CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) Blu-ray
Director: Herk Harvey
The Criterion Collection

An often effective but critically oversold low-budget shocker that’s mostly hypnotic...and frequently gimcrack goofy. The Criterion Collection has released on Blu-ray CARNIVAL OF SOULS, the 1962 indie supernatural ghost story originally released by Herts-Lion International Corp., directed by Herk Harvey, written by John Clifford, and starring Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison Stan Levitt, Tom McGinnis, Bill De Jarnette, Pamela Ballard, and uncredited Herk Harvey as “The Man.” Conceived by Centron industrial shorts producers Harvey and Clifford as exploitation horror with a hoped-for art house sheen, CARNIVAL OF SOULS was buried on a third-rate drive-in double bill in ‘62, where it promptly disappeared. However, a devoted cult following grew (due to public domain showings on late-night TV), and in 1989, it was “rediscovered”. It’s spookily evocative on the whole, and a definite must-see for fans interested in the evolution of the ghost/zombie horror subgenre. Criterion has upped the game for this Blu release with a new, scintillating 4K transfer (although an on-screen blurb in one of the tab descriptions states it’s 2K—maybe a leftover menu detail from their previous release?), a new interview with Dana Gould (fun) and a new “video essay” by David Cairns, along with all the ported-over extras from the previous Criterion edition...except for the longer director’s cut.

Pretty blonde Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss, THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE) goes for a joy ride with a couple of her female friends when some punks challenge them to a drag race. Speeding across a lonely, rickety, rural Kansas bridge, the girls get bumped off, both literally and figuratively, as their car smashes through the guard rail and sinks into the muddy waters below. Three hours later, Mary miraculously appears on the bank, covered in mud (with dry hair...), and with no knowledge of how she survived her ordeal. Deciding the time is right for a move, Mary, an organist, accepts a job playing the pipes for an Episcopal church in Salt Lake City, Utah—a secular-only decision that worries her friend, the owner (Tom McGinnis) of the organ factory where she practiced. Telling him flatly that she’ll never return, Mary embarks on her lonely drive to Utah.

Speeding over the flats at night, she can’t get anything on the car radio except organ music. She also sees the ghostly apparition of “The Man,” (Herk Harvey), a pasty white, ring-eyed zombie that appears outside her passenger window and in front of her car. Mary also sees, far off near the Great Salt Lake, a massive abandoned dance hall pavilion—a desolate, eerie place that will become an obsession for Mary. Arriving at old hoot Mrs. Thomas’ (Frances Feist) boarding house, Mary can’t decide what’s more frightening: the apparition of “The Man” at the bottom of her stairs, or the introduction of fellow boarder John Linden (Sidney Berger), an oily, full-bore horndog who spots Mary as potential easy pickins. Mary’s first day with her new boss, the Very Reverend minister (Art Ellison), doesn’t go much better, when she blithely spurns that most holy of Protestant traditions: a “Welcome Wagon” pot luck with the ladies of the church. A trip out to the pavilion with the minister doesn’t assuage his trepidations about Mary’s spiritual commitment to her job (she asks him to break the rules and escort her into the fenced-off dance hall). Soon, Mary is roaming the streets of Salt Lake City, increasingly spaced-out because, apparently, she has moments where she’s invisible to everyone else. Back at the church to practice, Mary goes into another fugue state, where she has ominous, frightening visions of zombie ghouls at the pavilion—a state that translates into her hands playing ominous, sacrilegious music on the organ, a blasphemy that gets her sh*tcanned with the Episcopalians. We know Mary’s losing it completely when she’d rather hang out with Linden than chance seeing “The Man” again, but nothing can stop the onslaught of terrifying visions that either might be “real,” or merely representations of Mary’s altered state(s).

I was in “film school” back in 1989 when the re-introduced CARNIVAL OF SOULS was all the rage for a couple of months. I saw it on a big screen with some friends, and while we enjoyed it for what it was—an atmospheric, often unsettling little tone poem with more than a few hinky moments—we sure didn’t think it was some kind of unjustly neglected masterpiece, a Rosetta Stone talisman that set into motion the modern horror/zombie movie. And to writer John Clifford’s and director Herk Harvey’s great credit...they didn’t think so, either, even when critics and rabid fans were shining them on like they wrangled Albert Camus’ Second Coming with their chintzy little production. In Harvey’s and Clifford’s scene-select commentary track for this disc, Clifford suddenly blurts out to Harvey, “Do you ever get tired of trying to explain all these things in CARNIVAL OF SOULS?” after laying out that a lot of the movie’s choices were done quickly on the fly (Clifford flatly refuses to explain his work, before admitting he has no idea what he was thinking about when writing the movie all those years ago). Later, Harvey is even more specific, stating once and for all: “The film critics added dimensions to the film that John and I didn’t intend.” Case closed, over-zealous tea leaves readers. Post-modernist “film criticism” gets around this kind of plain-spoken honesty by slyly stating an artist’s planned intent isn’t required for her or him to produce a work of art—it’s up to the critic to discover what’s really been achieved. Of course this is narcissistic sophistry; it’s just a way for a critic, who produces nothing of any real value next to the actual object being described, to take possession of a work of art for themselves: art to them only becomes art when they define it as such.

That shouldn’t lead you to dismiss CARNIVAL OF SOULS out of hand (after all, I’m one of those critics: what do I know?). CARNIVAL OF SOULS works best when you don’t look for meaning in every corner of its mise-en-scene, and when you shut off those annoying squawks of "the School of Resentment" criticisms that seem to have multiplied and mutated over the years and decades, such as seeing eons of complex male oppression in CARNIVAL OF SOULS’s campy, clichéd 1960s sexual banter (if scripter Clifford was deliberately trying to comment on Mary’s journey through a world of predatory or paternalistic men, which I doubt since he denied doing so—judgmental labeling I question, anyway, when discussing the organ factory owner and the minister—he only succeeded in showing us that letch Linden probably read one too many issues of Argosy). Watching CARNIVAL OF SOULS the way you’d read or listen to a poem—with an emphasis on experiencing, visually and aurally, the tone and emotion and sensation, and less as an intellectual or linear experience—frankly yields more satisfying results...since so much of its grounding dramatics are shaky.

When CARNIVAL OF SOULS opens with that verkakte drag race straight out of the Highway Safety Films catalogue, you wouldn’t be chastised for thinking the movie was more in the “Goofus” than the “Gallant” column. However, when Harvey cuts to this remarkably inscrutable shot of Mary staring at her companion driver (is it fear? Incredulity? An acknowledgement of fate?), you’re brought up short. That’s not a narrative shot. That’s pure poesy. Later, a decidedly unsettling overhead shot of Mary climbing out onto a mudbar gives us more to think about and feel than any verbal explanation Clifford could have possibly summoned up for the character. CARNIVAL OF SOULS’ straight exposition scenes, such as the concerned organ owner cautioning Mary, or the minister wondering why she’s so distant, or Mrs. Thomas’ fluttering ministrations, or greasy Linden’s hilariously inept seductions, are all rather hokey and square—they’d be right at home in one of Clifford’s or Harvey’s Centron industrial/social engineering shorts. You don’t have to have read Bierce to know what the big final twist is here (they’re not exactly subtle or sly about telegraphing what ultimate plane she occupies), while the horror stuff comes off as unintentionally comical, not terrifying. And no, that assessment isn’t out of context. Compare that stand-out shot everyone loves of Harvey’s silly face staring at Mary through her car window (that effect wouldn’t have held water in a fourth-rate Bowery Boys spookums), with Hitchcock’s iconic shot of Norman Bates in drag silhouette, with a raised knife and only his eyes barely lit as he rips open a shower curtain, to see the difference between true horror and truly “nice try” (every time “The Man” showed up, I worried more about the corn starch getting on his collar and black suit, rather than for Mary).

CARNIVAL OF SOULS’s real unease comes whenever the startlingly strange Candace Hilligoss—part gorgeous, neurasthenic Hitchcock blonde, part gangly Vanessa Redgrave-as-Creepella Gruesome—is on the screen. Whether driving across the flats, mirroring Marion Crane’s fateful journey, or staring wide-eyed out the window as she lays in bed, the rain tapping at the glass as her mind camera-zooms back to the pavilion, or shopping in a department store and becoming...nothing to people in the streets who can’t see or hear her, Hilligoss is the magnet that keeps drawing us into these seductive, beautifully-lit fullscreen LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD frames. Had CARNIVAL OF SOULS been nothing more than Hilligoss walking around those locales, particularly those stunningly lonely, barren shots at the pavilion and amusement park, it would have been enough for us to just groove along with, unexplained: visual poetry that shouldn’t be too tightly, too specifically defined, least it’s crushed like gossamer. You can run CARNIVAL OF SOULS over and over again and try to explain its possible themes and time lines and parallel worlds, but you certainly don’t need to...and you might like it more if you don’t.

The MPEG-4 AVC Video 1080p 1.37:1 black and white 4K Blu transfer of CARNIVAL OF SOULS looks remarkable. Except for some damage during the opening and closing titles, the image is flawless. As stated by Criterion, extensive digital restoration was performed on the original 35mm camera negative, zapping away dirt, scratches, splices and warps, and correcting flicker and juddering. Criterion made the decision not to include the longer “director’s cut,” since the additional footage’s original source material was one inch analog video tape, which would have jarred next to the pristine restoration. Fine image detail is remarkable (you can see the varying sheen and reflective levels of the backlighting on individual strands of Hilligoss’ hair). Grain structure is super-smooth and the black/white/gray levels impossibly creamy. One of the most impressive black and white Blu transfers I’ve ever seen. The original mono soundtrack was cleaned up, as well, with all hiss and crackle completely removed. Purists who, ironically, hear in their heads that “original” (to them) sound of all that static when they think of this movie, are in for a surprise when they hear the ghostly background silence. It’s an entirely new way of hearing CARNIVAL OF SOULS. English subtitles are available.

New bonus material includes "Final Destination" (22:40), an interview with comedian Dana “Fragile Frankie Merman” Gould, who makes clear his passion for CARNIVAL OF SOULS (a quick note, though: PSYCHO came out in 1960, not 1962). "Regards from Nowhere" (23:33), a “video essay” from David Cairns and other voices, is just the kind of smarmy mug’s game “connect the dots” critics do with movies like CARNIVAL OF SOULS...until the very last sentence where Cairns finally admits any interpretation of the movie is valid—and by implied logic, then, none are (someone named Anne Billson states at one point she remembered needing a man by her at night to stave off the spooks. Okay.). Kier-La Janisse provides some well-written—if again, a bit stretched—opinions on CARNIVAL OF SOULS for a fancy 18.5 x 12.75 in folded flyer that also gives tech specs and credits for this restoration disc. Finally, Dana Gould returns (voice only) to read an essay on Centron films that appeared in Ken Smith’s "Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films" 1945-1970.

Everything else looks to be ported over from Criterion’s previous release. The selected-scene commentary from Herk Harvey and John Clifford is spotty, but solid information as well as insight into the production, is provided (I know everyone calls the production “zero budget,” but in today’s money, adjusted just for inflation and not actual buying power, that $33K equals over a quarter of a million dollars—not Hollywood money, certainly...but not someone’s basement, either). My favorite bonus are the outtakes (27:02), which are silent save for composer Gene Moore’s weirdo organ music—just watching former dancer Hilligoss move around, pulling strange, enigmatic faces, is bonus enough. Three small deleted scenes are included (their run times compromised by head and tail footage for context). If you’re used to the longer director’s cut, you’ll find that important exchange between the organ factor owner and worker here (“If she’s got a problem, it’ll go right along with her,”). "The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!" (32:12), a public television documentary from KTWU/Topeka, Kansas, hosted by Bill Shaffer, looks at the movie’s production, and features footage of a cast/crew reunion in 1989 when CARNIVAL OF SOULS was rediscovered (Harvey actually showed up in his zombie makeup!). Segueing immediately after this feature is "The Carnival Tour", again from Bill Shaffer, that looks at how the movie’s locales have changed (up to 2000). Next up is "History of the Saltair Resort" (25:57), a 1966 documentary from KCPX-TV in Salt Lake City, with host Art Teece giving an interesting rundown of the storied (and unlucky) resort. Excerpts from Centron shorts include "Star 34" (12:36), "Rebound", with Harvey going blind (21:11), "Case History of a Sales Meeting" (5:32), "To Touch a Child" (11:55), "Signals: Read’Em or Weep" (5:24), and a Centrol commercial (2:13). A trailer for CARNIVAL OF SOULS, along with new cover art by Edward Kinsella for the snap case, round out the extras. (Paul Mavis)