Carnival of Souls (1962) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)
A young woman’s life after a car accident
Herk Harvey’s cult classic opens up with an impromptu rural road car race: one care contains three young women, the other two young men. Unfortunately, as they cross over an old bridge, the car with the three women in it crashes off and drops into the river below. A local rescue mission is mounted but unfortunately any attempts to retrieve the car and its three occupants prove fruitless.
However, sometime later one of the women - Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) - suddenly walks out of the river in a bedraggled and mud-covered state. Despite her considerable ordeal she manages to get back on her feet relatively quickly and goes ahead with moving on to a small town in Utah for a job as a church organist.
A mysterious pavilion
On her car journey there, she is shocked to see the apparition of a balding, ghostly man staring at her from outside of her car. A second later when she takes another glance she sees nothing but her own reflection. Looking out of the other side of the car she sees the looming silhouette of an old pavilion at the seashore. When she arrives in town she learns that the building used to house an old carnival but now lies derelict.
In town, she stays in a house owned by an elderly landlady named Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist). Across the corridor from her is the other lodger: a sleazy, alcoholic pick up artist called John Linden (Sidney Berger), who wastes no time in putting the moves on her. After brushing him off she takes a look in the building’s stairwell - only to see the figure of the ghostly man (played by Harvey himself) again. When she asks Mrs. Thomas who this mysterious man is, she tells her that there is nobody else in the house apart from the pair of them and John.
Things start to become even more bizarre during Mary’s visit to a clothes store; after she leaves the changing room she finds that everyone around her ignores her as if she no longer exists. She also finds herself inexorably drawn towards the mysterious former carnival pavilion. The film plays like a supernatural mystery as the young woman - and the audience - tries to get to the bottom of her bizarre experiences.
Watch a trailer:
Herk Harvey’s first and last
Carnival of Souls was director Herk Harvey’s debut and only feature-length film. In many ways it’s a pity because he has displayed an evident talent here for composing haunting and effectively expressionistic imagery. There’s some particularly impressive use of bird’s eye view shots which emphasise how lost the character of Mary Henry is in the outside world. The sequences where she is no longer noticed by those around her are staged with an eerie absence of audible dialogue from the people surrounding her as they interact with each other. The shot in the car - where her vision of the ghostly man’s face is replaced by the less supernatural yet barely less sinister sight of her own reflection staring back at her - is wonderfully haunting. Oh… and that organ music… how can it not send chills down the spine?
As well as being a chilling ghost story, the film can also be read as a metaphor for the process of dealing with the ordeal of surviving a potentially fatal accident. While Mary attempts to move on with her life she cannot escape the shadow it has cast on her psyche; she has faced a situation of great gravity that she would - quite naturally - struggle to fully get a handle on. There is a dislocatory feel to the film that’s partially a result of Candace Hilligoss’s rather spaced-out performance. As to whether this is deliberate or she lacks focus as an actress is open to question. Either way, it works well in this particular context.
This being Harvey’s first feature and made on a microscopic shooting budget, it does have its flaws. There are a number of technical gaffes; when Candace’s Mary lifts a cup of coffee to her lips to take a sip it’s clear that the cup is empty. During another scene we see performers’ eyelids twitching when they are pretending to be dead. These moments are particularly clear when seen on a pristine 4K Blu Ray restoration such as this.
It’s also true that some of the dialogue scenes are unintentionally funny - thanks in part to both the inanely stereotypical characters and in part to the somewhat perfunctory performances. Sidney Berger’s character is particularly laughable; he’s such a blatantly sleazy douchebag that it’s hard to believe that the beautiful and mousy Mary would even give him the limited amount of time that she does during the course of the film.
Despite these issues, however, Carnival of Souls is a haunting gem that’s well worth a look for any cult horror fans.
Runtime: 78 mins
Dir: Herk Harvey
Script: John Clifford, Herk Harvey
Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Herk Harvey
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The black-and-white cinematography in this new 4K digital transfer is fantastically pristine. The sound is limited by the cheap audio production, but the organ music sounds full and fabulous in all of its haunting glory.
Within the box we get a poster, the reverse of which features an essay called “Thinkin’ like that, don’t it give you nightmares?” by Kier-La Janisse. She discusses the film’s connections to the medieval Roman Catholic concept of purgatory and various pieces of trivia about the film itself as well as the careers of John Clifford and Herk Harvey. The pair spent much of their career working together in a company called The Centron Corporation, making a huge number of training and educational films. Clifford was also a pop songwriter who worked with regular David Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti during the late 1960s.
A trio of scenes which were cut out of the released version - here presented bookended with the surrounding scenes from the finished product. The deleted scenes are presented in their unrestored versions, thus making them easy to distinguish from the non-deleted surrounding ones. While they are of some interest, they merely outline what is pretty obvious from the final cut of the film anyway.
27 minutes’ worth of outtakes. They have been filmed without recorded sound so they are presented - a handful of snippets of dialogue notwithstanding - in silent film fashion accompanied by Gene Moore’s organ score. The effect is surprisingly hypnotic, as well as giving the viewer the chance to see a few snippets of footage of Candace Hilligoss’s wanderings around the pavilion and of the various ghostly apparitions that didn’t make the final cut.
A exclusive Criterion Collection discussion of the film by writer and comedian Dana Gould. It’s an enjoyable documentary presented by someone who has a clear love of the film. He talks about the film’s inspirations as well as its own influences on the likes of David Lynch’s films and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. He also discusses (with a couple of archive snippets) Herk Harvey’s background in educational films, the time when he passed the derelict pavilion on Salt Lake in Utah which became Carnival of Souls’ central location and the film’s unique ambience.
There’s one noticeable mistake: when he discusses a parallel between Candace Hilligoss’s character’s driving scenes in the film and those featuring Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s Psycho, he mentions that the latter “also came out in 1962”. It actually came out in 1960. This error notwithstanding, it’s a revealing and well-researched piece.
The Movie That Wouldn’t Die
A documentary made by Topeka, Kansas TV station KTWU to accompany the 1989 rerelease. It features footage of a reunion panel including Herk Harvey, John Clifford, Candace Hilligoss and Sidney Berger. The audio-visual quality is rather worn but some of the trivia pieces are fun: Herk recalls when a couple of boys passed him while he was wearing his makeup, thus causing them to flee in terror!
Hang on until after the end credits for a brief revisit to the various locations during 1989. Some - such as the old organ factory - are still intact and in operation. However, the bridge during the opening sequence has been completely rebuilt. The history of the Saltair Pavillion itself (the titular “Carnival” location) has been rather tumultuous; since it was first erected (in 1893) it had burnt down twice and, at the time when this documentary was filmed, was swallowed up by the rising Salt Lake waters. Incidentally, since this documentary was made it reopened as a concert venue (in 2005).
Regards from Nowhere
This video essay by David Cairns is another Criterion Collection exclusive. It features the critic narration - along with contributions by fans Stephen R. Bissette, Anne Bilson and Fiona Watson - over clips from the film. They discuss its nightmarish nature; Cairns notes that the film’s generally wooden acting (which is similar in feel to that in Herk’s educational films) adds to the dreamlike atmosphere by its own otherworldly nature. It’s also quite amusing that he wonders why Candace Hilligoss’s character didn’t beat Sidney Berger’s to death with a paperweight in the manner of Catherine Deneuve’s character in Repulsion.
Saltair: Return to the Salt Queen
A 1966 documentary about the Saltair Pavillion, made for Salt Lake City channel KCPX-TV. It’s a rather blandly-presented affair, largely consisting of stills of the derelict edifice and audio interviews with various locals getting nostalgic about the place. The visual and, in particular, the audio quality make it a strain to follow (the text description on the disc notes that they are “the best available” - wording which is a clear indication that they aren’t up to snuff).
The Centron Corporation
A selection of five educational/training films plus one commercial that Herk Harvey and John Clifford made for Centron. They are exactly what you would expect -rather dry and preachy. The best one is the last: Signals, Read ’Em or Weep from 1982. It’s a safety film for Caterpillar machine vehicles featuring a couple of suitably spectacular accident recreations (allegedly based on real occurrences). We also get an audio essay from a book by Ken Smith, read by Dana Gould.
A trailer rounds out this huge collection of extras.
Carnival of Souls is a uniquely eerie experience even if it is (arguably) as much by accident as by design. The picture and sound quality plus the sheer volume of extras make for another essential offering from The Criterion Collection.