With the renewed interested in Gothic ghosts and monsters that arrived on the tails of Famous Monsters of Filmland and late-night TV spook show packages such as “Shock Theater”, no-budget horror flicks really started crowding matinees and drive-ins in the early sixties. Most of these movies have been forgotten by all but the most hardcore horror hounds, but Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls continues to live beyond the grave because it works on so many levels. At its most fundamental, it is a 78-minute “Twilight Zone” episode complete with that series’ disquieting atmosphere, low-budget makeup and twist ending (and let’s be honest, it basically is a remake of the first-season episode “The Hitch-Hiker”). It also works on the delicious level of so many early-sixties schlock shockers with its jazzy dialogue and stilted, amateur-hour acting. However, Candace Hilligoss’s performance works so well because the shaken, wide-eyed, freaked-out demeanor she adopts throughout the entire picture heightens its low-key tension and two-clicks-south-of-reality atmosphere. Maybe there’s actually some genuine method behind her portrayal of a woman who starts seeing walking corpses after she walks away from a car crash. She did study acting at NYC’s American Theater Wing and did her time on the boards in a touring production of Idiot’s Delight. Whatever the case is, it works.
Like so many B-horrors of its period, Carnival of Souls fell into the public domain, so bad, unrestored prints have landed on many, many cheap VHS tapes and DVDs. Despite the film’s easy availability, the prestigious Criterion Collection recognized that Carnival of Souls deserved better and cleaned it up for release in 2000. Sixteen years later, Criterion has given the film a 4k buffing for blu-ray, and it’s probably safe to say that it has never looked so beautiful. Harvey made magical use of shadows and extreme lightness (Hilligoss’s pallor is second to none), and his images are incredibly rich, deep, and clean on this new disc. Comparing it to all of those washed-out, flecked-up budget releases makes it seem like a completely different movie… even if watching a movie like this with washed-out, flecked up picture does have a certain cheesy charm.
Criterion’s double-disc DVD from 2000 came with a bushel of extras, and they’ve all been ported over to this 2016 upgrade. There is the 78-minute theatrical release and the 83-minute director’s cut, which includes a few extended and exclusive shots, a scene featuring the minister who hires Hilligoss to play organ in his church (creepy pipe organ music plays a co-starring role in the film), an exclusive conversation between Hilligoss and her psychologist, and a lot more material during the hoe down at the title carnival. A few shots have also been slightly shortened. All of this makes for a better fleshed-out, more fluid picture, though if you don’t have five minutes to spare or want to recreate your own drive-in experiences faithfully, the shorter cut is the one for you.
Also from the old disc are outtakes (scored with more of Gene Moore’s haunting organ), a 1989 documentary that reunites the original cast and crew (Harvey appears in the same blotchy pancake makeup he wore in the film as the specter of death. Awesome), a featurette on the carnival location, selected audio commentary with Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford, a photo gallery, and six short films Harvey helped make for the industrial film studio Centron.
New bonuses are a pair of video commentaries, one with movie critic David Cairns and the other with comedian Dana Gould. The former actually features several commentators (a critic, a screenwriter, a horror-comics artist) and effectively captures the creepy ambience of the feature. We should also be grateful for its total absence of boring talking-head shots. The latter is a lot of fun, as the incredibly well informed Gould (though he does get the release year of Psycho wrong). He voices what it means to be a Monster Kid, referring to movies such as these as “comfort food.” That is exactly how I’ve always thought of them. I remember Gould working an imitation of Ray Harryhausen’s Cyclops into one of his bits from the eighties. He clearly loves this kind of stuff. How could he not?