Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Carnival of Souls (1962): The Criterion Collection
Studio Line: Criterion

Herk Harvey's macabre masterpiece gained a cult following through late night television and has been bootlegged for years. Made by industrial filmmakers on a modest budget, Carnival of Souls was intended to have the "look of a Bergman" and "feel of a Cocteau," and succeeds with its strikingly used locations and spooky organ score. Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) survives a drag race in a rural Kansas town, then takes a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City. En route, she becomes haunted by a bizarre apparition that compels her to an abandoned lakeside pavilion. Criterion is proud to present the ultimate special edition of his eerily effective B-movie classic that continues to inspire filmmakers today.

Director: Herk Harvey
Cast: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Tom McGinnis, Forbes Caldwell, Dan Palmquist, Bill de Jarnette
Academy Awards: None.
DVD: 2-Disc set; standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 15 chapters; rated NR; $39.95; 5/16/00.
Supplements: Original Version: The Movie That Wouldn't Die! The Story of Carnival of Souls: a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the cast and crew; 45 min. of rare outtakes accompanied by Gene Moore's organ score; Theatrical Trailer; Illustrated History of the Saltair resort in Salt Lake City; The Carnival Tour: a video update on the film's locations.
Extended Director's Cut:: Selected Audio Commentary by screenwriter John Clifford and late director Herk Harvey; One hour excerpts from films made by the Centron Corp.; Essay on the history of Centron from Ken Smith's Mental Hygiene; Printed Interviews with Harvey, Clifford, and star Candace Hilligoss, illustrated with vintage photos and memorabilia.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Gene Moore

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B-/B+

One great thing about Criterion's releases is that whenever they produce a DVD, their imprimatur immediately makes the film in question more famous. Actually, that's not always the case, as many of the movies they distribute already are quite well-known, but there are lots of others that would fly under the radar screen without the Criterion name attached to them.

One of those is the horror film Carnival of Souls from 1962. I certainly had never heard of this piece, and I'd wager quite a few others had no inkling of it existence as well. Obviously, the movie remains very obscure, but its fame has definitely increased because of its association with Criterion.

That group's stated mission is to release "a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films" so whenever they touch a movie, it grants instant credibility on the picture. This notoriety can make things difficult on reviewers like me, for whenever I have to state opinions that go contrary to the common viewpoint - especially when I judge a well-regarded piece in a negative manner - I feel that I need to work overtime to justify my opposing viewpoint since so many others disagree with me.

This aspect of the job becomes even more difficult when Criterion get involved because the pool of opinions about many of these little-known films is so small and their reputation is so strong. It's one thing for me to dislike something such as The Shining; although many will be dissatisfied with my thoughts, there are enough others who agree with me to make it easier.

That "safety net" goes away when I touch upon something obscure like Carnival of Souls. The fan base for films such as this is so tiny that almost inevitably, the folks who know of it will also be people who really like it. As such, if I provide a negative review for such "cult classics", I run a greater-than-usual risk of being left on my own on the negative side of the scale.

So I suppose it will now come as no surprise when I report that I indeed did not care for COS. Throughout the supplements on this DVD and via other sources I explored like comments on IMDB, I discovered nothing but reverence for this no-budget creeper, but I frankly don't get it; at best, COS is a triumph of style over substance, while at worst, it's just a cheesy piece of fluff.

The story starts with a car crash from which only one person emerges: Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a pretty young woman. we know literally nothing about Henry prior to the wreck, but afterward, we see that she's a church organist who quickly takes a job in Utah and heads that way. Along the drive, she sees a decrepit old resort called Saltair, and she develops a strange fascination with it.

Mary comes across as a disconnected and cold person who doesn't interact terribly well with others. Is this different than she was prior to the wreck? I guess - after all, she starts the film crammed into the front seat of a car with two female friends (though she never appears to be the kind of person who'd have gal pals who love to drag race) - but since we know absolutely nothing about her past, it's hard to say. In any case, Mary spends the majority of the film in something of a numb haze which is punctuated only by her horrific visions of ghoulish men who seem to stalk her.

All of this is going somewhere, and I don't want to ruin the surprises by telling too much of the story. That's one danger with movies like COS; too much information can spoil the entertainment for others, and although I didn't like the film, I won't project my disinterest on you and presume that my lack of affection for the piece makes it okay to affect your experience. Hell, I can't even name the more recent movies whose plots feature similar twists, because that alone would give away too much. Suffice it to say that the story turns were probably unique 40 years ago but seem less fresh today.

The somewhat predictable nature of the story's machinations didn't cause me to dislike COS. After all, with a few exceptions like Fight Club, we know how the vast majority of films will end; it's the way the tale is told that makes it a fun ride. Unfortunately, I found little about that journey to entertain or interest me in the case of COS. The plot itself appears feeble and weak at best, and we find little else on which to hang our hats.

COS provides an old example of a movie that's all looks and no brains. Director Herk Harvey - who made industrial films his whole life, with COS providing his only theatrical entry - imbues the picture with a very striking visual style. Without his creepy vision, this movie would be an absolute dud, for nothing else about it goes anywhere. At least the film looks terrific, with some very spooky and eerie images that will stay with me much longer than the largely-nonsensical story, the generic "creepshow" music and the abysmal acting.

It's that last category that really kills COS. Boy, are the performances terrible! Hilligoss never rises above "laughable" as our haunted heroine. She seems so vacant and shallow that one could make an argument it's intentional, I suppose; it's possible she tried to act that way to symbolize her detachment from society, but I think such an interpretation gives far too much credit to this talentless performer.

I wish I could say that Hilligoss stands out among the other actors, but she fits in well with this group of summer stock outcasts. If there's a well-acted piece in this movie, I can't find it. I suppose some of the ghouls at least look appropriately spooky, and they generally have little enough to do that they don't ruin appearances with acting, but some of their "scary moves" toward the end of the picture indeed do so; the climax seems less intense and terrifying than it does goofy and silly, partially because of the campy work by these minor performers.

To compound the problems with the acting, the story itself is muddled at best. It makes little sense at most times, and I honestly don't think the filmmakers knew what it was supposed to mean. (Writer John Clifford alludes to this possibility during the supplements - it was such a cheap and slap-dash production that logic was sacrificed to simply get the thing made.) The whole silly thing just limps along until it mercifully ends with a conclusion that raises more questions than it answers.

For all its good looks, Carnival of Souls remains a dumb movie. At its best, it can be watchable and mildly entertaining in a campy fashion. However, at its worst, it's a silly attempt to wed the horror and "art" genres that comes across as a disjointed and poorly executed mess. COS isn't the worst film I've ever seen, but based on its stellar rep, it's one of the most over-rated.

The DVD:

Carnival of Souls appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not without flaws, the movie looks really good for an old, no-budget effort like this.

Sharpness seems consistently quite strong. A few scenes appear vaguely soft, but these are exceptions; most of the movie looks crisp and well-defined. Moiré effects are a slight problem, and jagged edges are a more substantial concern; they appear frequently during the early stages of the film - the cars create most of the problems - but ease down a fair amount as the piece progresses.

Print flaws cause the image's major concerns, but even they seem less substantial than I'd expect. Grain seems so light as to be virtually non-existent, and only a few examples of scratches or blotches appear. The main problem stems from fairly frequent speckles. We find both black and white spots that pop up with regularity. Significant portions of the film pass without them, but they rarely go away for long. I didn't find the speckles to present a terrible distraction, but they do degrade the image.

Black levels seemed absolutely terrific. The film maintains excellent contrast and provides a satisfyingly clear and defined black and white image. Shadow detail appears slightly heavy on a few occasions, but it usually looks appropriately opaque and deep. COS clearly shows its age, but it nonetheless presents a more than acceptable picture.

Also relatively strong is the film's monaural audio. Early in the movie we witness some extremely poorly dubbed dialogue, but those problems don't continue. Speech sounds fairly dull and flat but I found it consistently intelligible. Music can be slightly harsh but generally comes across as smooth and light. Effects are clear and reasonably realistic, and they display no signs of distortion. At times a light hum can be heard, but for the most part, the background seems quiet. As with most soundtracks of this vintage, the general timbre of the audio appears thin and lacks dynamic range, but when compared to other films of the era, COS sounds relatively good.

Criterion's DVD release of Carnival of Souls packs in a slew of supplemental materials. For one, we actually find two different versions of the movie itself. The theatrically issued edition appears on the first DVD, and a director's cut that runs an additional five minutes can be found on the second disc. I'm not completely sure why Criterion didn't just enable seamless branching and have both versions on the same DVD - ala Fox's releases of The Abyss and Independence Day - but I think the amount of extras dictated that a second disc was necessary anyway, so the split is no big deal.

As far as the extra footage goes, I found it to be nothing special. I watched both versions of COS in their entirety and got little from the added scenes. They didn't add any extra spark to the production, and they definitely didn't make me a fan of the film.

One annoyance in regard to the director's cut: nowhere in this package or on the DVDs did I see any indication of which scenes were added. Both The Abyss and ID told us what segments didn't appear theatrically, but if such a feature exists for COS, I sure couldn't find it. I would have really liked to know more about the differences since some of them aren't readily apparent to someone who hasn't seen the film a bunch of times. I also would have enjoyed more information about why they were lifted; we hear a general statement about running time but no specific details that address why those bits in particular were removed.

A variety of supplements appear on each of the two DVDs. The major attraction on DVD 1 is "The Movie That Wouldn't Die!", a 27 and a half minute documentary about the film that was created in the late Eighties by a local TV station in Kansas. Essentially, this interesting little program mainly covers the film's 1989 revival and minor renaissance. We find interview segments with director Herk Harvey, writer John Clifford, and others involved in the production. Some of these shots were done specifically for the program but others come from a press conference that accompanied the film's reissue. The show lacks depth but I found it to offer a solid look at some of the movie's background.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think even fans of COS will find the "Outtakes" section disappointing. We find 39 minutes and 35 seconds worth of material (not the "more than 45 minutes" listed on the case) and virtually all of the shots are alternate takes, not deleted scenes. Granted, my familiarity with the film is not great, but I saw nothing that looked like truly new material; it all seemed to be different or extended versions of the shots that made the final cut.

I found these to be pretty useless due to the lack of a natural audio track. We hear no dialogue or effects or anything from the original source material; instead, bits of Gene Moore's score plays over all of the footage. Frankly, I can't imagine why anyone would find these shots interesting. The presence of raw audio might have made them interesting since we could witness the cast and crew interaction, but even as a look behind the scenes, these pieces appear dull. I tried to imagine how I would have reacted to these shots if they accompanied a movie I liked, and while I'm sure I'd enjoy them more in that case, I believe they would still seem boring.

A few more extras appear on DVD 1. We get the film's silly theatrical trailer plus some information on the "Saltair" amusement park that houses the movie's climactic scenes. Two sections document that resort's history. "Saltair: A History of Isolation" documents the place's "life" through solid text and some pictures, while the "Picture Gallery" provides a variety of stills that don't appear alongside the text. Best of all are the vintage postcards, especially the one inscribed "preach well".

Finally, "The Carnival Tour" provides a four and a half minute video program that briefly documents some of the locations used for COS. It's created by the same folks who made "The Movie That Wouldn't Die!" and offers some mildly interesting information.

The second DVD includes a fair number of extras in addition to the director's cut of the film. First up is an audio commentary from director Harvey and writer Clifford. Harvey contributes most of the remarks, and he seems to have been recorded much of his stuff alone. Some of Clifford's comments appear to be solo, but we also hear some definite interaction between the two.

Their track will not go down as one of the great works from Criterion. For one, it's very spotty; much - if not most - of the movie passes without commentary; remarks appear only on an intermittent basis. Happily, Criterion make navigation of this commentary relatively simple by creating an index; it's not a perfect solution, as the links we press for each commentary subject lead only to the start of the relevant chapter, and we often have to wait a while before any actual discussion occurs. Still, it beats having to wade through the whole movie to get a little commentary, so I'm pleased the index exists here.

When we do hear from Clifford or Harvey, their statements are generally pretty interesting and entertaining, but my prior viewing of "The Movie That Wouldn't Die!" rendered a lot of the comments redundant; both men tell some of the same stories in both places. This duplication doesn't make the commentary unenjoyable, but that factor combined with the many gaps makes it less valuable and somewhat frustrating.

Intermittently interesting are the roughly 56 minutes of scenes from movies made by Centron Corporation, the business for which Clifford and Harvey worked over more than 30 years. (Again, the case, which states we receive "one hour" of films, is off slightly.) Centron produced a lot of "informational" films and we discover parts of five of them. The first two are easily the most entertaining. "Star 34" offers a mini-travelogue to display the delights of Kansas. The scenic segments of this 12 and a half minute program are a bit dull, but the opening and closing bits with a couple who inherited some Kansas real estate make for dated fun.

Also hilarious is "Signals: Read 'Em or Weep", a film created for Caterpillar to show their operators why they need to watch out for signs of trouble. We get about five minutes of excerpts that show all the problems that result from ignoring warnings. It's entertaining in a campy, retro manner.

The other three films are much more dry and I didn't care for them. There's one piece that documents a Michigan "community school" program; it has some moments - especially at the start - but gets dull after that. The other two focus on foreign nations; the first concentrates on Jamaica, Haiti and neighboring countries, while the second covers Korea. These are the kind of boring educational pieces we all had to endure in school. They convey the requisite information but seem lifeless and bland. No wonder we all hated them back during our school days!

One other piece appears between the "Signals" film and the "community school" program; it's a short "commercial" for Centron that shows some of their facilities and also has a lot of demonstration shots from a cameraman who just got a "fisheye" lens. It's moderately interesting but nothing special. Overall, the Centron films are kind of a cool addition, especially since their product is one area of the movie business about which we hear almost nothing, but a greater variety of subjects provided in shorter segments would have been more compelling; at five minutes, "Signals..." seems about right, but the others run too long.

A number of text materials round out the second DVD. "Centron: Hollywood In a Likeable Town" provides a solid essay on the history of the studio. This excerpt from Ken Smith's book Mental Hygiene - which documents the kind of filmmaking done at Centron and similar studios - gives us a basic but interesting overview on the folks behind such classics as "Pork: The Meal With a Squeal".

Another section on DVD 2 is called "Illustrated Interviews". These text pieces give us more information from Harvey, Hilligoss, and Clifford. Although we encounter a fair amount of new (to this set) details - particularly in the Clifford and Hilligoss sections - there's also a lot of redundancy, especially from Harvey. We hear some of the same facts and the identical anecdotes that we've already listened to two or three times. To be frank, this redundancy is what knocked my grade for the extras down to a "B+"; the volume and quality of the material would seem to earn at least an "A-", but so much of the same information appears over and over that we learn less than you'd think. However, these interviews are probably the most complete tellings of the COS, so if you want the low-down without repetition, this area is the place to come.

Finally, we find a nice booklet included in the DVD's case. It includes a pretentious essay from University of Colorado professor Bruce Kawin that tries really hard to make COS sound more substantial than it is. The booklet also tosses in an essay from the film's writer, John Clifford. This piece is more modest, though it again repeats some of the information we've heard elsewhere.

That redundancy hurts my overall impression of the DVD's supplements, but even a slew of consistently fresh and exciting extras couldn't have saved this clunker. Carnival of Souls has built a significant following over the years, but I can't see why. The movie displays some solid visual panache but falters due to problems in every other aspect of the film. The DVD looks and sounds good for an old movie, and the extras are fairly complete - and then some, since the same material appears many times - but none of that can redeem the film's essential stupidity. Bottom line? Already-established fans of Carnival of Souls doubtless will love this release, but everyone else should pass on it.

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