Saturday, October 15, 2011

Carnival of Souls (1962 / 1998)

Keep your hands and arms in at all times.

"Step right up!"
Perhaps I should start this article with a warning: both of these films are available through Netflix for instant viewing. Subscribers to the service will understand what that means.

Not that the original 1962 film is all that bad for an independent B-film. The story-line is a bit confusing, but it is well acted, tightly paced, and visually appealing.  According to my research, the film enjoys a bit of a cult status because, like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the copyright was left off of the final print, sending it instantly into the public domain, thus freeing it for decades of late-night television viewing.

I wish I could say such nice things about the 1998 remake, but not even tacking "Wes Craven presents" onto the title could raise this flop. The acting is stilted, the directing is bland, and the script treatment would make "Lifetime presents" a more appropriate billing header.

The original Carnival of Souls stars the little-know Candice Hilligoss (IMDb lists only one other film role) as Mary Henry, a young woman who mysteriously survives a crash where her car drove into a river. Mary is a professional organist, and talented, but her demeanor is cold and aloof. It is suggested that this is different from the way she behaved before her accident.

Moody, artsy, intriguing.
Mary takes a job at a church in Salt Lake City. Once there, she finds herself haunted by the appearance of ghoulish apparitions. She experiences spells where no one seems able to see or hear her—or is she dreaming? She becomes obsessed with an abandoned carnival pavilion outside of town. When practicing the organ, Mary slips into a trance where she sees visions of ghostly dancers at the pavilion, all the while playing a haunting, discordant melody.

In the end, Mary returns to the pavilion which has drawn her since her arrival. The ghouls are there, and they pursue her. The next day a single set of foot prints are found in the sand leading away from the pavilion, ending abruptly in the middle of the beach. Back at the river, the car is being towed out—with Mary’s body inside.

The ending is a bit of a rug-puller, the twist isn’t logically foreshadowed and the fact that Mary was dead the whole time raises a lot of unanswerable questions.

None of this is to say that the film's cult status isn’t entirely deserved. The real star of the film is the stylish directing by Herk Harvey. Visually, Carnival is two films. One is sparse and ordinary, the other is stylish and moody. For the most part, the switches occur in sync with what is going on in the film, though at times it seems a bit haphazard. In a couple of important scenes, Harvey makes beautiful use of a pipe organ as a subject for the camera. The other star of the film is the score performed appropriately on organ. Its eerie sounds and haunting melodies heighten the mood of the film. Even if the script is a bit puzzling, the cinematic qualities of the film do make it noteworthy.

But if the original film was confusing, the remake just feels like a rip-off. In spite of being a remake, the newer film bears little resemblance to the original aside from the reveal at the end.

Honestly, the remake is so bad, I can’t even bear to write a full synopsis. All you really need to know is that as a child, Alex Grant witnessed a carnival clown rape and murder her mother. Yes, you read that right: clown rape.  As an adult, Alex (Bobbie Phillips) is haunted by visions of the killer. Oh, and if there was a lack of carnival in the original, the remake more than makes up for that.

Pennywise called. He
wants his balloons back.
A major problem comes from the fact that the film’s villain, played by Larry Miller, logs in a better performance than the heroine. I’m not sure what Miller could be considered most recognized for, but he is an instantly recognizable character actor with a fair body work behind him. As for Phillips, let’s just say that her work is not the body she is most recognized for.

Worse than that, the new Carnival seems to be trying to capture the essence of creepy clowns a la Stephen King’s IT, but it fails miserably. Personally, I draw the line at faceless monsters that have nothing to do with story in any way conceivable. That is apparently where I part ways with the producers.

I wish I could say that the new Carnival has one saving grace, but even where it should, it doesn’t. In the original, the reveal at the end is a head-scratcher. In the new one, the end is unambiguous, but it makes you feel like you wasted 90 minutes of your life. Here, Alex has clearly died at the beginning, and the whole film was her prolonged dying hallucination. As was popularly said in the late 90’s, “been there, done that.”


  1. tryanmax, Nice breakdown. Some comments.

    First, clown rape... the worst kind of rape.

    Seriously though, why is it that when they remake old films the first thing they always do is add sex? It really tells us something about Hollywood.

    But beyond that, I know exactly what you mean about this type of remake -- I've run into these a lot where someone supposedly remakes a film, but does little more than strip the title or a character or a brief moment and then fills the rest of the film with pointless garbage unrelated to anything. I suspect the idea is just to pull in a pre-existing audience rather than actually remake a movie.

    The big budget Starsky and Hutch did that. If you never said the characters' names, no one would know that the film was supposedly a remake of that show -- it's just a very stupid cop show with only hints of the original in it.

  2. I plan to venture into the realm of adaptations and treatments at some point, but I've got plenty of films on my "to do" list to keep me busy for awhile. I never saw Starsky and Hutch as a TV show, but I figured it had little in common with the movie judging by the cast list alone.

    The only thing that I think is worse than doing a completely unrelated adaptation of a TV show is doing a film that is little more than an extended episode. A movie is supposed to be big and glamorous. I may be familiar with the characters already, but I want to be blown away. I want to relive the "Wow!" factor that made me a fan of the show in the first place.

  3. tryanmax, I watched Starsky and Hutch a little as a kid though it wasn't a favorite or anything like that. But when I saw the film adaptation I was stunned. Other than the character names and the car, there is nothing to tell you this was an adaptation.

    In fact, I would guess that Stiller wrote a generic cop film that turned out with a weak script and little marketability. So someone came up with the idea of calling it S&H as a marketing idea. So they changed the character names, gave them the car, and then filmed the exact same script that was originally some other movie like "Buddy Cop Parody No. 5". I kid you not, I really believe that's likely what happened because there is literally nothing about the characters or the story or anything else that relates to the original.