The film used the shadows of the format effectively, and the cinematography is a brilliant example of how effective a black and white film can be. Colorizing it seems to work against the mood of the piece, and would appear to be a misguided concept at best. I know that many people won't sit through a black and white feature, but I doubt those same people would find much to love about a rather unnatural colorization process. The problem is that the colors are always slightly off—it becomes fairly surreal, like a cartoon overlaid on top of a film. Teeth and eyes look strangely gray, and skin tones look far too bronze to be considered true flesh. Probably fine for a comedy, but the bright reds and yellows make Carnival of Souls look far too light and cheery to be a rumination on death. I'm not a total spoilsport, and will freely admit that many of the scenes take on a gorgeous painting-like quality. On the other hand, some scenes are ineptly colored. One look at the wallpaper in the boarding house and you (and the guys from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) will be begging for mercy. The colorized version is worth a look, but only as an oddity.
Thankfully, included on the disc is a black and white transfer of the film. Unfortunately it's the transfer that was used as the base for the colorization, so it's not as dark as it should be. Contrast levels are really skewed (intentionally) in order to accommodate the colorization process. To add insult to injury, there are many imperfections (such as scratches and dirt) on both transfers. Both are presented full frame, which mirrors the film's original aspect ratio. The disc also boasts new Dolby and DTS 5.1 stereo mixes on the color version, but in practice it's hardly more than a mono mix spread out over 5 speakers most of the time. In fact, in some sequences a lot of the dialogue is barely audible.
And what about that commentary from Mike Nelson? It's a fun and easy listen, and you can listen to it while watching either the color or black and white version of the film (thankfully). I missed the rest of the cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000; and frankly, it's not as funny as those commentaries. Sure, Carnival of Souls has plenty to make fun of, but it's not as singularly bad as the movies that were featured on the television show. Mike even resorts to throwing in trivia about the film in some spots, and you can tell he definitely doesn't see the film as "bad cinema." I welcome his presence on any commentary track—but it's not the same, I tell you. Xanadu with Mike Nelson commentary? Sure! I'd be first in line to hear it. (I'd even like to see this company recolor Xanadu). The brilliance of talking over truly bad films is you don't care what they do to ruin it; but here, we're looking at a pretty decent work from a guy who poured his heart and soul into this, his only feature film. But if you're seriously jonesing for some trademark Mike Nelson snark, this is absolutely fine.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film purist in me gnashes and wails at the thought of tinting a classic fright flick, but it's still a pretty effective movie no matter what has been done to it. And, honestly, despite the reservations I instinctively cleave to, the results of the colorization are artful in many cases. Some of the twilight scenes have a rich blood-red hue that seems to work, and every now and then I marveled at what they had accomplished. With a little (ahem) chemical help this could be a psychedelic masterpiece of cinema. If it brings more fans to the film that have previously skipped it due to its lack of color, then bully for the colorizers. And yeah, Mike Nelson is funny. The price point isn't too bad either. It's a cheap ticket to ride this version of Carnival of Souls, and you can even get it autographed by Mike if you order it directly from the distributor.
I can't say that color improves the film—I enjoyed it too much in its original form. Purists would be advised to check out the Criterion disc, which is superior in all regards. But hey, there's a Mike Nelson commentary here.
Colorization will never be excused in my court unless it adds something to the film and the creators give their blessing to the process. Colorization is a heinous crime to do to a film like this, which benefited from the two-tone shadowing of black and white. Off Color Films is duly warned: there may be many candidates for this process, but classic horror films might not be their best bet. But thank you for bringing back Mike for another round of dry sarcastic humor. Four years in the slammer—and I'm going to be harsh about parole.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Off Color Films
• Audio Commentary by Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theatre 3000
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