For those not hip to what Rifftrax is all about, it's basically Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett from Mystery Science Theater 3000 doing their quirky and often times very funny commentary over top of the movie, this time without the aid of interweaving skits and characters. This gives you the illusion that you're sitting around watching a cheap horror movie with a bunch of pals. Up until recently, Nelson and company have been selling the commentary tracks as downloads off of their website, but now they're starting to put out DVD releases. As they did with their recent Night Of The Living Dead commentary, a slightly disappointing effort on their part, the three participants once again 'riff' on a fairly well regarded horror film, this time, Herk Harvey's 1962 micro-budget classic, Carnival Of Souls.
For those who haven't had a chance to experience all that is Carnival Of Souls, the film begins when a car full of male teenagers prepares to race a car full of female teenagers. As the cars approach a bridge, the girls accidently lose control and drive into the river. The authorities show up to try and get the car and the bodies out of the water and they're surprised when a lone female, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), emerges, seemingly the only survivor of the crash.
In a rather strange movie, Mary decides to move to Salt Lake City, Utah where the takes a job as a church organist and rents a room from an old woman named Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist). On her way there, she passes by a strange old carnival pavilion and, after driving past it a few times, eventually spies a strange man (Herk Harvey) shambling around looking much worse for wear than your average derelict. As Mary finds she can't get the man or the pavilion out of her mind, she finds herself increasingly drawn to it and when she finally heads over there to explore it herself, Mary unwittingly finds out the truth about the mysterious man she sees and about herself.
Light on dialogue but rich with thick, eerie atmosphere and an otherworldly sense of dread, Carnival Of Souls might not move at a lightning quick pace but it doesn't need to. The story builds slowly but pays off quite nicely resulting in a last half that manages to unnerve and get under your skin without having to rely on gore or effects, rather, it succeeds by putting the emphasis on subtle chills and tone. The barren locations used to shoot the film lend the whole thing the perfect atmosphere for a horror film, providing a stark and appropriately dead looking backdrop for the characters to play off of.
Performance wise, Candace Hilligoss does a pretty decent job of playing the increasingly distraught Mary. As her mind starts to unravel, her performance becomes increasingly panicked which is in keeping with what her character is going through. Director Herk Harvey does an equally impressive job as the mysterious man who seems to be haunting her. He's able to say more with just some simple facial expressions than a script could purvey, making his completely silent performance a memorable and very effective one. The atmosphere and the performances coupled with the 'unique' organ heavy soundtrack make this one stand out from the countless other black and white b-movies that were made around the same time and helped to make it a mainstay of late night TV where it found a much larger audience than it probably ever did theatrically.
So Carnival Of Souls is a pretty rad movie, huh? Yep. And the Rifftrax guys do a pretty good job of poking some well intentioned fun at the film. The easy targets take the brunt of the assault, those being the ominous organ music and the random characters that seem to pop out of nowhere. While these help the movie achieve its odd tone, from a technical and logical stand point, they're ripe for ridicule and while they work well in the context of the film they're not above reproach. Nelson and company get a few good barbs in throughout the track, which is a pretty tight and consistent entry in their growing catalogue. They manage to keep the laughs coming pretty consistently and while some might take issue with what is widely considered to be a legitimate classic being made fun of in such a way, the movie is not without its more unusual points and the Rifftrax guys never quite cross the line into territory that could seriously considered mean spirited. These guys, as much as they poke fun at material like this, love what they do and love what they watch and if you're able to put aside your own cineaste tendencies for a while and enjoy some good jokes at the expense of a fun old movie that may or may not really deserve it, you'll have a good time with it.
The 1.33.1 fullframe transfer on this DVD is alright - not great by any stretch but perfectly watchable. Contrast looks good and while there's a fair bit of jitter to the picture, the image is clean and doesn't show any serious wear and tear. There aren't any compression artifacts to not though aliasing can be a problem at times. Overall, it's perfectly watchable, just unremarkable.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono, which appears here without any alternate language dubs or subtitle options of any kind, has a few audible pops here and there and a drop out or two but for the most part is quite serviceable. The dialogue is generally pretty easy to understand and follow and the levels are properly balanced.
The disc is barebones save for a static menu though it does allow you to watch the movie with or without the Rifftrax commentary. Inside the keepcase packaging is a coupon that gives you a free download from the Rifftrax website for Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.
The audio and video quality may not rival the Criterion special edition release, but the Rifftrax releases aren't going after that market. The movie itself stands the test of time quite well, and the funny (and thankfully optional) commentary provided here simply provides a humorous alternate way to enjoy it. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.