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review added: 4/13/00



Carnival of Souls
1962/1989 (2000) - MPI Home Video (Criterion)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Carnival of Souls: Criterion Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A/A+

Specs and Features

Disc One: Theatrical Version
78 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (extra layer for special edition material), Amaray keep case packaging, documentary The Movie That Wouldn’t Die: The Carnival of Souls Story (1984), original shooting location report/update The Carnival Tour (1999), 40 minutes of outtakes presented silent (with Gene Moore’s organ score), text history of filming location entitled: Saltair: A History of Isolation, Saltair photo gallery, theatrical trailer, animated film-themed menus with sound, scene access (15 chapters), languages: English (mono), subtitles: English

Disc Two: Director's Cut
83 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 22:47, in chapter 5), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary by director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford, text interviews (with Candace Hilligoss, John Clifford and Herk Harvey conducted by Tom Weaver and illustrated with photos and production art), excerpt from Ken Smith’s book Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970, 6 shorts involving Herk Harvey made at industrial film studio Centron, animated film-themed menus with sound, scene access (15 chapters), languages: English (DD mono), subtitles: English


"We have an organist capable of stirring the soul."

Here's a forgotten classic if I ever saw one. When I was a little sprout, Carnival of Souls used to pop up on TV and I always thought it was Night of the Living Dead. It just had the same tone going. It wasn't until years later that I began to appreciate this film for what it was and what it gave the filmmaking community. It's surprising to note that Carnival actually came first, and George Romero owes a whole heaping spoonful to this film in terms of tone and style. Actually, a whole generation of filmmakers owe this film. Check out David Lynch - he’s made a cottage industry riffing on director Herk Harvey. Sadly though, this film has remained pretty much in obscurity until it was revived in 1989. Thankfully, if you are looking for all the hows and whys on this film and its twisted history, look no further than this set. Criterion has always been a film lover’s dream, and they've done a wonderful job with this set. In terms of history, this is the closed thing you'll ever come to a book put onto DVD. Everything is covered. They even found a way to put a dead man on a commentary track. Now that's the stuff.

Here's how Carnival of Souls works as a cult phenomenon. When you first sit down, you notice how bad the film is. The acting is sort of monotone. The sound just screams "Looped!" and the special effects (or whatever you want to call "The Man") are pretty cheesy. But slowly, while you're watching it, it starts to work its magic on you. Everything starts to make sense. The acting isn't so bad anymore, when you find that there's a reason for it. The pacing, although slow, is almost pitch perfect. And "The Man" starts to give you a feeling that something is in the room with you. It's a very eerie flick. After watching it about ten times or so, this film becomes a part of you.

The story is this: Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is a church organist. When we first see her, she's in a car full of girls that's just been challenged to a drag race. The two cars speed down a dirt road and, as they cross a bridge, Mary's car is bumped and careens off into a river. Cut to the credits. From there, things just get weird. Mary is apparently the only person who survived, and she makes her way out of the river. She immediately heads for a new job in Salt Lake City, and it's en-route that she starts to see a mysterious man (Harvey himself) in white face staring at her at inopportune moments. Things start to get worse, when she feels an urge to visit a dilapidated building sitting on the shores of Salt Lake. Who is The Man? Why does he beckon her to dance with him? And isn't that guy John (Sidney Berger) that hits on her throughout the film, freakier than anything else in the movie?

What works the most for this film is how it was shot. Happy accidents abound. Budget dictated black and white film, but it's very textured and beautiful black and white cinematography. Weird camera angles, like the shots in the organ factory, the shots in the amusement park and the time when the dancers run toward the camera, just ingrain themselves into your mind's eye. This film has aged surprisingly well, considering. Sure, based on its age, the twist ending has sort of been given away and doesn't have the impact it could. But it's still a pretty cool concept. Oh... and I'm not going to say what this twist is, because hopefully there are people who will check this film out for the first time on the Criterion special edition, and it shouldn’t be ruined. I'm glad about that actually, because this is about the only way I ever want to see this film again. On DVD it's frickin' gorgeous - I kid you not.

I had the pleasure of seeing some of the work being done on this DVD when I was up in New York recently, and the "before and after stuff" would blow any jaded DVD fan away. The way this film looks now on DVD is better than anyone could have ever imagined. If Herk Harvey were alive today, he'd be jumping up and down in joy and cheering at the top of his lungs. At least, I believe he would. Both versions of the film (the original theatrical and the director’s cut) are here on 2 separate discs. The running time for the director's cut is about four minutes longer, and the differences are subtle but worthy. Watch both versions and compare them. Personally, I like the longer version (I'd bet most likely everyone else is in the same boat). In terms of quality, the video here is some of the best black and white photography put to disc. I see no problems whatsoever. There's no NTSC noise, no distracting grain, no compression artifacting - nothing. It’s beautiful. The sound is also good. It’s obviously looped in spots, but that’s no fault of the disc. It's how the film was done. That said, what comes out of your speakers is wonderful. I had a really good time reviewing this disc.

This is a two-disc special edition and it shows. The extras on this disc are vast. It’s all great stuff, and it's definitely worth your time to go through it. There’s a documentary (made by Bill Shaffer for KTWU in Topeka, Kansas) about the film’s history and the 1989 reunion of cast and crew for the new premier. This is followed up by a look at the shooting locations in the film, then and now. There’s also a history and photo gallery of the spooky building in Salt Lake known as Saltair, 40 minutes of outtakes, six short films starring or directed by Herk Harvey, a history of Centron (he industrial film house Harvey worked for) and a set of text interviews with screenwriter John Clifford, Harvey and star Hilligoss. Throw in a commentary with Harvey and Clifford (on the director’s cut, which isn’t scene specific - it’s gappy but it's a welcome edition because Harvey died in 1996) and you have a very nice and typically awe-inspiring DVD offering from Criterion.

I hate to be cliché, but I have to say that if you love movies and you love the work that Criterion does, run - don’t walk - to get this set. It’s a wonderful testament to film lovers that a movie this obscure can get such premium treatment on DVD. I wouldn’t expect any less from Criterion, but I’m glad they keep living up to the standards they've set (and we fans have come to expect). On a side note, hopefully after viewing this edition, all the film critics out there will update their reviews, to get rid of the references they've made to this being Harvey's only film. The truth can now be told - Harvey has made more than 400 films, whether or not they were released in your local multiplex. He did what he loved and he did it well. Rest easy Mr. Harvey, your masterpiece is in good hands.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com




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