Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Criterion Collection - CARNIVAL OF SOULS on Blu-ray ""

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Criterion Collection - CARNIVAL OF SOULS on Blu-ray

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962; Herk Harvey)
One of the things I that I think most draws people to movies is their ability to occasionally capture the feel and texture of a dream. I'm not necessarily taking about "dream sequences" in films either. No, I'm more referring to atmosphere. Atmosphere is something that cinema can do better than just about any other medium. Sometimes style and a lack straightforward logic can express so much in terms of setting a mood or giving an uneasy impression. There's something about black and white too that carries a dreamlike quality. Director Herk Harvey was an industrial filmmaker by trade and made CARNIVAL for the low low price of $30,000. He said they selected black and white film to give it "the feel of a Bergman and the look of a Cocteau". While the film doesn't quite achieve those things, it does achieve it's own thing which is quite distinct and haunting. Writer John Clifford attributes some of the film's continued notoriety to the fact that he and Herk Harvey were not trying to copy the success of other films of the time.  I'd like to think that because they both came from working outside Hollywood and the filmmaking tropes and style of big movies of the period - they were able to come up with this thing that is pretty unique. And it's basically one of the first modern zombie movies ever (and Herk Harvey himself plays one of the zombies by the way). We're talking about a time pre-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and George A. Romero has acknowledged that CARNIVAL OF SOULS was certainly an inspiration for him. The film is a contemporary of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and that is perhaps its closest relative. Watching CARNIVAL OF SOULS all the way through, you can't help but put it into that same supernatural category as Rod Serling's classic show and that's not a bad thing at all.

The story of CARNIVAL OF SOULS is a pretty simple one. Mary Henry is an organist who gets into a car accident (the car that she is riding in ends up going off a bridge into a river). After she emerges from the river, she ends up on a trip to a new church to become the organist there. Along the way on her journey, she is constantly menaced by this zombie fella - "The Man" (Harvey). He just appears to her over and over again and scares the crap out of her and then disappears. When Mary finally gets to Salt Lake City, things get even creepier. The actress that plays Mary - Candace Hilligoss  - has this very interesting exotic look to her. A lot of it has to do with her face and her eyes. She's almost elf-like in some way and that only adds to the overall fabric of fantasy that the movie creates. She was apparently in acting training with Lee Strasberg around the time she was cast and her peers there were Marilyn Monroe and Roy Scheider among others.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS is a cult movie in the purest sense of the descriptor. It is strange in this very memorable way. I've often thought it would make and interesting leith F with one of the greatest cult films of all time - ERASERHEAD. I can't exactly explain why these two might go together, but there's something about the loneliness and isolation of the two main characters tat resonates with me in a similar way. Don't get me wrong, CARNIVAL OF SOULS is tame in its weirdness when compared to ERASERHEAD, but they both have this feeling underlying the visuals that makes me think a person's mind would be melted a little if watched back to back. Interestingly, David Lynch himself has cited CARNIVAL as a favorite of his - which totally makes sense.
 One of the most unforgettable things about the movie is the ending and it's use of the abandoned and decaying Saltair Pavillion in Salt Lake City Utah. There's really no place like it. I have this odd fascination with abandoned amusement parks and such and the Saltair Pavilion is one part that and one part dance hall - but it's 100 percent bizarre and ghostly looking. Another thing that stands out and helps the mood is the film's score by Gene Moore. It's all organ music and that obviously plays into Mary Henry's character, but that sound also adds this otherworldly creepiness that makes everything that much more eerie. It's hypnotic and mesmerizing while still adding to the overall sense of disorientation we feel while watching it.

Cult movie writer Danny Peary says of the movie, "But, rather than being a straight horror film, it delivers a message similar to the one in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS about how we are all turning into pod people. Mary is such a passive, uninvolved (soulless) character --she has no religious convictions, no interest in men,no desire for friendship--that she was never really alive."

Special Features:

This disc sports a nice looking new transfer - which is great, but it should be noted that this release doesn't contain both the theatrical and director's cut versions of the film (as the previous Criterion DVD did). This one just has the theatrical cut, so you may want to hang onto your old discs if you want both*. Nonetheless, this new Blu-ray has some nice supplements:
-New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
-Selected-scene audio commentary featuring director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford
-New interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould
-New video essay by film critic David Cairns
-The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!, a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the film’s cast and crew
-The Carnival Tour, a 2000 update on the film’s locations
-Excerpts from movies made by the Centron Corporation, an industrial film company based in Lawrence, Kansas, that once employed Harvey and Clifford
-Deleted scenes
-Outtakes, accompanied by Gene Moore’s organ score
-History of the Saltair Resort in Salt Lake City, where key scenes in the film were shot
-PLUS: An essay by writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse

For old-school horror and cult movie fans, this disc is simply a must own. It is still a disturbing and uneasy watch and it will stay with you for years afterwards.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS can be purchased on Blu-ray here:

*differences between the theatrical and director's cut of the film are detailed here:

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