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When I was a kid, I got to see CARNIVAL OF SOULS ($40) on television for the first time and I can honestly say I never forgot the film because it really creeped me out. By the time I was ten, I was a veteran of hundreds of horror movies and nightly doses of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. However, CARNIVAL OF SOULS was weirder than any episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that I had ever seen, plus its strange, otherworldly atmosphere was unlike any other horror movie I had ever encountered. To put it mildly, there is something genuinely unsettling about CARNIVAL OF SOULS. As I grew up, many of the horror movies that I enjoyed or was frightened by as a child disappeared from view, because of the emergence of home video and cable. Sadly, CARNIVAL OF SOULS was amongst those horror films that disappeared from view (as were the Barbara Steele movies that I still sorely miss) during the video generation. Like the ghostly apparitions that appear in the film, CARNIVAL OF SOULS did rise again, and this chilling little film was able to find a new generation of fans, thanks a successful theatrical re-issue back in 1989.

For those who have never experienced CARNIVAL OF SOULS, this is truly a stark and haunting movie that is laden with a foreboding atmosphere. The film starts out simple enough with two cars at a traffic light, with the boys in one car challenging the girls in the other car to a drag race. Neither driver is willing to be left in the dust, so when the race progresses to a bridge that is too narrow for both automobiles to navigate, the girls’ car goes crashing through the railing and plunges into the river below. Rescue teams have been dragging the river for hours, when a disheveled Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) emerges from the water in shaken condition and seemingly unable to remember her ordeal. Soon after the accident, Mary leaves town to accept a job as a Church Organist in Salt Lake City. On the drive to her new life, Mary passes a run down lakeside pavilion that once housed a carnival. For some reason, this place that Mary has never seen before holds some sort of odd fascination for her. Later, when she arrives at her new home, Mary finds herself unable to connect with the people around her, and at times, her sense of isolation becomes so extreme that she ends up seeing a doctor. Making matters worse, Mary thinks that she is being pursued by an ominous figure (Herk Harvey) that may or may not be a figment of her imagination. As Mary's detachment from the world around her intensifies, she feels a compulsion to return to the abandoned carnival grounds… the place that seems to hold the answers that she is looking for.

Although made on an exceedingly limited budget, director Herk Harvey infuses CARNIVAL OF SOULS undeniable sense that you are watching something far greater than what can be measured by the film’s cost. Sure, there are moments in the film, where the performances seem wooden and the dialogue is obviously stilted. However, the strength of CARNIVAL OF SOULS lies in its haunting imagery that is not easily forgotten. Additionally, sound or the absence of it plays a large part in the success of the films visuals. Finally, a great deal of credit for the movie's success must go to actress Candace Hilligoss, since she carries much of the film completely on her own. Somehow, Hilligoss generates empathy for her character, despite Mary's asocial personality. The cast of CARNIVAL OF SOULS also includes Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Tom McGinnis, Forbes Caldwell and Dan Palmquist.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS has made its way to DVD as a wonderful two-disc set thanks to The Criterion Collection. Disc One contains the film's 78-minute original theatrical cut, while Disc Two offers the 83-minute Director's Cut. Both versions appear to be taken from the same transfer and offer the same visual quality. CARNIVAL OF SOULS is presented in its intended 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is surprisingly good for an obscure low budget movie from 1961. The black and white film elements do show a number of age related blemishes, but for the most part CARNIVAL OF SOULS is in very good shape. Film grain is noticeable in places, but it is never bothersome. The image is exceedingly crisp and clear, offering an excellent level of detail for a film of its age and budget restrictions. Blacks are pure and the whites are cleanly produced without blowing out the image. The picture also provides smooth contrast, and clean reproduction of the subtle shades of gray. Without a doubt, Criterion has produced the finest video incarnation of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, short of Hi-Def. There are no signs of digital compression artifacts on either version of the film. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is free from distortion, although there are the expected frequency limitations one normally associates with a forty-year-old film. Still, dialogue reproduction is crisp, and the film's organ music maintains its creepy presence. Subtitles are presented on the DVD in English.

Both DVDs feature interactive menus that have been enhanced with full motion video animation and sound. Through the menus, one has access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as each disc’s extras. Disc one includes The Movie That Wouldn’t Die, a half-hour documentary prepared in conjunction with the film’s 1989 re-release. Additionally, there are 45 minutes of outtakes that include Gene Moore’s complete organ score. A theatrical trailer is also provided, as is an illustrated history of the Saltair Resort in Salt Lake City, which is where the carnival sequences were filmed. The Carnival Tour is a video update that shows what the film’s location look like now that forty years have passed. Disc two’s extras feature a running audio commentary with director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford, which was recorded in 1989. The commentary track has a number of blank patches, but the track does provide plenty information about the production. Also included on the disc are excerpts of industrial films made by the Centron Corporation, which employed both the writer and director for over thirty years. Finally, there are interviews with Herk Harvey, John Clifford and Candace Hilligoss that are accessible as a series of still frames on the DVD. These interviews provide each person with a chance for personal reflection on the film, as well as their careers. In addition, the interviews are interspersed with photos and press materials.

Although forty years old, CARNIVAL OF SOULS has lost none of its power too fascinate and frighten. If you are a fan of this minor genre classic, you will want to own The Criterion Collection DVD edition of the film.


Carnival of Souls - Criterion Collection


DVD reviews are Copyright © 2001 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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