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With: Candance Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt, Herk Harvey
Written by: John Clifford
Directed by: Herk Harvey
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 78
Date: 09/26/1962
IMDB

Carnival of Souls (1962)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Boyfriends and Ghoulfriends

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Carnival of Souls (1962) was a horror film directed by "Herk" Harvey, whose steady job was making industrial films in Kansas. He and his screenwriter, John Clifford, decided that they wanted to break away from those and make something along the lines of Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, but since their budget was small, and Harvey wanted to center the story around an abandoned carnival, the horror story was born. (Presumably, George A. Romero saw it in 1962 and it inspired him to make Night of the Living Dead.)

A girl, Mary (Candace Hilligoss), is the only survivor of an accident after a carload of young people careens over a bridge. She leaves town, accepting a job as a church organist. She immediately strikes us as strange. She has no manners. At a gas station, she barks, "fill 'er up" to the attendant without so much as a "please." Her new landlady, who goes out of her way to make sandwiches, gets an equally cold shoulder. But her new neighbor across the hall tries the hardest and gets the biggest brush off (which is okay, because he's kind of a sleazy loser).

Hilligoss was an interesting bit of casting. She was a stage actress trained in the "method" who was essentially asked to play a girl with no soul. She had an interesting face, with large features and a sharp voice. Even when her character is too cold to identify with, the viewer is still drawn in by her strangely cinematic face.

But maybe Mary has a reason to act odd. She keeps seeing a white-faced ghoul man following her around, even while she's driving. The movie has one supreme moment of horror when she looks out her passenger window while driving on a dark highway and sees the man standing outside her window, as if she weren't moving at all. Later, Mary explores the abandoned carnival and finds more ghouls, who seem to have some kind of sinister purpose for her. The film creates some genuinely freaky and surreal sequences that still have the power to startle.

Having Mary play the organ was a masterstroke, as Harvey and Clifford were able to use spooky organ music for their score as well. The movie is a triumph of mood over character, since we can't drum up much affection for such a cold-hearted girl. And, though their budget was tiny, Harvey and Clifford achieved the art-house look they were going for.

I now know more about Carnival of Souls (1962) than I ever thought possible. I had seen it once before, on a laserdisc after the 1989 theatrical re-release, and thought it an amusing cult film not far away from Night of the Living Dead (1968). Now I see it with a clearer view, thanks to the Criterion Collection's more-than-comprehensive 2000 DVD release. Indeed, few DVD's have covered the immense amount of ground that Carnival of Souls has. Though the material is exhuastive, true fans of the movie will find themselves in pig-heaven and scholars will find that everything they need to truly understand the movie is right there at the push of a button.

In 2016, Criterion released an extraordinary new Blu-ray edition, restored and mastered in 4K, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It appears that they have abandoned the 83-minute cut that was included on the DVD; this is the theatrical cut, which runs 78 minutes. An old commentary track by Harvey (who passed away in 1996) and Clifford that was once attached to the longer cut has now been added to the new transfer. Though it's not scene-specific, and contains a lot of dead air, it's still quite interesting.

The older extras included on the new disc are a theatrical trailer, clips of Harvey's and Clifford's industrial films, a documentary about the movie's 1989 re-release, about 28 minutes of outtakes (less than on the DVD), and a documentary about the dilapidated carnival, the Saltair resort. New extras include an interview with comedian Dana Gould, a video essay by film critic David Cairns, and an update on the film's locations that was presumably made in 2000, but not included on the DVD. New liner notes are provided by writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse.

Either on DVD or Blu-ray, Carnival of Souls is an outstanding disc and a worthy addition to any library. But long-time fans of this cult classic are the real winners.

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