Carnival of Souls - The Criterion Collection Review
The early 1960s was quite an interesting time for horror cinema, seemingly caught between two different eras. With the release of Psycho, the public realized that horror cinema could be graphic and outrageous in ways that it had never achieved before. Overseas, Peeping Tom examined psychosexual unease with a disturbing frankness, Eyes Without a Face planted an uneasy beauty on to its horrific happenings and Black Sunday ushered in a new era of camp horror cinema. Each of these films has left their impact in some way and each has helped to build the bridge from one side of cinema to the next.
Right at the center of this bridge is Carnival of Souls, a small, cheap, independent film that stands as one of the creepiest horror films of its time, sustaining a mood like no other film. In the very first scene, main character Mary (Candace Hilligoss) is involved in a drag-racing accident that sends her car careening into a nearby river. Emerging in a daze, she sets off for Saltair, Utah where she will take a job as an organist for a church. She quickly finds her reality deteriorating as she is haunted by a ghostly specter and drawn to an abandoned carnival, always lurking in the nearby distance. As the film progresses, she begins to feel the unearthly pull of the afterlife as she becomes further distanced from the world around her.
As the description in this newly restored Criterion release states, Herk Harvey’s film has the “look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau.” Indeed, the film is an incredibly successful hybrid of the former’s shadowy cinematography and inky precision as well as the latter’s transporting, dreamlike aura. For much of the runtime, it may even feel more aligned with the mind-bending mechanics of Alain Resnais than the trappings of the horror genre. What makes Carnival of Souls so unique is how tough it is to pin down, how hard it is to get a grasp on and how memorable an impression each of these factors makes.
Made on an initial budget of just $17,000, Carnival of Souls is able to obtain a true elegance from the relative cheapness. As David Cairns states on one of the disc’s supplements, the occasional bit of poor acting adds to the dreamlike sense of unease, as if each character was ‘an alien possessing a human’s body.’ Lead actress Candace Hilligoss is fantastic, emitting a thousand yard stare for the ages, as if she has seen horrific things of which she does not even know. Her mood swings lead to some disorienting tonal shifts, making Carnival of Souls quite an unnerving film to examine. Is it a low-budget camp classic or is it a high-minded art film? As one watches, the deeply felt emotion and terrific sense of mood seeps into the conscience, slowly revealing the film we are watching to be something much more profound than it may initially seem.
Every scene in Carnival of Souls feels backwards in the most appealing possible manner, building a tense air of unease and an unexpectedly profound sadness. At just 78 minutes, the film doesn’t have a whole lot of story but it is still remarkable what a few actors, an abandoned set and an organ can accomplish.
Carnival of Souls looks surprisingly fantastic on Blu-Ray, sourced from a new 4K restoration. There is depth to the image quality like fans have never seen before, maintaining a crisp freshness that, often times, illuminates the film’s low production values. Still, I never thought I would be able to see such a low budget, nearly forgotten independent film look as pristine and beautiful as this. Despite a few instances of print damage near the end of the film (especially in the nighttime photography), this is an almost revelatory transfer.
Much like the video transfer, the PCM mono audio track to Carnival of Souls is the best that it has ever sounded. The organ soundtrack is robust and the audio-less dream sequences are effectively conveyed. Some of the dialogue still comes off a little inconsistent, probably due to the limitations of the filmmaking process, but it is still a reasonably strong audio track.
Criterion has put together a great package of supplements for this film, placing a new interview and a new video essay and a few archival pieces in addition to numerous pieces carried over from the original Criterion DVD. However, those of you who are upgrading from the old Criterion release may want to hold on to it as it contains the entire Director’s Cut, which is sadly missing from this new release. The new Blu-Ray also misses out on some extensive text and picture materials, which were a staple on some of Criterion’s original releases.
First up is an Audio Commentary featuring director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford. The track takes up only around half of the film but it is quite interesting when it plays. As long as one knows that there is a fair amount of dead space, then there is a lot of interesting material here. Next up are a handful of Deleted Scenes from the Director’s Cut. Most are slight extensions, serving to lengthen the eerie mood much of the time. There is some interesting dialogue in an extended version of a visit to the doctor, some interesting shots in an extension of one of two dream sequences and a fascinating but slightly out-of-place conversation between the first minister and a worker about Mary’s state after the crash. Following this is a vast series of Outtakes pulled (and slightly shortened) from the old Criterion DVD. Accompanied by the eerie organ soundtrack, these are most alternate takes, cues and shots. Invaluable in regards to the history of the film, this 27-minute reel is still more of a curiosity than a meaty source of new material.
Final Destination is the first of a few new extras, this one an interview with writer and comedian Dana Gould. Gould is an enjoyable presence and gives a great view of the film as well as its legacy. In addition to this, there are some wonderful insights into the history of the town of Saltair, making up for a few missing text pieces. It’s a pretty basic interview, balancing personability and academia into a serviceable package. Next is The Movie That Wouldn’t Die, a very entertaining piece created in conjunction with a 1989 re-release of the film. The majority of the cast and crew are here and it all makes for a fun special, examining the legacy of this drive-in classic and what makes it so special all these years down the road. In addition to this, there is also a 5-minute long Carnival Tour, which transports us into a modern-day (as of 2000) trip through the Carnival grounds.
Regards from Nowhere is the next new feature, this one a creative visual essay “hosted” by David Cairns. Cairns lays down an overview of his history with the film, the film’s own history as well as an analysis of the acting, cinematography and the story of Carnival of Souls (including a fun reference to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room). Cairns’ delivery is slightly monotone but his insights are welcomed and the format of the essay allows for intriguing input from many other fans, including Stephen Bisette, Fiona Watson and Anne Bilson. Saltair: Return to the Salt Queen is an archival feature new to this addition that replaces much of the text features examining the history of the titular carnival. A TV piece from 1999, this is in rough shape but it is very entertaining. If one wishes not to hear entertaining stories about the carnival and would rather leave it as a creepy, abandoned purgatory, this is an extra that may not come recommended. For all others, Saltair is a very entertaining special.
The Centrion Corporation is a massive collection of clips from previous films from Herk Harvey and John Clifford’s production company, totaling around 58 minutes. These are all of the industrial type covering anything from the school systems with ‘To Touch a Child’ to the state of Kansas’ provisions for the blind, with ‘Rebound.’ The commercials here are also very formally creative, displaying a sense of verve that would later add to the surrealist filmmaking on display in Carnival of Souls. Closing off the on-disc supplements is a Theatrical Trailer. There is a small leaflet containing an essay by Kier La-Janisse and a fold-out poster on this release that is disappointingly slim. Still, the writings that come with each new Criterion release are always welcome.
Carnival of Souls remains an underrated classic of the horror genre and this new Blu-Ray from Criterion serves it remarkably well. As unsettling as ever, Herk Harvey’s film is now pristinely restored for a new generation to discover one of the most influential of all horror films, with its wide spread felt from The Night of the Living Dead to The Sixth Sense. While the original Criterion DVD still holds merit due to an entire alternate cut of the film and some new and different extras, this Blu-Ray will please new and old fans of the film alike.