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Carnival Of Souls (DVD)

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In 1962, Carnival Of Souls came and went with little notice, playing the drive-in circuit to the usual audiences before fading into obscurity. The sole feature film of writer John Clifford and director Harold "Herk" Harvey, Carnival stayed lost only temporarily, its frequent late-night television screenings allowing it to amass a cult following that's only grown over the years. Made for $30,000 during a three-week break from the Centron Corporation, a Kansas company that produced countless educational and industrial films from the '40s through the '70s, Carnival has all the clunkiness expected of a prohibitively low-budget first effort and a greasepaint ghoul (played by Harvey) that wouldn't pass muster at a state-fair spook house. So why has it survived? For one thing, despite readily apparent flaws, it's an effective, deeply unsettling film that looks and feels like virtually nothing else. Harvey and Clifford had their eye on the arthouse as much as the drive-in, aiming for, in Clifford's words, "the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau." The weird thing is how close they came. Candace Hilligoss stars as a young organist who, after a drag-racing accident, sets off for another town. There, she finds herself haunted by a mysterious, white-faced figure and strangely drawn to a palace-like amusement park (in actuality the long-abandoned Salt Lake attraction Saltair, a Mormon favorite at the turn of the century). Harvey achieves beautifully stark black-and-white cinematography courtesy of coworker Maurice Prather and an eye for composition not readily apparent in such Centron efforts as Signals: Read 'Em Or Weep and To Touch A Child (both excerpted on this DVD reissue). A sequence about halfway through the film provides its finest moment: While shopping at a department store, Hilligoss suddenly finds herself ignored by everyone around her, all of whom move in silence, like phantoms. The scene is worthy of, if not Cocteau and Bergman, the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. Throughout the film, Harvey makes the familiar foreign and the mundane threatening, and in the sequences set at the already-bizarre Saltair—a gaudy fake castle on a desert lake—he achieves the first, and probably only, example of Great Plains Expressionism. Someone should have pointed out that ghouls don't look particularly scary when they run together like an undead cross-country team, or that cutting freely between day and night looks more silly than surreal. But it's a singular, engaging film that deserves the deluxe treatment it receives here. Presented over the course of two discs, this DVD set presents the familiar theatrical version and the expanded director's cut of Carnival (both look great), a couple of documentaries, printed interviews, outtakes, and sporadic audio commentary by Harvey (who died in 1996) and Clifford, both of whom sound somewhat amused at their sole foray into feature filmmaking. An unacknowledged antecedent of The Sixth Sense and others, a fine example of low-budget artistry, a creepy horror film, a bizarre and dreamlike death fable, and a true original, Carnival Of Souls thoroughly deserves its unexpected immortality.