Carnival of Souls Review

The Film

I believe it was CS Lewis who, in attempting to avoid images of pitchforks and infernos, described Hell as being like a rural bus stop in the middle of nowhere. The torment was that of constant waiting and eternally false hopes of getting somewhere. Hell was a non-place between places with no journey to come or any destination to look forward to.
I grew up in a small seaside town and CS Lewis' description of Hell as a kind of limbo seemed much more real to me than red hot pokers and fallen angels. My experience of a home town where nothing ever happens and where you make very little difference to that nothing is why Carnival of Souls affected me so much when I first saw it. It chimed with my unspoken suspicion that the life I led wasn't about living but eternal pointless waiting.

Watching the film is a little like listening to a singer who is constantly off key. The drama exercises a morbid fascination over the viewer with its amateurish actors, limited visuals, and parochial settings, all synchronised and shaped by a really intriguing use of sound. Throughout the film something is definitely not right. Mary-Henry is often too sad, too happy or too strange; she seems adrift in a sea of humanity that she is unable to navigate.
Made by Herk Harvey and John Clifford in 1962, their film was too odd to succeed at the box office, and what little money it made disappeared with dodgy men who were never heard of again. Fresh from making corporate and advertising films, the two men planned a movie which would be metaphysical and intense rather than a throwaway popcorn muncher. Its depressive air, a story of a woman who can't be saved by priest or shrink, is much more the substance of European art house than zombies and slash 'n' stalk.

Rediscovered as a cult horror movie, fans now applaud how weird and Pinteresque the film seems. The falseness is now seen as Brechtian distancing and its army of waltzing undead in the forbidden pavilion have been imitated in endless flicks. What, on first viewing, seemed weak and badly done is now art and artful, and time has allowed the movie a second chance to be seen by a hugely appreciative audience.
It isn't a masterpiece though and at points it can seem bland or boring. Still it is exceptionally innovative with its use of sound to undermine the life and unlife of its heroine, the striking awakening scenes of the watery undead, and a brave, if desperate, message about our final destination.

The legacy of Carnival of Souls is a serious and intelligent one. Seen in the modern horror world of genre remakes, Harvey's film is full of ideas and it is clear evidence that low budget doesn't mean low quality. It still continues to creep me out with the power of its central idea, and if after watching you ever find that your humdrum world goes real quiet then you will wonder just whether you are still living or waiting some more...

Transfer and Sound

This is the 83 minute version of the film and the transfer contains so much combing, motion shake and general murkiness that I would not be amazed to discover that this is a standards conversion. During the film, there is what looks like a framing wobble and the edges have been boosted throughout. Contrast is far from strong, grain is thankfully still present and the image is sharp enough, but this is a pretty weak affair.
I'm easy come, easy go. A little high, little low

The sound is truly dreadful with general muddiness and constant hum and distortion rendering dialogue difficult to discern in the rare moments it's synched properly. A permanent pre-hiss seems to follow the whole track rising and falling in anticipation of any words, it is a relief when the silent fugue moments occur!

Discs and Special Features

Network treat this film to a commentary from Kim Newman and Stephen Jones where both men seem to have a fine time. Unfortunately, Jones doesn't like the film that much and some of his contributions are rather bizarre and seem like deliberate attempts to go off topic. Newman is well prepared and does his best to keep it lively and ground the film within the modern genre, but I much preferred watching the film itself.

The remaining extra on this single layer region free disc is a trailer. The menu is animated using the car scene and is possibly the best part of the whole package.


Criterion's set is region free with much better video and sound and a smorgasbord of other features. This release is no kind of competition.

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