Oh the horror. The reputation of the cult classic Carnival of Souls has been tainted—with color. But, color or not, is this film as frightening as it's made out to be, even in this colorized director's cut?
It's 1962 (at least, that's when the film was made), and Mary and her two female friends agree to a drag race in a hick town. Unfortunately, they lose the race, big time. Their car goes off a bridge, and Mary is the only survivor. She picks up her life and moves on—to Utah, to be a church organist. Trouble begins as soon as she hits the road, and sees a frightening zombie-like man basically floating outside her passenger side window. And this frightening man in a suit (played by director Herk Harvey, who was on a wicked budget) begins popping up everywhere when Mary reaches her destination. She boards in the home of an elderly woman. The only other tenant is a sleazy guy who constantly undresses Mary with his eyes (when he's not actually peeping at her undressing). So, how does this creepy zombie man show up even in her new home? Then there's the odd phenomena of her being out in public at times, and completely overlooked by everyone around her, as if she doesn't exist. And if that isn't enough, Mary becomes obsessed with a deserted amusement park she can see from her bedroom window. In the end, the only way for her to face her fate—and a hoard of zombie people—is to go to the empty amusement park…at night of course.
A fan of zombie flix and black and white films with a reputation for being surprisingly creepy, I added this film to my collection a while back. And the first time I watched it, I thought it pretty creepy. These aren't flesh eating zombies—just zombie ghosts, so don't go looking for that sort of action. The film is actually very eerie (the first time) and much of the camera work is spectacularly innovative for the time. The zombies even run, something that hadn't become very popular until the films of the last few years. Now, on rewatching the film (in color no less) I was able to see how it's actually dated. I think the first time you watch the movie, you really have to put yourself in a "spooky" frame of mind—not a "terrifying" frame of mind, if you see my point. This movie captured the rural isolation of good horror movies from back then quite well. And on an initial viewing, I was even really feeling the monotonous organ soundtrack. Second time around though, you realize how overdone it is—not to mention that there are a few too many longer than needed scenes of Mary just sitting blankly and playing the organ herself. Actually, there are quite a bit of lingering moments in the film, mostly involving some of the weird townsfolk just staring at Mary. While it adds to the creepiness, it also becomes tedious after a while. While still a classic film, I'd say it could have been shaved down to an hour episode of The Outer Limits. Truth is, if you watch this with a group of people today, and don't appreciate it for its place in horror history, there will probably be a lot of jokes being tossed around at the expense of the film.
Now, onto the colorization. Of course, the immediate reaction is that this is the worst thing they could have done. For the most part, I agree. As far as colorization has come, it still doesn't look REAL. There's the issue of someone deciding to choose colors you would never have picked—for instance, Mary's dress is bright red when she has the car accident, and there's some wallpaper that's hideous yellow. The colors are too vivid for the atmosphere, because they're forced onto the image, not a natural element of the scene. And skin tones are something they'll just never get right. It never looks natural—everyone always looks like they are the same exact flesh color, and that's often like an orange tan. The only place the color really looked ok was in very dark scenes. It actually looked sometimes like an official color movie from that time, when the colors were always too saturated and separated from the blacks. And, if I dare confess this, I actually liked the colorization of the zombie faces at the end. While the stark white faces in the black and white was eerily effective, the colorization brought in a different element, with pasty blue-gray skin and blood red lips. It actually enhanced the subtle makeup effects, at least in my opinion.
If you are a purist who doesn't have a previous release of the movie on DVD, the original black and white version is included, but according to the counter on my DVD player, the color version runs an hour and 24 minutes, and the black and white version runs just under an hour and 23 minutes. I think the difference between the original and the director's cut was more than a minute, so this might just be due to some text credits and icons about colorization at the beginning and end of the film. Also note the 5.1 soundtrack options (see below) did not apply to the black and white version…at least, not on my preview copy.
The film is full frame 1:33:1. Aside from being colorized (see details above), the print for both color and b&w versions is grainy and has hairs and dust, as to be expected with a film this old, but it's never too distracting. The color version ranges from looking oversaturated at times to looking bland and washed out at others. Occasionally, it actually still looks black and white because so little color detail was applied to the scene. As for the b&w version, it looks somewhat soft and aged. Previous b&w only releases were sharper.
Well, the 2.0 mono track on the b&w version shows how much the 5.1 mix strengthened the track, because it's really low and hollow. The DTS 5.1 track basically spreads sound out over 5 speakers in pure mono, and the sound is still center front heavy. The volume level is loud enough, but still has that monotone drone of old films. I actually think the Dolby 5.1 audio track was a bit better. It was louder and clearer, with some echo added for a fuller sound, and I even thought I detected hints of left/right travel, unless my mind was desperate for a sign of it.
Impressive that there even are extras on this film. Here they are:
Scene Selection—16 chapter breaks, and the onscreen thumbnails show clips from the film.
Trailers—you get trailers for the colorized versions of this film and Night of the Living Dead, plus a b&w trailer for Flesh Eaters.
More About Carnival of Souls—this is 3 text pages of trivia about the film, most of which is mentioned in the commentary below.
Commentary with Mike Nelson (of Mystery Science Theatre)—I must say, Mike can be very funny, but after a while the jokes began to wear thin…and become repetitive. Once in a while, he'd throw in an actual fact, but it became hard to determine when he was. He also ends up really taking away from the actual art of the film because he makes fun of EVERYTHING, and then the whole movie just seems like a piece of garbage. I momentarily felt stupid for thinking it a classic masterpiece after listening to this commentary.
Carnival of Souls is still a classic for those interested in the evolution of horror, more than a frightfest for newcomers. However, unless you don't have a previous release of the director's cut on DVD, you don't need to indulge in a colorized version, unless you really must have the commentary with Mystery Science Theatre's Mike Nelson.