For those who haven't had a chance to experience all that is Herk Harvey's 1962 masterpiece 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.
The film may have been made on a fairly modest budget, but Harvey manages to hide that most of the time. The locations used for the film do a lot to mask this, letting something found stand in place of something made. The boardwalk area and the merry-go-round featured in the film have gone on to become pretty iconic in their own right, and for good reason. These scenes stand out, their emptiness speaking volumes as to what is really happening to poor Mary Henry.
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 from composer Gary Moore 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. The film's public domain status has also ensured that, like Night Of The Living Dead, it's been included in countless bargain pack releases and low budget releases on VHS and DVD over the years. This is mentioned really just to give you an idea of how easy it has been to see this film over the years, it's everywhere, but at the same time it's one of those pictures that you won't be able to walk away from once you've started watching it. The film has an almost hypnotic quality to it, you get pulled in pretty much right from the start.The Blu-ray:
Criterion's AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer presents Carnival Of Souls framed at 1.37.1 fullframe aspect ratio in a transfer taken from a new 4k scan of the original 35mm negative. This is, for the most part, a beautiful image. The black and white image shows nice, natural looking film grain that never feels intrusive or distracting, rather, it just makes the picture look like film as it should. Black levels are strong and deep while fine detail is impressive throughout and frequently outstanding. The transfer is free of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement and compression artifacts are never once a problem. The old DVD release from years back looked great for its time but this one bests it with superior depth, delineation and contrast. Detail is consistently impressive and texture very strong as well. Contrast is spot on and really, there's nothing to complain about here at all, this picture is gorgeous.Sound:
The main audio track on this disc is an English language LPCM Mono track with optional subtitles available in English only. The audio here is fine. This isn't a particularly complex track but the dialogue is always crystal clear and balanced nicely against the score, which in turn heights the atmosphere and suspense that play such a big part in making this film as memorable as it is. The mix, for an older single channel track, sounds quite full and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note.Extras:
Carried over from the previous Criterion Collection DVD release is the select scene audio commentary with director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford. Assembled primarily interviews conducted in 1989, there's a lot of good information here for those who haven't heard it before. The men talk about writing the film, Harvey's industrial films, the locations, working with the cast members, the use of music in the picture and a fair bit more.
New to this Blu-ray release is a twenty-two minute long interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould entitled Final Destination. This is essentially an appreciation of sorts. Gould gives us some background on his love of horror pictures before then sharing his thoughts on the effectiveness of this particular film by talking about the political climate in which it was made. He also makes some observations about the performances, the music and the cinematography. Also new to this disc is a twenty-four minute video essay by film critic David Cairns entitled Regards From Nowhere. Here Cairns goes into some interesting detail on the more subversive aspects of the film, the art direction, the otherworldly vibe that it gives off and how all of this effects what happens to the characters in the picture.
The Movie That Wouldn't Die! is a thirty-two minute long documentary that covers the 1989 cast and crew reunion that took place with Harvey, Clifford, Hilligloss and an investor in the film named Glenn Kappelman. Input from film expert Mark Syverson and filmmaker Tim DePaepe are included here as well. There's some interesting discussion as to the film's origins and a fair bit more, but a lot of this is already covered in the commentary track. Regardless, it's interesting to see. When the feature ends, let it keep playing for a tour of some of the film locations that was shot in 2000, it too is quite interesting. Complimenting this is a twenty-six minute piece called Saltair: Return to the Salt Queen which is an interesting history of The Saltair Resort in Salt Lake City where much of the film was shot. Shot for a local television station in 1966 it's a pretty cool archival piece that tells a surprising engaging story about one of the film's more iconic locations.
From there, check out various clips from some of the movies that were made by The Centron Corporation, which is the Lawrence, Kansas based industrial film where Harvey and Clifford used to work. Clips included here are a thirteen minute piece from 1954 entitled Star 34, a twenty-two minute piece also from 1954 entitled Rebound, a six minute piece from 1963 called Case History Of A Sales Meeting, a twelve minute piece from 1966 entitled To Touch A Child, a quick three minute Centron Commercial from 1967 and last but not least, from 1982, a five minute film called Signals: Read'em Or Weep.
Rounding out the extras on the disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, twenty-seven minutes of silent outtakes from the shoot (presented with Moore's amazing organ score over top), three deleted scenes (Organ Factory, Running and Doctor's Office that run between one and two minutes each), menus and chapter selection. Included inside the keepcase along with the Blu-ray disc is an insert booklet that contains information on the technical presentation, credits for the film and the disc, and an essay written by Kier-La Janisse.
Note that the director's cut version of the movie that was included on the DVD release has not been included on the Blu-ray.Final Thoughts:
Carnival Of Souls remains a high point in low budget American horror from the sixties, standing tall alongside other notable genre entries like Night Of The Living Dead. It may, at times, feel more like an exercise in atmosphere than narrative, but it works and it works well. The Criterion Collection have carried over all of the extras from their excellent 2-disc DVD release (with the unfortunate omission of the director's cut) and added a few more, but more importantly have given the film an absolutely gorgeous new presentation. Highly recommended.