RiffTrax: Carnival of Souls DVD review

Carnival of Souls (1962) horizontalCARNIVAL OF SOULS is a film that, like NOSFERATU (1922), seems to benefit from an eternally self-perpetuating reputation somewhat divorced from its actual quality. CARNIVAL OF SOULS is the sort of film that finds its truest expression not on the screen but in the memory, where its best scenes linger, dream-like and evocative, mentally edited from the poorly paced whole. There is a nightmare quality to its best scenes, which cannot be denied, but if you go back and watch it again, or encounter it for the first time after knowing it by reputation only, you will be disappointed to see what is essentially a great half-hour TWILIGHT ZONE story padded out to feature length.
In fact, CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) tells roughly the same story as THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s 1960 episode “The Hitch-Hiker,” adapted by Rod Serling from the 1940s radio play by Lucille Fletcher. The TV version starred Inger Stevens as Nan, a young blond woman, haunted on a long road trip by a mysterious man thumbing a ride, who continually reappears on the road ahead even though she keeps leaving him in her dust. At the climax, it is revealed that Nan died in a car accident, leaving us to assume that the Hitch-Hiker is the angel of death, come to collect a spirit who until has not realized that she is no longer among the living.

Herk Harvey and Candace Hilligoss in a scene reminiscent of THE TWILIGHT ZONE's "The Hitch-Hiker."
Herk Harvey and Candace Hilligoss in a scene reminiscent of THE TWILIGHT ZONE's "The Hitch-Hiker."

I will give CARNIVAL OF SOULS credit for superiority in at least one aspect: whereas Rod Serling’s “Hitch-Hiker” script is marred by excessive, melodramatic narration (a vestige of the story’s radio origins), director Herk Harvey presents CARNIVAL OF SOULS’ uncanny elements in evocatively filmed visual terms, backed by appropriately weird music, often played by the lead character Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a church organist who, ironically, has no faith in God or belier in the afterlife. These memorable scenes – mostly consisting of Harvey’s intermittent appearances as the silent and mysterious man menacing Mary, his white pancake makeup suggesting a cross between a zombie and a demented mime – create the uncanny quality on which the film’s reputation rests; there is just not enough story to support these sequences.
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click to purchase

All of this makes CARNIVAL OF SOULS the almost perfect subject for RIFFTRAX. Herk Harvey’s cult film, scripted by John Clifford, is actually worth watching, so it does not totally depend on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 alumni Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy to provide entertainment value; however, their running audio commentary by the three comedians definitely helps fill the void in the film’s many longueurs.
Unfortunately, the empty spaces in CARNIVAL OF SOULS require almost too much filling, creating s sometimes desperate quality in the jokes. At one point, Kevin Murphy supposedly goes postal, taking hostages and threatening to start tossing out bodies if the film refuses to speed up. It’s a funny concept, but it doesn’t quite come off in the RiffTrax audio-only format (the routine really cries out for the old MST3K shadow-vision).
Also, the RiffTrax crew sell CARNIVAL OF SOULS short. As someone who is not blinded by adoration for the movie, I appreciate the effort to bring the film down a notch by knocking flaws that the film’s boosters routinely ignore (like the mis-matched post-synchronized sound, which makes the film look cheap rather than enigmatic). Nevertheless, it would have been nice if Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy had tempered their attack just enough to admit that there is a reason that people enjoy CARNIVAL OF SOULS, which truly does contain a good 20 or 30 minutes of magnificently spooky weirdness tucked in between the seemingly endless footage of traveling and transitions.
Director Herk Harvey as the mysterious man pursuing Mary
Director Herk Harvey as the mysterious man pursuing Mary

Even not being a fan of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, I do appreciate its ambition, which occasionally crystallizes into full-blown perfection on screen. The most memorable moment for me, aside from the wonderfully haunting dance of the dead, set in the old pavilion, which see Mary whirled and twirled and eventually pursued by phantoms who engulf her en masse, comes the morning after, when a group of men trace her lone footsteps through the wet sand, to a point where they mysteriously terminate, as if she had simply dematerialized. A ppriest and a psychiatrist – a man of God and a man of Science, both of whom knew Mary – exchange a perplexed glance, as if to say, “I have no explanation. You?” Their silence is more expressive than any dialogue, underlining an encounter with an uncanny mystery that cannot be explained away.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). Directed by Herk Harvey. Written by John Clifford, from a story by Harvey (uncredited). Cast: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levit, Tom McGinnis, Forbes Caldwell, Dan Palmquist.
RIFFTRAX DVD (June 2009). Written and performed by Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. The DVD contains a good transfer of the film, which can be played with or without the comic commentary. The RiffTrax performance is also available as an audio-only download that can by synched-up with a pre-existing DVD of CARNIVAL OF SOULS.
Carnival of Souls (1960) poster Carnival of Souls: Mary (Candace Hilligoss) emerges from a car wreck. Carnival of Souls (1960) Carnival of Souls (1960) Carnival of Souls: Herk Havey Carnival of Souls: Herk Harvey and Candace Hilligoss Carnival of Souls: Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry Carnival of Souls (1960)
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