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Monday, 5 January 2009

Carnival of Souls

If there's any movie that comes a close second to Jason and the Argonauts in terms of the money that I've shelled out to own copies of it, this low-budget hand-made horror from the 'sixties must surely be the one.

I saw Carnival of Souls as the lower half of a Sunday horror double-bill at the Princes Cinema, Monton, sometime around 1970 or '71. It marked me for life. I don't mean in a traumatic way, although I'm sure that a susceptible mind could find its combination of archetypal nightmare images and plain style genuinely disturbing.

No: I was gripped by the way that it seemed to strike a succession of clear notes in my subconscious. It was like mainlining essence of macabre. There's a misconception that horror in art is concerned with disgust; when in fact, done well, it produces a deep-reaching and peculiar form of delight.

The movie was released in 1962 and was made by a bunch of Kansas filmmakers with a background in corporate and industrial documentaries. Herk Harvey directed, John Clifford scripted. They raised money from local businesses and pressed friends and family into service both in front of and behind the camera. But for their lead they hired a professional actress with a small handful of TV and B-movie credits, Candace Hilligoss, and struck lucky with her Summer Glau-like air of uninflected weirdness. Frankly, with someone more expensive the film might not have worked half so well.

It starts with a road race that ends in disaster, with a carload of friends running off a bridge and into the river. Alone from the water staggers Mary Henry (Hilligoss) in the first of the film's many memorable images; mud-splattered sole survivor of a mass drowning, she cleans up and goes on to take up a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City. There she finds herself becoming steadily more detached from the world around her. When she's not playing the Devil's music or struggling to be noticed in a silenced town centre, she's being haunted by a doleful apparition of a corpse-faced man. The apparition eventually leads her to a deserted lakeside pavilion, where the dead waltz and welcome their own.

So cool.

In its making and in its achievement, I tend to think of it as a counterpoint to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Both films were made outside the Hollywood system by people with a skill base in bread-and-butter, non-theatrical regional filmmaking. Both films managed, by their very lack of conventional artifice, to strike directly at the viewer's unconscious. I regard Carnival of Souls as the Jung to Living Dead's Freud.

Both films also had an equally rocky time in the marketplace, and left their makers similarly unrewarded. In my part of the UK, Carnival played that one night at the Princes' and it never showed up on TV. But boy, did it stay with me.


A few years later, when VHS had got itself established, I imported an NTSC copy from Sinister Cinema and paid to have it converted to PAL at a London facilities house. I shudder to think what it must have cost me. The tape itself was cheap, but the conversion was at industry rates. The quality wasn't great either; it was one of many variant versions of the movie floating around, all from different sources. According to Englewood Entertainment's Wade Williams, "This picture was sold outright worldwide - state rights for perpetuity. They sold rights for the life of the print. Anybody that bought them could change the title, they could do about anything they wanted to exploit them."

When a decent PAL VHS version came out shortly afterwards, I was convinced that all my trouble in securing and converting a copy had served as an act of sympathetic magic to bring it about. I upgraded anyway and it looked so much better.

After that I upgraded again, to the Criterion DVD. Yep, Criterion. In a restored and properly mastered print, offered in two versions, with commentary from Clifford and Harvey and a comprehensive overview of the rest of their oeuvre... such classics as Signals - Read 'em or Weep and (ahem) To Touch a Child (it's about education).

I reckoned that after the Criterion treatment, there was nowhere further to go. Every now and again I'd see the movie offered cheap (or, in one case, given away on the cover of a magazine), but I knew that these would be crappy versions sourced from old prints and that what I had was now definitive.

But now next month, Network are releasing a new region 2 DVD. I don't know where their print material is sourced from, but I do know that it carries a new commentary track from savvy horror stalwarts Stephen Jones and Kim Newman.

It never ends, I tell you...

12 comments:

Frances Lynn said...

Thanks for this refresher ..... and a Happy New Year to you!

Caroline said...

Ooo, yes, this is one of my all-time favourite films. It's far better than the Romero zombie films in my opinion, yet it's not very well known at all.

It did show on TV - but not sure when, although it was definitely a while ago. That was when I first saw it, and I was hooked. It would be terrific to see it at a cinema on the "big screen".

Funnily enough, I found a DVD of it (Stax) in a charity shop for £2 a few months ago and was pleased as I didn't know it had been released on DVD. I still haven't had a chance to watch it again yet, but your post here, Steve, has tempted me to make time for this little gem!

Good Dog said...

For me it has been Michael Mann's first feature Thief.

First there was the pan and scan Warner Home Video VHS, back when the packaging was the same size as the old padded rental boxes and the film had the unimaginative UK title of Violent Streets.

Then a properly titled "widescreen" version when it was part of the Warner Maverick Directors VHS sell-thru tapes.

Then in LA I picked up the Director's Cut on VHS in the late 1990s - but left it in my girlfriend's apartment.

Then the R2 MGM/UA vanilla DVD.

Then the R1 Director's Cut DVD, which came with a commentary...

Since I watched Collateral this evening, I suppose I should watch Thief tomorrow.

Charlie Williams said...

Love this film. Your pic of the pavillion brings it all home to me and frankly shits me up. CoS also has one of the slimiest characters of all time in John Linden.

Stan said...

Unfortunately, the Network version apparently uses one of the public domain prints that are floating about so I don't think you'll be getting rid of your Criterion edition. The commentary should be interesting though and you've definitely interested me in seeing the film.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Re those PD prints, in the Wade Williams interview that I quote from, he said of the Englewood release,

"It's made from the original 35mm fine-grain print master. And that's different from a print. When the film was sold to England, they took the camera negative and made what you call a fine-grain print master, with picture and sound, and that was sent over to England. They made their negative from that to make the print. So basically, this was made one-generation from the camera negative, which is even sharper than any of the release prints because they don't make release prints from a camera negative: they make them from a dupe negative, which would have been made from this fine grain. Fine grain is one generation sharper than the actual one released in the theater. So that's why it's exquisite."

But the Englewood release also apparently featured "Super-Psychorama, which he explains thus:

"In the foreign release of Carnival of Souls, when we found the fine-grain, and also the separate music tracks, there were notes on "Super-Psychorama," on what they were planning to release in the UK, which basically is some step-printing of some of the zombie scenes. They had footage markers on what should be step-printed and what should be tinted and where the tint should come in. Everytime, apparently, with the presence of the zombies, they started just barely tinting. Today that stuff is much easier to do on video than it is to make negatives and step print, and you can make the effects a little more effective by doing your generations on video. So we developed what we hoped they were trying to do when they originally put the picture out. I have never seen any prints of it in foreign territories, so I have no knowledge that anybody put it out in "Super-Psychorama"--but we decided to do it. It helps the film somewhat--not that it needs any help. We're doing the same thing they would've done to make it more appealing. The notes didn't have the tint color. It didn't have the number of blue or the number of green. We looked at it both ways. And we felt that, like Alien, to give it a more dire, bleak look that green worked best."

Frankly, I think "Super Psychorama" sounds pants. But the Englewood master sounds like that rarity, a decent PD source.

Which is not to say that's the one that Network have used, of course, because I have no idea.

The Wade Williams interview is in issue 5 of the Images Journal at www.imagesjournal.com/issue05/reviews/carnivalinterview.htm

Stan said...

I suppose it all depends on whether the transfer has been made from this fine grain master, or a crappy, battered print from the dupe negative. Did Criterion use the original negative?

We've had transfers tinted to supposedly match how the films were originally released but I wasn't keen on the result (it looked over-done and fake to me). Maybe subtle tints might look okay but I still think I'd sooner see them plain old black and white.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Nothing on the Criterion packaging gives a clue as to the print source, and there's no special 'story of the restoration' extra... maybe it's mentioned somewhere in the content but it's been a while since I went through it all, and I don't recall.

My reading of it is that the tinting and the step-printing were entirely the UK distributor's ideas for jazzing up the movie, and had nothing to do with the filmmakers' intentions. Also that they were never actually implemented until the Englewood release.

What I didn't realise until I Googled was that there's a 'colorised' version of CoS out there as well. There are some comparison frame grabs here (which also serve to show the superiority of the Criterion image):

http://tinyurl.com/7kp8so

As a technical job it looks about as good as any (did you see the colourised Alistair Sim SCROOGE they showed over Christmas? The colour was like a badly deteriorated 16mm print from the 60s. And the argument that "you can always turn the colour off" holds no water -- all the edges were soft and the tonal range had been destroyed.)

But back to CoS -- it doesn't matter how good the colour might be. It's no longer the actual movie.

Caroline said...

Knowing my luck, my Stax version will probably be the colourised one!
;)

Todd Mason said...

No, Ellison's damnation of "Ted Turner and his electronic crayons" or words to that effect was all too apt. The worst among all the bad "colorizing" jobs I've seen was the travesty of THE SEVENTH VICTIM.

It's a pity no one noticed the obvious flaw in the last shots, unless someone wanted a little winking at the audience.

I tend to think of SPIDER BABY as being among the other no-budget wonders of the 1960s, but clearly neither NOTLD nor SB quite gets at the kind of personal desolation that COS portrays so well, particularly in the later, desperate boardinghouse scene and a few others.

Certainly the remakes, SIESTA and CARNIVAL OF SOULD the latter such as it was, don't touch it, even if Ellen Barkin was good in the former and Miles Davis on the soundtrack not his worst work, in fact some of his best from that decade.

Stan said...

I can't beleive this was posted up six months ago (time flies) but I eventually got around to taking a look at the Network copy of the film. Unfortunately, the quality really isn't great. The pictures are soft and have numerous faults and the audio is dreadful (muffled and badly out of sync). I stopped it after 20 minutes as it was ruining it for me. I think I may try to get a copy from Criterion (based on your comments).

On the Network edition viewing notes Kim Newman mentions your name and your 'impressive run of waterlogged novels including Down River and Rain' as being influenced by CoS - does he know this from something you've said in the past, or has he made an astute connection?

And congratulations on your American writing job - does this mean that any new novels are on the back-burner? I hope not as I'm sure somewhere you mentioned a proposed follow up to 'White Bizango'...

Stephen Gallagher said...

I get a namecheck in the commentary? Cool! Haven't had chance to catch up with it myself. The observation is one that Kim Newman made to me a few years ago... he pointed it out, and I immediately saw the connection although it had never been a conscious one for me.

Haven't dropped the novels. Though they do move at a different pace on a separate track, so some fairly long-distance planning is involved.