Carnival Of Souls

Carnival Of Souls (1962)
Criterion Collection
Cast: Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Frances Feist, Herk Harvey, Candace Hilligoss, Stan Levitt
Extras: Outtakes, Illustrated History, Video Documentary, Theatrical Trailer, Essay, interviews, Audio Commentary

As a child during the 1960s I spent many wonderful nights watching horror movies on the local Chiller Theater-type TV shows. I was an easy audience back then: if it had a monster or if someone was being chased or got melted or transformed in any way, I was pretty satisfied. But every now and again I’d come across a movie that would genuinely frighten me, maybe even give me nightmares. "Carnival of Souls" was in that elite group, causing me to turn on every light in the house for a week after I’d seen it. Years passed and the film disappeared for a while, gaining a cult reputation with the passage of time. Eventually it turned up on several poor-quality videos, until it was resurrected in 1989 to late critical acclaim. And now, to my great delight, Criterion Collection has brought this minor classic to DVD, fully restored and with a ton of extras.

The plot is basic: a small town drag race goes awry and a car with 3 young women goes over the side of a bridge and sinks into the river. Several hours later, one of the women, Mary Henry, emerges from the water, dazed, muddy, and unable to remember what happened. Mary is a professional organist and takes a job in Salt Lake City playing for a church. While travelling to her new life she passes an abandoned amusement palace and suddenly feels strangely compelled by the place. She suddenly feels disjointed, unable to connect with anyone, and to make matters worse a pallid, ghostly man seems to be following her, his image appearing in windows and hallways. She struggles with her fears and compulsions, ultimately unable to avoid confronting her destiny…

"Carnival of Souls" is a film that casts a haunting spell on the viewer. There was very little budget, so its effects are of a basic and strictly creative variety, e.g., dropping all sounds except Mary’s footsteps when she suddenly becomes completely disconnected from the world around her; simple makeup combined with evocative lighting to create a ghoulish "dance macabre" (the film’s original title); the pale face of "The Man" opening his eyes and rising from beneath dark waters. These are images that have haunted me since I was a child and I find that the film still has the power to chill.

Now, make no mistake, this is a very low budget film, shot very quickly, and its raw edges are quite visible. Taken individually there are moments that are so awkward they are difficult to watch. For instance, the scenes with the doctor and Minister are often so stilted that you can’t wait for them to end. Yet somehow the personal distress we feel while watching these moments is transferred to our experience of the film, and rather than ruin it, it is absorbed, adding flavor to the feeling of disconnection and unease.

Amidst the trappings of B-movie awkwardness is the complex vernacular of nightmares. The filmmakers were fans of Jean Cocteau and Ingmar Bergman, as well as many other great filmmakers of the early part of this century. Their intention was to create mood and draw the audience into Mary’s world, and the film’s enduring popularity is tribute to their success. Harvey and company succeeded in tapping into the very substance of nightmares, the primal images of our collective fears: being chased by a ghostly figure; the face at the window; dissociation from the world around us. And Mary’s final encounter with the ghoulish inhabitants of the pavilion is one of the enduring images of nightmare cinema.

A quick and seemingly ordinary shot stands out as an example of the filmmaker’s caring touch: while playing the church organ, Mary becomes possessed by thoughts of the mysterious pavilion and her music changes to reflect her dark mood. Among the many images showing her mindset and it’s effect on the people around the church, we get a short shot of a row of altar boy robes rippling as though disturbed by the ill wind of the malefic sounds from the organ. For me, this seemingly "throwaway" shot is illustrative of the subtlety employed by the filmmakers. It’s not a frightening shot in and of itself, but rather one thread finely woven into the tapestry of the nightmare.

The conceit of the film’s central device has been done before and since- I won’t reveal it here-but it has rarely been done with such raw poetry. Subsequent to the film’s U.S. release it did quite well in Europe, being embraced by a community of art house audiences riding the New Wave of innovative cinema abroad. This isn’t drive-in fare typical of the era.

"Carnival of Souls" was the created in 1961 by director Herk Harvey, writer John Clifford, and cinematographer Maurice Prather, all of whom worked for Centron, an industrial film corporation based in Lawrence, Kansas. They had never made a feature before, and, ironically, never did again.
Harvey, who died in 1996, enjoyed the status of the film, but seemed a bit disappointed that it was the only thing for which he is remembered; he felt that he did good work in his many years of industrial filmmaking. The extras on this disc give us a very rare opportunity to see footage from several of these films.

Candace Hilligoss gives a dedicated performance as Mary. Some of the extra materials tell us that she was a student of The Method, used to working from the inside out, while Harvey tried to inform her choices externally, which sometimes created problems between them. He tried to neutralize her performance in keeping with his vision for the movie, and this, coupled with her process of working from an intense inner life, created a dichotomy that completely works for this character. Sidney Berger as John Linden, the man living across the hall from Mary, gives my favorite performance of the movie. Berger creates a creepy, lecherous character that makes you feel like taking a shower after he’s left the room. And Herk Harvey himself appears as The Man, the eerie, pallid figure who seems to be following Mary.

This print of "Carnival of Souls" is absolutely stunning; the film almost has no right to look this good. The distributors had initially cut about 5 minutes to fit it into the drive-in format. Criterion gives us both the theatrical release and Director’s Cut-both from the same print-in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Aside from some nicks and scrapes – which are surprisingly few considering the film’s initial treatment – the transfer is nearly flawless, with no artifacting at all. Evocative black and white photography is a large part of the film’s enduring appeal and it has never been served better than on this DVD. Blacks are rich and provide sharp contrast to the brighter sections of the screen, affording us fine details in the shadows. The details are so fine, in fact, that you can see grain patterns in the wood of a newel post in Mary’s boarding house. Incredible for a $30,000 B-Movie made 40 years ago…

The restored soundtrack is <$DD,Dolby Digital> Mono and is as good as can be expected. Most dialogue is clear, though some is lost because of bad miking and ADR dubbing that is sometimes atrocious (this can be charming or distracting depending on your love of B-movies). Great care seems to have been taken to clean up the tracks while leaving as much of the frequency range intact as possible. The organ music is resonant and so evocative that it seems to surround you though it comes from only one speaker.

The eclectic extras included with this edition are a treasure trove for fans of the film. Aside from both versions of the film, we get a fragmented, though very interesting, "commentary" by Herk Harvey and John Clifford. This is really interviews with both men, spread-in a somewhat context sensitive manner-throughout the Director’s Cut of the film. There are over 40 minutes of outtakes accompanied by the organ score; a half-hour documentary, "The Film That Wouldn’t Die", made during the film’s re-release in 1989; an illustrated history of Saltair, the haunted pavilion used in the film; a video update on locations in the film; an hour’s worth of Centron-produced industrial films; a printed essay on Centron’s history with photographs; printed interviews with Harvey, Clifford, and Hilligoss, with photos and memorabilia; a really fun drive-in style trailer; and a fold-out booklet with an introduction and a short academic essay. Criterion has truly done a amazing job in assembling this surfeit of material.

"Carnival of Souls" deserves its status as a genuine cult classic. If you’re looking for a "power" horror movie that slams you back and takes you for a jumpy, gory ride… look elsewhere. But if you’re searching for a creative, atmospheric mood-piece that leaves you looking over your shoulder, then come (to the dance) and dance with us. To those people, and any fans of this movie, this package comes with the highest recommendation.