The Film (5/5)
From my pre-teen years up through now to my mid 30's I have been a very minimal sleeper. I have always preferred to exist in the late night hours whenever I could, whether it was for the quiet or the overall ambience, there was always something that appealed to me about night. When I was younger this meant a lot of channel surfing to occupy those non-sleeping late night hours, which lead me to watching a lot of Doctor Who and other British shows on PBS, and finding public domain horror and science fiction films on late night TV. One of those which showed regularly in the middle of the night to fill time slots was Herk Harvey's 1962 horror masterpiece Carnival of Souls.
Harvey was an industrial filmmaker, this meant he made films targeted not at a public audience but for companies in specific industries without a specific artistic side to them. They were also made for educational purposes. These were shot, quickly, and cheaply, and with limited resources.. In the early 1960's while driving home from California he passed by the Saltair Pavilion outside of Salt Lake City, Utah and concocted the idea for what would be Carnival of Souls. A horror film that to quote Hervey would "have the look of a Bergman, and the feel of a Cocteau". Using the techniques he had learned over his career in industrial film making, Harvey shot the film in a 3 week period in between Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah.
The film stars Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry. As the film begins Mary and 2 of her friends get into a drag race with a group of gentlemen in another car. As they cross a bridge the car containing Mary breaks a wooden barrier, and falls over the side. The car sinks to the bottom of the river, and police are called out to investigate. Everyone involved with the investigation considers the car lost, and the inhabitants dead. 3 hours later Mary emerges from the river with no memory of how she got there. She is cleaned up, and sent home. An undetermined amount of time later, she gets on the road to begin her career as a Church organist in Salt Lake City, but as soon as she hits the road she begins to have ghastly visions of a pale man wherever she goes. His appearances are throwing her new life into disarray, and she can do nothing to escape him.
Carnival of Souls is one of the great horror obscurities of the late 20th century. While hardcore horror and film fans have always listed it among the great classics, it languished on late night TV, grey market VHS releases. The film’s reputation was assisted by a 1989 director’s cut that restored 6 minutes of footage. The DVD release by the Criterion Collection in the early 2000’s also, did a lot to restore the film's reputation from a cult obscurity to a bonafide classic.
Harvey went into the film with a Bergman meets Cocteau vision, and that vision is what appears precisely on screen. 1962 is a few years before abstraction in horror had become something viewers were accustomed to, by the work of the Eurohorror filmmakers of the late 1960’s and beyond. Harvey and his work with Carnival of Souls could be considered a forefather of what they would do in coming decades. Carnival of Souls is a film that while well plotted, with interesting characters is a film that dwells on it's visuals and atmosphere. Harvey begins his creepy atmospheric assault on the viewer within the first few minutes of the film,, and does not let up.
The film is shot with a crisp, gorgeous black and white style by cinematographer Maurice Prather. That is absolutely reminiscent of Bergman's late 50's films like the Seventh Seal, the Magician, and Wild Strawberries. The film is paced extremely well by director Harvey, and is sure to capture the viewer from the first frame to the last. Criterion have presented the theatrical cut which runs 78 minutes here. The director's cut runs 84 minutes, but is not presented on the Blu-ray. The missing scenes were from an SD source, and would stand out on a Blu-ray release. However, they do not make an overall strong contribution to the plot or atmosphere of the film.
The Criterion Blu-ray of Carnival of Souls looks GLORIOUS. The film is presented 1:37:1 in a 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The detail present on this transfer is stunning, grain is at a minimum, but is natural in its appearance. Contrast is excellent, and the image is absolutely clear and crisp.
The audio is presented with an LPCM 1.0 mono track in English. The track is quite good with dialogue and score coming through clearly. I did not detect any issues with the track on my listen.
Criterion have put together an absolutely over the top extras package for Carnival of Souls. The Blu-ray has a select scene commentary culled by interviews with screen writer John Clifford and director Herk Harvey. We also get a selection of Harvey's industrial films in 1080i HD. There are archival documentaries and TV specials about the film, it's location (the Saltair Pavillion), a video essay about the film, and an interview with comedian Dana Gould about his obsession with horror. The disc is rounded off by an essay about the Centron Corporation, a trailer, and deleted scenes in SD. There is leaflet with excellent liner notes by Kier-La Janisse (House of Psychotic Women)
One of the finest horror films of all time gets a truly amazing Blu-ray release courtesy of Criterion. The Blu-ray make this film look and sound better than it ever has on home video before, and it is packed with extras. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.