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Carnival of Souls- Criterion

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Review by Jeremy Kleinman | posted July 10, 2000 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
This 1962 black and white film is a rare breed- a "B Movie" that is hailed by critics, and a horror film, trimmed down to be part of a Drive-In double feature that became an art-house cult classic.

"Carnival of Souls" is a beautifully shot jewel of macabre as haunting as the organ which plays or is played during much of the film. Shot with a low budget and a small cast, the film still manages to tell an intriguing story and is truly an early masterpiece of the horror genre.

Watching "Carnival of Souls" a viewer can easily see the extent to which the horror genre has changed in the last 30 years- for instance there is little, if any gore, and few deaths in the film. Also bsent is a serial-killer/monster villan hacking up teenagers right and left. While with fewer and less conventional frights than most horror films have today, the film is still quite a chilling and thrilling film, mainly because of the artistic eye with which the film was shot by Maurice Prather and directed by Herk Harvey, who also has a major role in the film.

While the film does have a few "B-movie" elements to it (most notably, an extremely low budget and some sub-par acting), the film lacks the low production values that many B-movies tend to have. While the amount of "action" in this film is comparatively mild,the film is a more both cerebral and satisfying. The plight of the main character throughout the film is an extremely interesting one and the film is gripping throughout its plot. An added treat from watching the film is the several opportunities for viewer to recognize the ways in which the film has influenced a number of the films that have followed it. Also, fans of the original "Psycho" may notice a few scenes in which the Alfred Hitchcock classic may have inspired the film's look and feel.
The Director's Cut and the Theatrical Version are not tremendously different and one can get a great enjoyment for the film by watching either version.
The Picture:
Carnival of Souls was shot with an extremely low budget on black and white film. Although the film has been digitally transferred, the film does seem to shimmer or flutter a bit in some parts. While the film has a very impressive look to it, the print itself is not always the clearest. The film is presented in full-screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is enjoyable, despite the film's B-movie low quality appearance. The Sound:
This is the DVD's greatest shortcoming. The sound is provided in Dolby Digital Mono, and the difference between this film and the current standards of DVD sound is rather significant. While the ability to deliver superior sound quality is limited by the film itself and the sound available for transfer, it is disappointing that the viewer is not able to here Gene Moore's haunting organ score in Dolby Digital 5.1. At times the dialogue is a bit difficult to hear, and the sound does not always match up perfectly. As disappointing as the sound presentation may be, however, the film is still quite enjoyable and much of what makes this film impressive is visual anyway.
The Extras:
For such a low budget film, this DVD set is almost too full of extras. As mentioned above, the set includes the Director's Cut of the film, with five minutes of additional footage, over 45 minutes of outtakes set to the film's organ score, a documentary on the film from the film's rerelease in 1989, the trailer, a detailed illustrated history of the Saltair resort, a major location in the film, a video update showing the current state of the film's locations, selected commentary by Director/ actor Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford, and hour of excerpts from educational and industrial films done by Centron Corporation, the company for whom Harvey and Clifford worked, printed interviews with Harvey, Clifford, and the film's star Candace Hilligross, and for some strange reason, the color bar.
The extras included in the set are somewhat overwhelming. Without question, they enable the viewer to have expert knowledge of the process by which the film was made, however, the material can be repetitive, and a viewer definitely need not watch everything.
The outtakes- All set to the film's organ score, there are few scenes which are dramatically different than what was included in the movie. In some cases, they are filmed scenes which did appear in the movie. It is interesting to watch, but does not add too much to the viewing experience.
The documentary- The documentary, a television news special filmed in Lawrence, KS in 1989, in conjunction with the film's re-release offers a great chance to see the cast and crew almost thirty years later and to hear them tell their stories first-hand. While the production quality on the documentary is at times low, it provides a good overview of the many stories behind the film's creation and realization and also goes into the film's initial release and its perserverance as a cult classic in the intervening years.
The History of Saltair- Saltair, a place which seems to have a mystical hold on Mary Henry, the film's protagonist, is a very interesting building with a very interesting history. This amusement park was the Coney Island of the West and was a major social haven for the people of Utah. While it is no longer standing, the history of this place is surprisingly interesting.
The print interviews- The inclusion of these interviews demonstrates a genuine determination to produce the most complete special edition of this film possible. The interviews are fairly interesting, with photos interspersed. The frame did not always advance quickly, but the interviews of the film's star, director, and writer are enjoyable. They are set forth in clear question and answer form, so the viewer may skip around. At this point however, many of the stories in the interviews may seem to be somewhat repititious if one has already viewed the special features up this point.
The Centron materials- There is, included in this set, an essay about Centron Corp, Harvey's employer, and also several of the short films on which he worked. These are interesting just to get a genuine sense of the fact that Harvey actually worked on the 50's style educational films and industrial films almost exclusively, making Carnival of Souls during a three-week vacation. The stark contrast with Harvey's other work is astounding and gives the viewer a genuine appreciation for the artistic vision realized during this vacation by Harvey.
The Commentary- I made the mistake of listening to the commentary last, and many many stories included in the intermittent commentary by Harvey and Clifford are included elsewhere. The commentary is present for a bit more than half the film and would otherwise be more insightful, had most of the material not been presented elsewhere. Were a viewer to sit and watch only a couple of the extras, however, this would be a good one to watch.
Final Thoughts:
The film, when released in 1962 was largely a commercial failure. It was released as part of a drive-in double feature with "The Devil's Messenger" and did not receive an enthusastic critical or popular reception. In later years, the film did play often on late-night television and attained a sizeable cult following. In 1989, Carnvial of Souls enjoyed a renaissance of interest and received tremendous popular and critical acclaim when it was re-released in art-house theaters. It is fortunate that the Criterion release of this film, packed to the gills with extras may allow a whole new generation of movie-viewers to appreciate and enjoy the film, know how the film came to be made and hopefully bring on a second renaissance of this great film.

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