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Carnival of Souls (in Color with Mike Nelson Commentary)

Other // Unrated // August 24, 2004
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Offcolorfilms]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted August 25, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Why, oh why do we still think colorization is an acceptable option in film presentation and preservation? While all the rationales, both pro and con have their merits and moral high ground to the members of the specific filmic fraternity, the ultimate argument is that augmentation, on any level, is in abject opposition to original intent. OK, so as not to get into some manner of Constitutional calamity, lets rephrase that, shall we? When a movie is made, there is some manner of purpose for its production (someone has the vision, company sees dollar signs at the box office, a producer lost a bet with his cabana boy, etc.) and whenever you change the reason behind the release, you are messing with the concept of its creation. This applies to director's cuts, redux and any other manner of movie manipulation out there. Now, some will argue that adding 45 minutes to a studio-truncated release is appropriate in the name of artistic vision. But unless the director is alive and re-editing (which, sadly, means George Lucas and his non-stop fiddling with Star Wars earns a disgruntled pass here), it is hard to say what the modification means to the integrity of the filmmaker being fiddled with. Maybe Orson Welles would have shot Citizen Kane in Cinemascope or Technicolor is he could have. Perhaps The Wizard of Oz would have wanted CGI creatures in place of the malodorous flying monkeys. But once again, to impose your own will upon the resting in peace principles of long gone movie makers for the sake of some marketing mung is just plain self-righteous sacrilege.

Which of course leads us back to colorization. Most film fans thought this manner of picture exploitation was as dead as Ted Turner's marriage to Jane Fonda. But somehow, over the last few years, a new and far more insidious plan for messing with the spectrum of black and white cinema was concocted. Without warning, such questionable "classics" as A Christmas Wish, Reefer Madness and all manner of Shirley Temple shizzle made their way onto digital versatile disc, and the companies behind the charade offered the same, senseless arguments. They discussed how, in order to properly tint a title, they have to make a near perfect black and white copy for processing. And since the fledgling format could accommodate both, and they offer all versions on a single DVD, what's the big whoop? Well, thanks to the colorized presentation of Carnival of Souls, the answer is abundantly clear. Aside from the added attraction of Mystery Science Theater 3000's Mike Nelson as commentator for the film, placing lemon yellows and lime green all over this ersatz-classic of monochrome technique all but destroys one of the few things the film has going for it.

The DVD:
Mary Henry, a worker in an organ manufacturing plant, sets off to Utah from her home in Lawrence, Kansas to be the new instrumentalist at a church. Having recently survived a terrifying car crash where two friends of hers were killed, Mary thinks the change of scenery will do her good. On her way to her new life, she passes by a strange building off in the distance. Suddenly, a strange man appears in her path. She swears to avoid him. He disappears. Shaken, Mary stops at a gas station and inquires about the odd effigy off in the distance. Turns out it's an abandoned amusement park. As she settles into her new job, Mary senses something is not right. On occasion, the world seems to shut down around her. People refuse to acknowledge her and she cannot speak to them. Then there is that strange man. He still haunts her, showing up outside her window at night or in the foyer of her boarding house dwelling. Seeking solace and understanding from those around her, Mary discovers that everyone thinks she' s insane. Her greasy, lothario of a neighbor doesn't want to get mixed up with 'no crazy chick' and the landlady believes she is dangerous. Only the local doctor wants to try and help Mary. He thinks the visions are tied in to the automobile accident. Yet nobody, not even Mary, realizes how right he is.

By now, most fright film fans have already made up their mind about Carnival of Souls. To them, it is either a wonderfully atmospheric exorcise in tone and visual flair (fully warranting a Criterion Collection treatment) or a glum, gloomy ghost story that always looks the same in its public domain dopiness. Marking a true departure from the monster based movies of the time period (the very early 1960s) and clearly a visual influence for films to come (specifically Night of the Living Dead) it is a hard film to dismiss outright. Credit needs to be given to director/star Herk Harvey for understanding that the nature of horror is mood and atmosphere and then attempting to craft a narrative around some incredibly evocative settings. The use of the abandoned Saltair Amusement Park on the edge of the Great Salt Lake is one of those marvelous masterstrokes of location and inspiration that comes rarely in motion pictures. And the desire to bend reality into a spooky shape where nothing is ever what it seems does smack of a certain amount of invention. But Carnival of Souls can feel like a wonderfully told campfire tale missing the last minute jolt or shock. For a modern audience, fed on the plot bending bravura of directors like M. Night Shyamalan (another director clearly influenced by this film), the reality of what is happening to the heroine is this film will be fairly obvious. But how Harvey gets there, the use of tone, setting and ambiance to sell his shivers is, perhaps, the reason why Carnival of Souls is so widely regarded. It is a gorgeous failure, as evocative a missed opportunity as an independent horror film from 1962 can be.

What Carnival of Souls does right, it does with transcendence. As a monochrome view of isolation and unease, the movie has few rivals. Its stark imagery, married to a very suggestive storyline does create a kind of insular universe of fatalistic freak-outs. Our heroine, the consistently perplexed Mary Henry (given a decent, if decidedly dry interpretation by actress Candace Hilligoss) is seemingly trapped in a world filled with unexplained specters, disturbing nightmares, and an uncontrollable desire to visit a rundown palladium on the outskirts of town. She shifts between normalcy and a kind of waking somnambulance, an existence where one minute, she is interacting with people, the next, she is completely invisible to them. It's a very unnerving dilemma and one that Harvey and Hilligoss milk to excess. But once we learn "the truth" of what is going on, of why Mary experiences such societal black outs and what the waltzing ghouls in the ramshackle dancehall represent, one can't help but feel just a little dissatisfied. Unlike other filmmakers who've mined similar scares out of the 'not what it seems' realm of reality, Harvey is not particularly careful with his craftsmanship. Several times, either before or after the 'big secret' is revealed you may find yourself asking how this scene, or this particular bit of dialogue, applies in the name of the narrative. Indeed, Harvey is so in love with some of the black and white of his cinematic circumstances that he lets it's dramatic dynamics overwhelm his plot points.

There are also several ancillary characters here that make the movie a little hard to swallow. As the lecherous, leering next-door neighbor at the boarding house, Sidney Berger turns his John Linden into a question mark without a decent query in front of it. He is a completely unexplainable conceit, the use of a 'won't take no for an answer' alpha male for no other reason than making the feminine Mary seem nervous, strangely asexual and filled with phobias. Berger is not likeable and barely palatable most of the time. Similarly, the Minister who hires Mary to play organ at his church is so schizophrenic in his approach to certain subjects that you're not sure if he's possessed by Christian charity or the will of Satan most of the time. After treating his new hire with relative kid gloves, he seems to misinterpret a strange roundelay being played on the pipes as some manner of devilish dervish. He summarily dismisses Mary with little more than a 'save your soul' and Harvey treats this plot twist as if it is supposed to have significance. Yet we, the audience, guess it's just an excuse to get Mary back on the road toward that run-down funhouse again. Along with a landlady who is apparently reading lines from another script and a doctor who practices a kind of humbug brain typing, most of the human characters in Carnival of Souls are half-baked benchwarmers, never really crucial to the story as it moves along. Thankfully, Harvey's eerie undead denizens of the ethereal plane are perfectly realized and executed. They are both scary and sad, menacing with just a touch of melancholy to their purpose. With the use of camera tricks, film manipulation and the otherworldly backdrop, we truly witness the title territory in all said name suggests.

So it is the clash between reality and the supernatural, the dead and the living, that is at the core of Carnival of Souls and when he sticks to this ephemeral battle, Harvey's movie is a work of art. Unlike most directors who felt hampered by black and white (how do you color things 'blood red' when you don't have that hue as part of your motion picture palette?) the director here embraces it. He forges fascinating, noir-like compositions of deep shadow and bright whites, letting the texture and detail in the elements he is filming stand out. When Hilligoss crawls from the car wreck and walks up a muddy embankment, the dark gray Earth covering her milky complexion is like a cosmic attempt to blot out her image (and a crucial bit of foreshadowing). Similarly, whenever we visit the 'carnival', Harvey keeps the creeps buried in the black recesses of the frame, allowing just small samplings of light to illuminate his cavorting cadavers. While Harvey is far more famous (or infamous) for the dozens of instructional short subjects he lensed over his long career (including such classics as Dance Little Children and Why Study Industrial Arts?) it is, perhaps time to champion his artistic and directorial flare in Carnival of Souls. As long as the movie focuses on its mood, sense of danger and conflict between Mary and the dead denizens of the abandoned amusement park, the film is a terrifying tone poem to the question of life after death. While many of its supporting players almost ruin the movie, the beautiful imagery keeps it from completely falling apart.

Which, of course, brings us to the issue of colorization. Of all the movies in the lexicon of cinema, Carnival of Souls benefits the least from adding realistic tones to its particulars. A dark shadow cascading upon a patterned piece of wallpaper looks amazing in monochrome. Add in a bunch of red flowers, green leaves and a sickening sampling of pus yellow to the surface and, suddenly, you wish the gloom would envelope the whole shebang, pronto. The burnt out dim bulbs at Off Color Films just don't get it. While pasty off-white makeup with orange-ish lips and a decidedly mossy look to the eye sockets may appear to turn the galloping ghosts into far more photogenic phantasms, they also become imitations of Robert Smith after falling asleep in a bowl of Farina. Everything Herk Harvey strove for in the visual elements of the film – the morose sunsets and far off impression of the horizon are rendered picture postcard pastel in the world of this wonky color scheme. While the purple haze flowing in your head during the wide-open shots of panoramic vistas is impressive, it is more appropriate for a western, not a work of supernatural dread. Aside from playing fast and loose with true optical reality (no one is really the peach-pink color of the skin tone rendered here) and the occasional moments where the computerized crayola does make an unintentionally hilarious difference (now when she crawls up from the mud, Mary looks like she's fallen into a big fat vat of baby diarrhea) Carnival of Souls becomes Cavalcade of Crap under the re-tinting tripe going on.

Since it is a shaky scare film to begin with, Herk Harvey's homage to the blight side of the afterlife is done a pitiful disservice at the hands of some prolls with a Pentium paint box. Maybe Reefer Madness was made merrier by the addition of real Panama Red. And it's hard to argue that anything could make the curly top terror of a certain Ms. Temple palatable. But Carnival of Souls is a film that relies on its vibrant, singular visual elements to sell its shudders. And when you take that away, all you are left with is a zombie-in-training, her living dead party guests, a libidinous loser, a dimwitted dorm mother and the AMA's worst nightmare. Carnival of Souls will never be known as a searing character study. Nor will there be many fans of clockwork narratives that figure it's got all of its widgets in the right logical what's-its. But no one can deny that Herk Harvey had a way with black and white photography and composition. Too bad that this expression of artistic integrity was up and destroyed by the colorization process. The world didn't really need another version of this movie, let alone a badly tinted dye job rendition. Carnival of Souls is a creature of its original creation. It does not hold up to a rainbow re-imagining.

The Video:
Since we are offered two distinct transfers of this title on one DVD, it is necessary to comment on both. The issues with the monochrome image are basic. While the 1.33:1 picture is pristine and nearly flawless, the contrast is too soft with the visuals coming across with more shades of gray than true blacks and whites. This is obviously caused by the preparations for the coloring process: too sharp of a distinction and the overlapped hues would look horrible. So expect a little muddiness with your macabre when you check out the original version. It is indeed one of the better offerings of the film currently in print, but it is far from picture perfect.

On the Kodachrome side of the situation, it is safe to say that colorization has come a long way since Moe, Larry and Curly looked like dusty cadavers in the initial revamps of some sad public domain titles. The shades are subtler and the use more organic to the film in question than the old days of primary paint panic. But this does not mean that the colorized Carnival of Souls looks like a real Technicolor print of the film. The process still has a colored Xerox quality to the image, with the distinct impression of grays and blacks behind the palette of hues. We no longer witness the dropouts from rapid movement or open mouths and the sets and props do retain an aura of authenticity. But colorization still hasn't cracked the skin tone trap, which means that everyone in the film looks like they're wearing too much bronzer. If you are someone who just can't sit through a black and white film, you may find this version of Carnival of Souls an easy entertainment. But be warned: you are not experiencing the film the way the director intended. You are seeing someone else's interpretation of what they think you want. If you can live with that, so be it.

Off Color Films has also "remastered" Carnival of Souls into Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and the results are shaky at best. Most of the dialogue is still front and center with the side channels being utilized for the all organ music score and some eerie sound effects. But this is far from an immersive experience. Indeed, it feels like a Mono track fleshed out a little to command some speaker-to-speaker respect. And while the soundtrack is indeed flawlessly modulated and atmospheric, the aural attributes here do not transform your home theater into a spooky festival of spirits.

The Extras:
On the side of the basics, we get a few trailers (for The Flesh Eaters, Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead – the last two in color) as well as a few notes on the film's production. But what most fans of this film, as well as those enamored with the GREATEST TELEVISION SERIES IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND – a.k.a. Mystery Science Theater 3000 – will want to know is if the commentary by Michael J. Nelson (former head writer and lead performer for said cowtown puppet show) is worth the price of admission. The answer is both yes...and no. Remember what made MST3K such a classic: the interaction and rapid-fire repartee between Nelson (or Joel Hodgson), Kevin "Tom Servo" Murphy and the Trace Beaulieu/Bill Corbett voiced Crow T. Robot. Well, with Mike appearing here alone, we get about 1/3 the quips and riffs that you'd expect from a comic commentary. Nelson is indeed VERY funny and he offers some behind the scenes trivia on the filmmaking as well (one look at Herk Harvey's IMDB listing shows the connection to Mike and the 'Bots almost immediately...think stinky short subjects). But this is still only 33.33% of the MST cast and therefore, we are missing about 2/3rds of the comedy one could have expected from this track. Nelson's ingratiating personality aside, more could have been done here. For us Satellite of Love completists, it's a must. But others may wonder what all the supposedly hysterical hoopla is about.

Final Thoughts:
Here is the dilemma with this new version of Carnival of Souls. It is selling itself with two major new facets to its presentation: the still-crude colorization and the anarchic alternative audio track featuring one of the funniest men in the history of comedy. So who exactly then is the demographic? Lazy film fans who want their movies "modernized" to suit their tainted Tinsel Town proclivities? Or is it fans of a fabulous and inventive television show whose performers would have given their eyeteeth to tackle a so-called classic like this during the series run. And what about the purists, those persons looking for the ultimate version of this timeless terror tome? Will they be happy with all the monochrome manipulation and unkind jabs? Sadly, it doesn't seem that anyone will be overly impressed with this DVD. While it is being recommended here for Mike Nelson and his work, as well as the near-pristine beauty of Herk Harvey's original black and white cinematography, this seems to be a digital release at complete cross-purposes with itself. True fans will hate it, faux fans don't deserve it and anything that champions colorization should be burnt at the stake as a symbol of cinematic witchcraft. Here's hoping that the manufacturers of this disc don't get the wrong idea. Few will be purchasing this title for its technological tint job. Colorization, like DIVX and self-destructing DVDs was and should have been dead and buried. Resurrecting this redolent excuse for eviscerating the visions of the past is an act of gratuitous grave robbing that is completely unwarranted. No one was begging for its return. And after seeing this version of Carnival of Souls, it's hard to imagine the cries being any louder.

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