Carnival of Souls

Director: Herk Harvey
Screenplay: John Clifford
Stars: Candace Hilligoss (Mary Henry),Sidney Berger (John Linden), Frances Feist (Mrs. Thomas), Art Ellison (Minister), Stan Levitt (Dr. Samuels), Herk Harvey (The Man)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: U.S.
Carnival of Souls Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Carnival of SoulsTelevision and the cinema have long had a strange relationship that appeared antagonistic on the surface, but was often mutually beneficial. When first introduced in the late 1940s, television posed a major threat to the movies’ economic and cultural monopoly, which forced Hollywood to evolve, resulting in technological developments such as stereo sound, various widescreen processes like CinemaScope, and gimmicks like 3D. However, while television has often been seen as the enemy of the cinema, it is a curious irony that television has occasionally been the savior of worthy films that, had they been left only to the movie theaters, would have disappeared and been forgotten a long time ago. The most famous instance of this, of course, is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which underperformed theatrically when it was released in 1946, but became a beloved classic after being aired on public television stations as counter-programming during the Christmas holidays starting in the late 1970s.

While Herk Harvey’s creepy, low-budget psychological horror thrillerCarnival of Souls has little in common with Capra’s perennial classic, it is notable in that it, too, was “saved” by television. Made in 1961 for $30,000 by a group of filmmakers from the Centron Corporation, an industrial and educational film company based in Lawrence, Kansas, it did little business theatrically when it was released in the fall of 1962 (it was cut by five minutes so it could be shown on a double bill with the Lon Chaney Jr. horror anthology The Devil’s Messenger at drive-ins). The film likely would have fallen into complete obscurity and disappeared forever had it not gained a cult following after it become a staple of late night television programming. Many of those who saw Carnival of Souls on late-night TV recognized that it was not a disposable piece of schlock; the talent and visual ingenuity of director Herk Harvey is apparent in every frame, and there is little surprise that the film is often compared to another low-budget black-and-white horror masterpiece, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The film’s main character is a young woman named Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) who, in the opening sequence, is the only person to survive a terrible accident when a car in which she and two girlfriends are riding plunges off a bridge and into a river. When Mary emerges from the cold, muddy waters, she is dazed and shocked, looking not unlike one of Romero’s living dead. Days later, she finds that she has become emotionally removed from the rest of the world. But, more than that, Mary is haunted by a ghostly apparition that appears before her at random moments and without warning. A doctor suggests that maybe this apparition (who is played by the director) is a projection of the guilt she feels about being the lone survivor of the accident. But, this labored Freudian interpretation does nothing to put her tortured mind to rest.

Mary moves to Salt Lake City, Utah, to take a job as an organist in a church, but she has no religious convictions, which further isolates her from those around her. She endures the constant come-ons from John Linden (Sidney Berger), a slimy neighbor in the boarding house at which she stays, but she has no romantic interest. At two points in the film, her removal from the social world becomes literal to the point that she wanders the streets trying to talk to people, none of whom can apparently hear or see her. While driving into the city, she spots a strange, ruinous building on the edge of the Great Salt Lake outside of town—a crumbling pavilion that was once a great dance hall. No one else seems much interested in it, but she finds herself continually drawn to it and the ghostly spirits that haunt its dance floor. It is only when she finally enters the pavilion that she learns the truth about herself and why she is haunted.

That pavilion is central not just to the story in the film, but to the story of how the film came to be made. It all started when Herk Harvey saw the deserted Saltair Resort, which had first been constructed in the 1890s as Utah’s answer to Convey Island, while on a trip. He was so taken by its strange Moorish architecture and its remote location in the salt flats outside of Salt Lake City, that he was inspired to make a film using it as a central location. He asked John Clifford, with whom he worked at Centron, to write a script, and Clifford produced the screenplay for Carnival of Souls in a couple of weeks. Harvey and Clifford raised the money themselves from local investors, and the rest is B-movie history.

Although it didn’t make much of a splash in 1962, after years of late-night TV airings and a theatrical revival in 1989, Carnival of Souls finally received the recognition it deserved upon initial release. Perhaps it is only in retrospect, with so many half-hearted horror movies and increasingly bland slasher pics in mind, that the ingenuity, creativity, and sheer inspiration that went into Carnival of Souls could become fully clear. Granted, the film has its weaknesses—the acting is uneven and there are a few points in the narrative that tend to drag—but, overall, it is inspired filmmaking. Harvey’s direction is tight and creative. He and cinematographer Maurice Prather make great use of stark black-and-white photography and odd camera angles that make even ordinary locations seem vaguely sinister or strangely ethereal (this is especially true of both an early scene in which Mary is in an organ factory and just about every scene that takes place in the church in which she works). The film is punctuated musically by an eerie organ score by Gene Moore, and there are times when it is impossible to tell whether the music is external to the narrative or whether it is the music Mary is playing herself, which reflects how reality and the supernatural are constantly folding in on themselves throughout the film.

But, more than anything else, Carnival of Souls demonstrates that the quality of a horror film is not directly proportional to the size of the budget. One does not need millions of dollars in special effects and prosthetic ghoul costumes to send a shiver down the spectator’s spine. While too many big-budget Hollywood blockbusters demonstrate that all the money in the world can’t compensate for a lack of originality and imagination, Harvey’s Midwestern B-movie gem shows just the opposite. An effective work of art requires creativity and determination, both of which Harvey had in abundance.

Carnival of Souls Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Selected-scene audio commentary by director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford
  • Video interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould
  • “Regards From Nowhere,” video essay by film critic David Cairns
  • The Movie That Wouldn’t Die! (1989) documentary
  • “The Carnival Tour” featurette
  • History of the Saltair Resort in Salt Lake City
  • Six films made by the Centron Corporation
  • Essay on the history of Centron
  • Deleted scenes
  • Outtakes, accompanied by Gene Moore’s organ score
  • Trailer
  • Essay by writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 12, 2016

    Criterion’s DVD release of Carnival of Souls in the spring of 2000 featured a transfer from a duplicate negative, which according to the liner notes was the best existing element. Well, sometime between then and now the original 35mm camera negative has been discovered, as Criterion’s Blu-ray boasts a new, restored 4K digital transfer from that source. The DVD was great for its time, but the 4K transfer and additional restoration had yielded significant benefits, especially in terms of improved sharpness, contrast, and depth. The image is also decidedly cleaner, with virtually no spots, specks, or sign of age and wear. The image is really quite stunning, especially for a low-budget independent film made more than half a century ago. The soundtrack, which is presented in uncompressed Linear PCM monaural, was transferred from the 35mm original soundtrack negative and digitally restored, and it also sounds vastly improved. It is cleaner, with virtually no ambient hiss, crackles, and pops, and also has some additional depth and clarity, especially in the unique organ score.

    However, unlike Criterion’s DVD, this Blu-ray only includes the 78-minute theatrical version of the film, leaving out Harvey’s 84-minute director’s cut, which reflects his original vision before he was forced to trim out 5 minutes to make the film short enough to play on a double-bill. The reasoning offered is that the only existing source of this version is an analogue one-inch videotape, so the three main deleted scenes are included in the supplements (see below).

    There are several new supplements included on Criterion’s Blu-ray. The first is a 22-minute video interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould, who might seem like an odd choice for an interview subject for this particular film. However, Gould is a well-known classic horror movie aficionado who is largely responsible for all the horror gags in The Simpsons, for which he served as producer and writer from 2001 to 2008. He speaks both eloquently and humorously about what makes Carnival of Souls such a unique and influential film. Another new supplement is “Regards From Nowhere,” a 23-minute video essay by film critic David Cairns. Over clips from the film, Cairns elaborates on its style, history, and themes, and also incorporates recorded interviews with other experts, including horror novelist and film critic Anne Billson and cartoonist and horror scholar Stephen R. Bissette. From the archives Criterion has added Saltair: Return to the Salt Queen, a 26-minute history of the Saltair Resort made for a Salt Lake City television station in 1966 (the video quality is pretty bad, but it’s the only existing source). The Blu-ray also includes three deleted scenes that were trimmed to make the film short enough to fit on a double-bill. These extend the scene in the organ factory, Mary running down the street, and her visit to the doctor. The shift in video quality is definitely apparent, but not terrible, and it would have been nice if Criterion had incorporated them into the restored theatrical version via seamless branching.

    The rest of the supplements have all been held over from Criterion’s 2000 DVD set, starting with The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!, a 1989 documentary made by a Topeka, Kansas, TV station that chronicles the history of how the film was made, as well as its theatrical revival in 1989 that brought the cast and crew back together. Bill Shaffer, who hosts the documentary, also hosts “The Carnival Tour,” a circa-2000 4-minute video update of all the principal filming locations in Lawrence, Kansas (many of them had changed drastically or disappeared since 1961). Other supplements include 45 minutes of outtakes accompanied by Gene Moore’s organ score and six educational films made by the Centron Corporation between 1954 and 1982 (some of which have faded in traditional Eastman Color fashion to little more than pink and gray and all of which need to be restored) accompanied by an essay on the history of Centron from Ken Smith’s book Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945–1970, which is read by Dana Gould.

    The Blu-ray does lose a few things from the DVD, notably an illustrated essay about the Saltair and an accompanying photo gallery (which have presumably been replaced by the television documentary) and print interviews with Harvey, Clifford, and actress Candace Hilligoss.

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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