Proving that there is a certified worldwide appeal for low budget, homegrown horror films, Criterion's deluxe edition of this fascinating cult item is long overdue, especially considering that director Herk Harvey passed on in 1996 and that most of the disc's extra features were realized over a decade ago. Spread across an unbelievable double-disc package, this release truly is an all-inclusive treasure for anyone who remotely admires the film.
Shot in Kansas by a team who usually worked on short industrial films, CARNIVAL OF SOULS commences with a carload of young girls accidentally driving off a bridge and into a body of water. Thought to be drowned, only one girl, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) emerges, but her life now takes on a strange series of events as she accepts a job as a church organist. It seems that everywhere she goes, she is haunted and tormented by a ghoul-like man, played by the director himself.
Loaded with innovative black & white cinematography, a disturbing organ score, an absorbing performance by Hilligoss, and an overall downbeat eerie feeling to it, CARNIVAL OF SOULS certainly warrants the cult reputation that it has. Art? Perhaps. Low budget rubbish? Maybe. But anyway you look it, the film deserves its place in horror history and appears to have influenced other subsequent notable genre efforts (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE SIXTH SENSE).
Criterion obviously put a lot of love into this project, starting with the transfer. Both the director's cut of the film and the original theatrical version are present on separate discs. The director's cut (which was re-released theatrically in 1989) runs a few minutes longer and actually has more footage of the ghouls during the unforgettable climax. The theatrical version is shorter since the original distributor, Herts-Lion, wanted to double-bill it at Southern drive-ins as a co-feature of THE DEVIL'S MESSENGER with Lon Chaney Jr.
The quality on the two versions are almost identical, and both are superb. The full frame presentation has great contrast, with deep blacks, a very sharp image, and excellent detail. The source material is also in pristine condition, but the theatrical version (with the original Herts-Lion logo) has some light scratches during the last few minutes, and I prefer the director's cut. The sound is very crisp, as dialog, sound effects, and that haunting organ score are all extremely clear and audible.
The extras are spread over the two discs. The director's cut includes a commentary by Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford. This conversation track was actually recorded in 1989, probably to coincide with a special edition laserdisc that never materialized. The commentary is a bit dated (they update us on cast members in their 90s that are "still living," and also the fact that Harvey has passed on) but is much welcomed. Harvey and Clifford both come off as well-spoken gentlemen who are proud that they were at least once able to abandon the confines of industrial filmmaking to create something that will never be forgotten. Their remarks really give us a bird's eye view of the trials and tribulations of prolific low budget filmmaking.
Other supplements include an excellent documentary produced for local Kansas TV, "The Movie That Wouldn't Die." This videotaped special spotlights the 1989 theatrical run, and includes interviews with Hilligoss, Clifford, co-star Sidney Berger, and Harvey, once again sporting his white-faced ghoul make-up for the news cameras (though under the hot lights of the uncomplimentary video camera, he looks more like a circus clown!). There is also a shorter documentary produced by the same participants, "The Carnival Tour," that updates us on the real locations that the film utilized.
Even more bonuses include about 45 minutes of outtakes, the best being unused shots of some ghouls creeping out of hallway doors in an orderly fashion. Also included are a good number of industrial films produced by Centron, the Kansas company that Harvey and Clifford worked at for years, proving that maybe there is too much extra material on the disc. But if Harvey were still alive, Criterion's incredible package could act as his personal resume! There's also written interviews with the main participants, an illustrated history of the Saltair pavilion (the setting of the film's final scenes), a trailer, and more! Kudos to Criterion for delivering what might be the most impressive special edition of any classic horror film to date. (George R. Reis)
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