Carnival of Souls [DVD]
Screenplay : John Clifford
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1962
Stars : Candace Hilligoss (Mary Henry), Sidney Berger (John Linden), Frances Feist (Mrs. Thomas), Art Ellison (Minister), Stan Levitt (Dr. Samuels), Herk Harvey (The Man)
Television and the cinema have long had a strange, antagonistic relationship. When first introduced in the late 1940s, television posed a major threat to the monopoly the movies held on mass entertainment. Thus, the movies felt forced to evolve, which resulted in technological developments such as stereo sound, Cinemascope wide-screens, and gimmicks like 3-D.
However, while television has often been seen as the enemy of the cinema, it is a curious irony that television has occasionally been the savior of worthy films that, had they been left only to the movie theaters, would have disappeared and been forgotten a long time ago. The most famous instance of this, of course, is Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," which bombed theatrically when it was released in 1946, but has become an undisputed classic since it fell into the public domain and was regularly aired on public TV stations as counter-programming during the Christmas holidays.
While Herk Harvey's creepy, cult horror masterpiece "Carnival of Souls" has little in common with Capra's feel-good classic, it is notable in that it, too, was "saved" by television. Made in 1961 for $30,000 by a group of filmmakers from the Centron Corporation, an industrial and educational film company based in Lawrence, Kansas, it did little business theatrically when it was released in the fall of 1962 (it was cut by five minutes so it could be shown in a double bill with "The Devil's Messenger" at drive-ins). The film likely would have fallen into complete obscurity and disappeared forever had it not gained a cult following after it become a staple of late night television programming.
Many of those who saw "Carnival of Souls" on late-night TV recognized that it was not a piece of schlock. It may have been filmed on a low budget with black and white film stock, but the immense talent and visual ingenuity of director Herk Harvey is apparent in every frame, and there is little surprise that the film is often compared to another low-budget black and white horror masterpiece, George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" (1968).
The film's main character is a young woman named Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). In the opening sequence, she is the only person who survives a terrible accident when a car in which she and two girlfriends are riding plunges off a bridge and into the river. When Mary emerges from the cold, muddy waters, she is dazed and shocked. Days later, she finds that she has become emotionally removed from the rest of the world.
But, more than that, Mary is haunted by a ghostly apparition that appears before her at random moments and without warning. A kindly doctor suggests that maybe this apparition (who is played by director Herk Harvey) is a projection of the guilt she feels about being the lone survivor of the accident. But, this labored Freudian interpretation does nothing to put her tortured mind to rest.
Mary moves to Salt Lake City, Utah, to take a job as an organist in a church, but she has no religious convictions. She endures the constant come-ons from John Linden (Sidney Berger), a slimy neighbor in the boarding house at which she stays, but she has no romantic interest. At two points in the film, her removal from the social world becomes literal to the point that she wanders the streets trying to talk to people, yet no one can apparently hear or see her.
While in Utah, she spots a strange, ruinous building on the edge of the Great Salt Lake outside of town--a crumbling pavilion that was once a great dance hall. No one else seems much interested in it, but she finds herself continually drawn to it and the ghostly spirits that haunt its dance floor. It is only when she finally enters the pavilion that she learns the truth about herself and why she is haunted.
The story of how and why "Carnival of Souls" came to be made is as interesting as the film itself. It all started with Herk Harvey seeing the film's central location--the deserted Saltair Resort--when on a trip in Utah. He was so taken by its strange Moorish architecture and its remote location in the salt flats outside of Salt Lake City, that he was inspired to make a film. He asked John Clifford, with whom he worked at Centron, to write a script, and Clifford produced the screenplay for "Carnival of Souls" in a couple of weeks. Harvey and Clifford raised the money themselves from local investors, and the rest is B-movie history.
Although it didn't make much of a splash in 1962, after years of late-night TV airings and a theatrical revival in 1989, "Carnival of Souls" finally received the recognition it had deserved upon initial release. Perhaps it is only in retrospect, with so many half-hearted horror movies and dull slasher pics in mind, that the ingenuity, creativity, and sheer inspiration that went into "Carnival of Souls" could become fully clear. Granted, the film has a few weaknesses--the acting is not always up to par and there are a few points in the narrative that tend to drag--but, overall, this is truly superb filmmaking.
Harvey's direction is tight and creative. He and cinematographer Maurice Prather make great use of the stark black and white photography and odd camera angles that make even ordinary locations seem vaguely sinister (this is especially true of both an early scene in which Mary is in an organ factory and just about every scene that takes place in the church in the which she works). The film is punctuated musically only by an eerie organ score by Gene Moore that helps to bring us deeper into Mary's subconscious. There are times when it is impossible to tell whether the music on the soundtrack is external to the narrative or whether it is the music Mary is playing herself.
But, more than anything else, "Carnival of Souls" demonstrates that the quality of scary filmmaking is not directly proportional to the size of the budget. One does not need millions of dollars in special effects and prosthetic ghoul costumes to send a shiver down the spectator's spine. While most big-budget Hollywood blockbusters show that all the money in the world can't compensate for a lack of originality and imagination, Herk Harvey's little B-movie made in Kansas shows just the opposite. An effective work of art requires creativity and determination, both of which Harvey had in abundance.
"Carnival of Souls" is presented by The Criterion Collection in a deluxe two-disc special edition. Disc one contains the widely seen 78-minute theatrical cut of the film, while disc two contains Herk Harvey's rarely seen original 83-minute cut.
Widescreen: 1.33:1 (original aspect ratio)
16x9 Enhanced: No
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Extras: Disc One: "The Movie That Wouldn't Die!: The Story of Carnival of Souls," a documentary about the 1989 reunion of the cast and crew; 45 minutes of rare outtakes accompanied by Gene Morgan's organ score; theatrical trailer; illustrated history of the Saltair Resort; "The Carnival Tour," a video update of the film's locations / Disc Two: Selected audio commentary by screenwriter John Clifford and director Herk Harvey; one hour of excerpts from films made by the Centron Corporation; an essay on the history of Centron from "Mental Hygiene," Ken Smith's book on industrial and educational filmmaking; print interviews with Herk Harvey, John Clifford, and Candace Hilligoss illustrated with vintage photos and memorabilia
Distributor: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision
Video: The beautiful new full-frame transfer, which was taken from a duplicate negative (apparently the original negative has been lost), is absolutely marvelous. For a low-budget B-movie, "Carnival of Souls" is an intensely visual film, and Maurice Prather's ominous black and white photography is given its due. There is not a scratch or hint of dust to be found, detail level is high without any noticeable edge enhancement, there is no evident grain, and the contrast is smooth and even throughout.
Audio: The original mono soundtrack is maintained, and it is surprisingly active. Gene Moore's creepy organ score has good tone and reverberations, and the soundtrack is free of any audible hiss or sound artifacts. Dialogue is always clear, although some of the looping is plainly obviously, especially in the opening sequence when some of the dialogue barely matches the actor's mouth (of course, this has nothing to do with the disc itself, just the flaw of a low-budget movie).
Extras: It says something about Criterion's enduring commitment to creating extensive supplementary sections for their DVDs that the extras on "Carnival of Souls" constitute almost twice the running time of the extended director's cut of the film itself. After going through the more than two-and-a-half hours of extras on this two-disc set, you will know virtually everything there is to know about the film. "The Movie That Wouldn't Die!," the 1989 documentary made by a Topeka, Kansas, TV station, chronicles the history of how the film was made, as well as its theatrical revival in 1989 that brought the cast and crew back together. Bill Shaffer, who hosts the documentary, also hosts "The Carnival Tour," which is a video update of all the principle filming locations in Lawrence, Kansas (many of them have changed drastically or disappeared since 1962). The illustrated history of the Saltair Resort is particularly engrossing, especially the information about its cursed past, which includes two fires, a major windstorm, a flood, and numerous financial failings. Other goodies include print interviews, rare outtakes, and vintage photos, all of which make viewing the film that much more interesting and fulfulling.
©2000 James Kendrick