Carnival of Souls Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Carnival of Souls

Although Criterion are not exactly strangers to feature-packed special edition DVDs, Carnival of Souls raises the bar yet another notch. Quite simply, it is impossible to imagine what else they could conceivably have included – in addition to two separate cuts of the film and all the obvious extras, the DVDs (there are two of them) also delve into areas so rarefied and offbeat that one has to wonder about the sanity of some of the people at the company: this pushes the term “labour of love” to hitherto uncharted limits!

Just to give an example, Carnival of Souls was Herk Harvey’s only fiction feature – the rest of his career was spent making industrial and educational films that were rarely screened outside his native Kansas. Most DVDs would be perfectly content with mentioning this in a sentence or two in the biographies or programme notes and leaving it at that – but Criterion have gone to truly insane lengths in tracking down and including nearly an hour of excerpts!

I’ll explore the extras in more detail at the end of this review, but what of the main feature? Much like many of its characters, Carnival of Souls is a classic example of The Movie That Wouldn’t Die (the title of the accompanying documentary). Shot on a derisory budget and schedule in the early 1960s, it flopped at the box office, but became a cult favourite thanks to late night TV screenings and video releases on obscure labels before its reissue in the original, longer, “director’s cut” in 1989.

In these wilderness years, its main claim to fame was that it had a major influence on two of the most important and influential horror films of the last forty years – George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and David Lynch’s Eraserhead – and it’s easy to see where the connections arise. Indeed, the central situation isn’t that dissimilar from Romero’s film, in that its protagonist Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is constantly haunted by strange zombie-like figures who appear without warning at any moment, while the slow, dreamlike atmosphere and eerie use of organ music on the soundtrack are also key characteristics of Lynch’s film.

Anyone expecting a gut-wrenching entrail-mangler (or “the shocker of all time”, as the trailer and print ads promised) is going to be sorely disappointed – Carnival of Souls is a quiet, low-key mood piece that gains its effects through a constantly unsettling, off-kilter atmosphere. Though there are a couple of effective jump-out-of-your-seat moments, they’re very much the exception rather than the general rule – this is more for fans of The Sixth Sense (to which it bears a more than passing resemblance) than Scream.

After being the sole survivor of a drag race that ended in disaster, everything about Mary Henry’s life seems to have subtly changed. It’s not just that she’s relocated to a new job as a church organist and doesn’t know anyone; people react to her in unexpected ways, and she keeps having bizarre hallucinations, especially about a strange man with ash-white skin who keeps appearing where she least expects him to, leading up to a haunting scene in a deserted amusement park, where the recently dead dance for all eternity.

Although in terms of budget and distribution this is essentially a low-budget American exploitation item, it’s clear that Harvey and writer John Clifford had somewhat higher aspirations: Bergman and Cocteau are invoked in the commentary, and while Carnival of Souls never gets anywhere near that level – it generally falls down on the dialogue side of things, with some rather trite debates about the meaning of life – it nonetheless is a genuine curiosity: weirdly out of step with its time, simultaneously harking back to silent Expressionism while looking forward to what the horror genre would become (not least as a result of its influence). Maurice Prather’s cinematography is particularly impressive in this respect, especially considering that the film was put together with a crew of just five.

The DVD transfer is as good as you’re ever likely to get, and its limitations are purely those of the film itself – though the print is in remarkably good condition: a few very minor spots and scratches, but nothing significant. In the past, Criterion have done some of the best black-and-white transfers I’ve ever seen, and this isn’t going to hurt their reputation one iota – there’s a huge dynamic range that retains plenty of detail even in the darkest shadows, the image is pin-sharp and there is not the slightest trace of digital noise or artefacting. The picture is framed at the original 4:3, so an anamorphic transfer wouldn’t have been necessary.

The sound, unsurprisingly, is the original mono, and the mix isn’t what you’d call sophisticated – the soundtrack suffers more than the picture from the low budget – but the DVD sound is admirably sharp and clear, making the most of both the dialogue and the memorable organ score. It’s hard to think how Criterion could have done a better job with this material considering its built-in limitations. There are fifteen chapter stops, which is adequate for a relatively brief film.

And so to the extras…

As you’ll have gathered, there are rather a lot, so I’ll kick off with the usual bases: the menus are excellent, underscored with creepy organ music and featuring slowed-down, dreamlike (and tinted) video images from the film in the background. The theatrical trailer, which supplies rather a neat précis of the entire film, though it does give away rather a lot of the plot in the process. Incidentally, I loved the wildly exaggerated tagline – “The shocker of all time – guaranteed to sweep you into a new dimension of picture-making!” – I wonder if many people demanded a refund after they saw the film itself?

As mentioned above, two different cuts of the film are included – the original release version, and Herk Harvey’s own preferred cut. To be honest, while it’s admirably purist of Criterion to have included both versions, the original cut is really only of historical interest, and most people, especially in the UK, will doubtless only be familiar with the longer version (the one reissued in 1989).

Two documentaries supply comprehensive background information. The meatiest is the 30-minute ‘The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!’, made in 1989 to mark the re-release of the film, and containing interviews with all the major participants (including writer, director and lead actors). It looks as though it was made on a relatively low budget for a local Kansas TV channel – it’s clearly sourced from low-grade NTSC video, and the technical quality is ropey in the extreme – but the content matters more than the presentation. The second documentary, ‘The Carnival Tour’ is a relatively brief (just under five-minute) tour of the film’s locations, crosscutting images from the film with shots of them as they appear now. Made in 1999, it’s rather more polished.

The director’s cut of the film is accompanied by a commentary recorded by Harvey and Clifford before the former’s death. It’s somewhat intermittent – the gaps being filled by a return to the film’s normal soundtrack – and doesn’t really tell you any more than you can find out elsewhere on the DVD, though it’s nice to get it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. As ever with Criterion discs, the commentary has its own chapter index.

The ‘Outtakes’ section is a decidedly strange experience – they’re completely silent, seemingly unstructured, and form a backdrop to what purports to be the complete version of Gene Moore’s organ score – which I can well believe, since this section runs only a few seconds short of forty minutes. Effectively, this is the soundtrack album with a moving pictures accompaniment and, sensibly, Criterion have split it up into 19 separate chapters: there’s no master index, but this is a lot better than the single-chapter efforts I’ve seen with other DVDs (including Criterion’s own Flesh for Frankenstein!)

The ‘Interviews’ section is split into three sections, each based around an interview with Herk Harvey (94 pages), John Clifford (55 pages) and Candace Hilligoss (81 pages) respectively. Each serves a double function – filling in the gaps left by the other extras (this is where you learn the most about the film’s three main participants, and the one-on-one interviews give them a chance to speak honestly about the film – Candace Hilligoss is particularly revealing on the subject: she seems to have gone into it with her eyes wide open, under no illusions that it would amount to much) and acting as a comprehensive memorabilia gallery – each interview is copiously illustrated with stills and promotional material, including all the original 1962 poster and advertising artwork. You’ll be able to hold your own in any Carnival of Souls trivia quiz after you get past this section!

This is the point where most normal DVD packages would end – but there are two major extras still to come, marking the point where things move from being genuinely useful and illuminating to being downright obsessive. The Centron Corporation section, exploring the work Harvey did during his day job, is a case in point – I’ve always loved old documentary footage (more for what it reveals about the society that produced it than any cinematic merit in its own right), so I found these extracts from the rest of Herk Harvey’s 400-film output fascinating in their own right – but they don’t add that much to our understanding of his only feature, other than to reveal that he was clearly an intelligent, highly professional film-maker who made a point of delivering what the client wanted.

A 39-page essay by Ken Smith sets the scene, and the first film is Star 34 (early 1950s), which wasn’t directed by Harvey but which features an early appearance by him as an actor (“still learning how to turn [his] performance down for the camera”, say the accompanying notes). He plays one half of a couple who have to travel to Kansas to claim an inheritance – which is basically a somewhat contrived excuse for a Kansas travelogue highlighting its attractions and history (“Here, more of the wild and bloody history of Aunt Emily’s home state unfolded before the visitors…”). Harvey doesn’t have much to do except look at Kansas rock formations and go “Gee, I’d never have believed it if it wasn’t for the evidence of my own eyes” a lot – but as a love letter to his home state, it’s rather sweet.

Next, there’s a three-minute promo film for Centron, shot in the late 1960s – essentially a trip through the building and its offices, visual interest being supplied via a newly-acquired fisheye lens. There’s no dialogue or commentary, just a jazzy music score (which also accompanies the Centron section menu).

The final four extracts are from films written by John Clifford and directed by Herk Harvey, kicking off with the 1981 Signals – Read ‘Em Or Weep! (5 mins), a safety film about detecting early warning signs when using heavy industrial equipment. 1962’s polemical To Touch A Child (12 minutes) was made the same year as Carnival of Souls, and showcases Harvey’s ability to create atmosphere through the use of empty buildings – unused school buildings in this instance.

Jamaica, Haiti and the Lesser Antilles (12 minutes) was also made in 1962, and is included not so much for its content (though this is interesting enough), but to explain why Harvey and Clifford were unable to do much about the poor distribution of Carnival of Souls: they were stuck in Haiti making this film, and were caught up in an awkward political situation, though none of this has made it into the film itself, which is the kind of uncontentious National Geographic-style travelogue its backers presumably wanted. The final film, Korea: Overview (12 minutes), was made in 1978, and is an award-winning documentary about Korea, presented along similar lines to the Haiti film.

Given the purpose of the films and their target market (which would most likely have watched them on 16mm projectors or VCRs), I wasn’t the least bit surprised that they were all in 4:3, and given their rarity I was even less surprised that the quality wasn’t exactly pristine: colours have often faded badly (the Haiti film is now effectively rose-tinted monochrome), and there are plenty of spots, scratches and tramlines, but this is unlikely to be Criterion’s fault.

But even the Centron footage isn’t quite as out on a limb as the weirdest (and arguably most wonderful) extra: a mind-bogglingly detailed, copiously illustrated history of Saltair, the long-abandoned resort pavilion by the Great Salt Lake in Utah that makes a memorable backdrop to the title scene of Carnival of Souls. First of all, there’s a 67-page [sic] trawl through its history, from its construction through to its use as a setting for some tacky 1990s straight-to-video flick called Neon City, followed by an even more fascinating 66-page (I swear I’m not making this up!) memorabilia gallery, including some delightful period postcards and advertisements – I particularly liked the “diving mule” display, even though things have now gone seriously off-topic with regard to Carnival of Souls itself.

All in all, it is pretty much inconceivable that you’ll ever get a more comprehensive edition of this film. This is Criterion’s most impressive release since Brazil, and I’d argue that in many respects it’s even better, since the transfer itself is pretty well faultless (Brazil suffered from not being anamorphic; the 4:3 Carnival of Souls didn’t need to be).

That said, if anything it’s a little too wide-ranging – Carnival of Souls, for all its undoubted qualities, is never going to be much more than an interesting minor footnote in film history, and I’d argue that there’s a case for releasing a less elaborate single-disc edition containing, say, the director’s cut, the commentary, the trailer, possibly the first documentary and the printed interviews. Personally, I’ve got no complaints with this set, but it’s a little expensive for those less enamoured of the film. But all in all that’s a minor quibble – and this is unquestionably another major Criterion release.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999


Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Carnival of Souls Review | The Digital Fix