Carnival of Souls

Discussion in 'High Def' started by rkellner, Oct 1, 2016.

  1. rkellner

    rkellner Active Member

    Nov 23, 2015
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    [​IMG] Reviewer: rkellner
    Review Date: October 1, 2016

    Released by: Criterion
    Release date: 07/12/2016
    MSRP: $39.95
    Region A
    Progressive Scan
    Codec: AVC, 1080p
    Full Frame 1.37:1

    Has any black and white genre film, save for Plan 9 From Outer Space, had such a renaissance of appreciation as Carnival of Souls? I am hard pressed to think of any locally made, independent, low budget production that struck out upon initial release, and then half a century later is heralded by the largest critics of the time and given lofty accolades comparing it to the works of European master filmmakers like Bergman, Cocteau as well as making linkages of influence to modern filmmakers like David Lynch. Is this a case of the horror community trying to champion a true underdog of a film and adhere deeper meanings, context, and symbolism to dialog and images that were simply meant to move scenes from one to the next? Or is this truly a textbook example of a genre masterwork that was captured like lightning in a bottle which defies all aspects of its creators and inception to be something that has enough originality and atmosphere to transcend its meager origins? Well, the new lavish 4K remaster by the loving cinema gods at Criterion have certainly upped my appreciation of this one by a couple notches. Let’s delve in further.

    The Story

    inline Image The plot of this is fairly straight forward. Mary Henry, played by Candace Hilligross, is a detached young blonde who unwittingly gets into a small town drag race against a carful of local boys. She seems to be the only one who is getting no thrill from the race itself, when her car full of friends takes a plunge off a bridge into a fast moving river, and she is the only one to emerge. Shaken, but hardly reflective of the accident that seemingly claimed the lives of her friends, she seeks to leave this small Kansas town behind and takes a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City.

    Close to her destination, she sees the ominous façade of Saltair in the distance, a large abandoned dancehall and resort. Upon feeling a strange calling to it, she is also starting to have visions of white plaster faced individuals that seem to be coming after her once the sun goes down with the lead antagonist played by the director himself in an uncredited performance. After failing to make any real connections in her new home and job, and being haunted by specters of the white faced individuals, she feels compelled to understand her fate which is tied to the old abandoned structure. Much like the 1962 short film Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, based upon a short story by Ambrose Bierce, in which a civilian escapes from hanging in the Civil War and later contemporary films such as the Final Destination series and the rarely seen but chillingly effective Sole Survivor, the film plays with the notion that after the horrific accident, some gateway has been opened up and supernatural elements have crossed over into Mary’s life which seek to bring some ultimate closure to her destiny.

    inline Image Alright, lets get a couple things out of the way. Anyone expecting a lost sibling to Night of the Living Dead is going to find this one on the slow side. This is more of a slow burn chiller akin to some of Ingmar Bergman’s surreal and horror works such as Hour of the Wolf and Persona, or maybe even an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. Granted, this movie definitely does pay off in the final act, but it is a bit plodding up to that point, even at a lean 78 minutes. However, I can’t help but feel that part of that is intentional as the movie takes us through the day to day life of Mary, and her interactions, or lack there of, with individuals around her. In the opening scene, prior to the car crash, we are introduced to a detached, uninterested although attractive woman. She seems largely unchanged by the fact that this horrific accident has occurred, and we witness her shun her home, her family, and those that she knows in order to take a new job in a distant town. There, she proceeds to alienate the elderly woman who is housing her as well as the friendly although overbearing and pushy young male neighbor who goes out of his way to show her a good time. She shows no passion for religion, even though her primary study and occupation is as a church organist, and ultimately finds herself shunned from the very church that hired her and brought her to town. Finally, the script is peppered with dialog about the impact of Mary’s lackadaisical decisions on her SOUL. I don’t think I really caught this my first time viewing the film, but there are at least a half a dozen references to it.

    inline Image I understand the potential for the story here is giving us a main character that floats from one human interaction to another without an inkling of passion, attachment, interest, or emotion…it’s almost as if she isn’t alive (wink, wink)… but from the position of the viewer, it is also a bit dull to be very engaged with a character that at every turns, tries to not be relatable or someone that you as a viewer are emotionally invested in. The Twilight Zone-ish scenes where she becomes invisible to the public around her seem to drive home the point that this is an individual that strives to be unnoticed. Thank goodness it is peppered with scenes of ghostly apparitions, atmospheric resurrections of watery ghouls, and one hell of a ghostly organ score to keep our attention.

    inline Image There is also some interesting sexual context in play here. Granted the story gives you a full blown embodiment of it with the neighbor who drinks in the morning and pretty much devotes his entire world to trying to get into women’s pants. However, beyong this 60’s horn dog, you can read into the fact that every male character in the film is trying to befriend her in some way, which she ultimately shrugs off. There are also numerous instances of images of radiant, scantily clad women in the backgrounds of shots such as the organ factory and the mall, which pose a stark contrast to the puritanical and detached mannerisms of Mary.

    inline Image
    While these story elements may have been accidentally more academic than the filmmakers would admit to, and their interviews seem to almost chuckle at anyone reading more meaning into the proceedings, the artistry, composition of shots, and editing has to have been far more deliberate. The scenes in the organ factory, the huge abandoned structure of the ballroom and amusement park show a real passion and eye for eerie composition, from the odd, surrealistic skewed angles that everything is shot at to the use of stark black and white cinematography to highlight how everything takes on a supernatural and evil vibe once the sun goes down. The scenes of the bodies rising from the lake and the dancing specters are especially effective 50 years later. The choice of editing which seems to link Mary to some unspecified point of view coming out of the abandoned dance hall is also jarring and quite effective in setting the boundaries of space in the film.

    I would be remiss if I did not mention the other main character of the film, the soundtrack. Much like the Goblin score for Suspiria, or John Williams simple but terrifying chords in Jaws, the organ score for Carnival of Souls is as important as anything on screen, if not more so. In watching this film again, I was struck by just how much score was woven into the film itself. To quote the liner notes of the vinyl release of this score on MsMusic by Daniel Schweiger from his 1983 article for Cinefantastique (really because I can’t write this any better than what he says), “If there’s one instrument that denotes the power of the fantastic within our imagination’s most nightmarish realms, it is the organ. For centuries, this imposing keyboard instrument has conjured visions of fire and brimstone for church parishioners. Then there is the organ’s effect on audiences who flock to the church of the cinema, hoping for vicarious thrills. Bernard Herrmann was the organ’s first notable practitioner in film scoring and …recognized the primal link between evil and the organ. Nevertheless, in many horror films of the 50’s and 60’s, the organ is accompanied by a chorus or the bizarre vibration of the theremin…Yet, the stripping away of musical sound is often the more terrifying choice. And this is the case with Gene Moore’s organ-only score for 1962’s Carnival of Souls, in which the pipes evoke the cries of a woman’s lost spirit, and bring a chilling, otherworldly beauty to the horror genre’s most unnerving danse macabre”.

    This film has seen a multitude of different releases over the years. Theatrically shorn of close to ten minutes to play as a double bill with The Devils Messenger, the film was restored to its original running time of 77 minutes in the VHS era. Later, Criterion would put out an early special edition of the film as a two DVD set which included this cut, as well as an alternate “Directors Cut” which would run 83 minutes. A colorized version also exists, however given the striking black and white cinematography of this, I can only assume that this version has limited appeal. Interestingly enough, the run time of this feature is slightly longer than the original Criterion theatrical cut by about 20 seconds.

    The film has somehow found a way to permeate into the modern consciousness and unbelievably is still making cameo appearances in modern film. Sharp-eyed horror fans can see it pop up on TV screens in scenes from recent horror movies, Tales of Halloween, Southbound, Insidious 2 and The Babadook. Not bad for a movie that tanked at the box office in the early 60’s.

    Image Quality

    Whoa. Criterion goes all out here and presents this with a brand new 4K digital transfer. It is nothing short of a revelation. In fact, the print is so amazingly deep and rich that this feels like a different viewing experience entirely from my earlier viewings. With 21GB of this maxed out disk devoted to the short feature itself, your mind is tricked into thinking that this is some ultra-slick high budget black and white chiller as the composition of the 1.33:1 shots pop out and the subtle elements of light and shadows that were previous lost in muddier transfers become readily apparent. Ok, maybe there is a stray mark or hair here and there, but damn…this is impressive work. It almost makes you wonder why EVERY movie of this period can’t look this good on blu ray. Surely, if the micro-budgeted Carnival of Souls can be turned into home theater demo worthy material, why can’t everything else?!?!


    The audio track on this is transferred in a linear PCM mono track at 1152 kbps/24-bit in a realistic presentation. While the video elements of this film are top notch and something to savor, the audio is sufficient, but nothing to make your head spin. Everything is a bit veiled, but probably true to the source. The dialog, the elements of wind, the atmosphere of the Saltair resort, all come across convincingly. And yes, the creepy and iconic organ score by Gene Moore is well presented here. The fidelity of it is very good, but it just won’t make you feel like you are in the middle of the dread like some modern synth soundtracks.

    Supplemental Material

    -Audio Commentary featuring Director Herk Harvey and Screenwriter John Clifford. I am taking an educated guess that since this was recorded in 1989, it was used on the directors cut version of the film which debuted on laserdisk. Given the fact that a quarter of a century has passed, Herk’s memory is sharp as a tack, and proves to be an excellent storyteller. The commentary (hey, they were new at this point) is not exactly scene specific, but kind of runs like an interview with the two that plays along with the film with them jumping in here and there to talk about what is on screen. Herk talks about the genesis of the and filming of the movie for $30k over three weeks. Herk and John seem to written all of this out in advance as few comments are off the cuff, but the two give a really strong commentary filling in the details of the scenes, their thoughts on artistic touches, how the story and locations add to atmosphere, the filming of scenes, the reception of it, and the lessons learned from crooked distribution process, how the film began to grow it’s cult, etc. The commentary also really points a finger at everyone that reads things into the film, and the two of them tend to fall back to the story that they were just trying to do something interesting with the budget and a good location, and that even the director and writer didn’t have intentions to overlay deeper meaning into the film. Note, there are often long stretches without input.

    -Deleted scenes. While it has been a while since I saw the director’s cut of this, I remember it dragging a bit more than the theatrical cut. These three extended scenes remind me why. Worth a watch once.

    -Outtakes accompanied by Gene Moore’s organ score. Now this is interesting, but still admittedly a completest only kind of feature. This is a half hour worth of alternate takes. While there isn’t any real revelations here, mostly alternate angles and takes, it does contain some interesting unused footage of Mary walking around the carnival grounds as well as some unique zombie shots that are visually interesting that were not used in the film.

    -The Movie That Wouldn’t Die! Now this is a great bonus feature! It is a 1989 reunion of the cast and crew with a Q&A that runs about a half hour and was produced by a local news outlet KTWU. BEWARE THIS EXTRA GIVES AWAY PLOT POINTS. This was produced on tape so don’t expect anything HD, but this contains some really fascinating insights by most of the key players, especially with the perspective that their microbudget horror film that bombed and did not make them a cent (literally, due to corrupt distribution practices which seem to be the norm back then) is now experiencing a huge revival and getting rave reviews on national television, having full blown ads in the New York Times, and out of nowhere getting hailed as a lost masterpiece. Herk Harvey talks about finding Saltair and taking photos to bring back as the basis of a screenplay, how he raised $13k in a weekend to fund the film, the challenges of some of the shots in the ballroom, and his 35 year career shooting industrial and education films. Other good discussions include how many subtle undertones everyone reads into and how they were largely unintended. This also has a tacked on segment of a walkthrough of various locations and the various tragic incarnations of the doomed Saltair resort which are pretty interesting.

    -Excerpts from movies made by the Centron Corporation. Included here are six shorts that are mildly interesting which range from 2-5 minutes to 21. Damn Criterion is thorough!

    -Carnival Tour – History of Saltair Resort – This is an informative albeit low resolution, half hour presentation of the ups and downs of this location

    -New interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould. This is a 20 minute feature with comedian and comedy writer Dana Gould on his affection for horror films and his thoughts on the film and context around its creation, the soundtrack, and the acting.

    -Video essay by film critic David Cairns. This is a 20 minute piece entitled Regards from Nowhere that focuses in on some of the (unintentionally?) subversive tones in the film the direction and mood of the film, and appreciation of the dream like cinematography and how this ties into the fates of the characters. It would be interesting to hear Herk if he were still alive to comment on this. I have a feeling he would get a good laugh at someone reading too much into his little film.

    -A trailer and customary Criterion booklet essay by Kier-La Janiesse round out the extras.

    Final Thoughts

    An absolute underground classic of surreal horror. Criterion ups my appreciation of this title tremendously with a near-perfect presentation in all fields: audio, video, and extras. This is a film (and movie package) that is prime for re-evaluation or discovery on a rainy fall night. The absence of a seamless branching option to watch a directors cut is the only thing keeping this from an absolute perfect, future-proof presentation.


    [​IMG] Movie - A-

    Image Quality - A+

    Sound - B+

    Supplements - A

    Technical Info.
    • B&W
    • Rated R
    • 1 Disc
    • PCM Mono sound
    • Subtitles
    • Commentary
    • Deleted scenes
    • Outtakes
    • The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!
    • Centron Corp. excerpts
    • Carnival Tour – History of Saltair Resort
    • Interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould
    • Video essay by film critic David Cairns
    • Trailer
    • Criterion booklet essay by Kier-La Janiesse
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 2, 2016
  2. Dave

    Dave Pimp

    Sep 28, 1999
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    Boston, MA
    Good review. Love this one. I completely get that it's not for everyone. Super slow flick, yet beautiful and haunting. It's not one that I revisit often. I haven't seen it in years and may just have to relent and get this blu.
  3. hellraiser40

    hellraiser40 Well-Known Member

    Jan 9, 2005
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    Helchteren, Belgium
    i have the earlier Criterion 2-DVD release and while this will obviously be having the better quality in A/V, i think it including 2 different cuts will make it still desirable
  4. Erick H.

    Erick H. Well-Known Member

    Aug 29, 2004
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    I have the Legend release which features both cuts . It is a film I go back to every couple of years, great atmosphere . Odd that it's "making of" story is so close to the later NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Two horror films made on ultra low budgets by industrial filmmakers doing their first features. Both regional films, shot far away from major entertainment centers that were tossed off as part of oddball double bills upon their original releases. They even have some similar imagery. One scored upon release, one didn't yet both become genre classics.
  5. rxfiend

    rxfiend Joe Six-Pack

    May 1, 2001
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    Southern IN
    I need to get this blu-ray!
  6. Horrorfan

    Horrorfan Member

    Jul 29, 2001
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    I have attempted to watch this many times and always fell asleep. This year I got the blu ray and finally made it through the film. Love the ending
  7. Paff

    Paff Super Moderator

    May 14, 2000
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    In the 90s, I used to jot down cool quotes from movies I rented. And I always remember this one:

    "In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand"
  8. Angelman

    Angelman OCD Blu Ray Collector

    Oct 27, 2004
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    Love this film. Right there with NOTLD for 60s horror for me.
  9. gobad2003

    gobad2003 Well-Known Member

    Mar 8, 2008
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    You need to get the original Criterion dvd of this to get the extended edition which isn't on the blu. That's the only thing that has prevented me from buying it.
  10. Darga

    Darga Narcissistic Personality

    Oct 24, 2001
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    Boston, MA
    Interesting that this thread was revived today, since Carnival of Souls was playing on a TV in the background in Southbound which I watched last night. I'd love to check out the Blu ray, but I've already got the old Criterion DVD which I'm not sure if I ever even watched. Maybe this weekend...

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