Release Date(s)1962 (July 12, 2016)
Studio(s)Harcourt Productions/Herts-Lion International Corp. (Criterion – Spine #63)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A
Since its release in 1962, the reaction to Carnival of Souls has taken on a life of its own. On one hand, the film has influenced generations of directors in various ways, both visually and aesthetically. On the other hand, it’s poked at as poorly-acted and boring. Directed by Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker who decided to try his hand at independent production, it tells the story of a young woman who, after surviving a car accident, moves to a community that’s hired her as a church organist. Once she arrives, she quickly realizes that everything isn’t as it seems and feels drawn to a mysterious pavilion outside of town.
Because of its public domain status, Carnival of Souls has been released on every major format by every conceivable distribution company since home video came into being. It’s also been shown repeatedly on TV for many years. What makes Carnival of Souls interesting is that, while its afterlife has been consistently strong, the film has affected people in different ways. One person might see it as a nightmarish, scary experience, and another might see it as amateurish, overly-long, and laugh-inducing. Like many, I first saw the film on TV when I was very young and it (along with the original House on Haunted Hill), creeped me out quite a bit. As an adult, I still find it to be an effective film, though certainly not a flawless one. It depends mainly on dream-logic to sell its visuals, which means there’s not so much a narrative as there is a sketch of one. Carnival of Souls is about imagery and atmosphere more than anything else. Sadly, the need to lampoon or poke fun at the film seems to have gone up in the last few decades, which is a shame. It may be lacking in some ways, but it’s still a worthy independent effort, especially for its time.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the film contains a newly-restored 4K digital transfer from the original 35mm camera negative. If you’re accustomed to seeing the film in crappy DVD multipacks or on TV, this presentation should be a revelation for you. Carnival of Souls is likely to never have looked this good in its existence, even in its original run. The quality here is simply outstanding. A very well-attenuated grain structure is on display, with amazing depth and fine detail. Textures, clothing, and even shadow detail are reproduced beautifully in this organic-looking presentation. The grayscale is near perfect, with solid blacks, brights, and contrast levels. It’s also an extremely clean presentation, stunningly crisp and vibrant through and through. The lone audio track included is the original English mono LPCM soundtrack. Dialogue is clear and discernible, while sound effects and score are mixed in well together. The score really benefits, as it aids the film’s creepy atmosphere with aggression and subtlety. It too is virtually perfect and compliments the visuals well. And if you need them, optional subtitles are available in English SDH.
For the supplements, there’s a 1989 audio interview with director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford, which acts as an audio commentary; 3 deleted scenes; a set of outtakes accompanied by Gene Moore’s original organ score; Final Destination, an interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould about the film; The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!, a documentary from 1989 about the reunion of the film’s cast and crew, as well as a brief tour of the film’s shooting locations; Regards from Nowhere, a video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns; Saltair: Return to the Salt Queen, a 1966 documentary about the film’s aforementioned pavilion; The Centron Corporation, which includes segments from films that Harvey and Clifford made for the company, including a commercial; the original theatrical trailer; and a paper insert with a poster on one side and an essay by writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse on the other. Not carried over from Criterion’s original DVD release is the presentation of the extended director’s cut, which was in poorer quality. However, the deleted scenes that have been included make up all of the extra footage, which is very little. On that same disc were Illustrated Interviews with Harvey, Clifford, and Candace Hilligoss, as well as an essay on the history of Centron by Ken Smith. The insert booklet in that set also contained an essay on the film by Bruce Kawin and an introduction to the film by Clifford.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of Carnival of Souls is bound to give you a new appreciation of the film. If you’re a horror fan in any capacity, this is an essential purchase. You may think that you have all you need with cheaper, five dollar bin DVD purchases, but trust me: this is the version of the film you’ll want to own. With an amazing transfer and a boatload of extras, it’s a home run.
- Tim Salmons