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RiffTtrax: Carnival of Souls

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In the 1960s, there were dozens of regional filmmakers cranking out low-budget horror and sci-fi pictures, but while most of them were hoping to become the next Roger Corman or William Castle, Herk Harvey obviously had something more grand in mind. Kansas-based Harvey fancied himself an artist, and if his only feature, Carnival of Souls, is more than a bit pretentious, it's also strong and stylish enough to support his ambitions -- Carnival of Souls has a look and feel decidedly different than that of any horror movie of its time. Concerning itself with a woman caught in a spiritual netherworld between life and death, Carnival of Souls has a cool, slightly forbidding tone and a desolate beauty in its visual style that stands apart from most B-horror pics of the period (or A-horror pics, for that matter), and the icy emotional remove of leading lady Candace Hilligoss suggests a character out of Ingmar Bergman rather than the usual screaming damsel being chased by monsters who graced drive-in screens of the period. Harvey's years in industrial filmmaking certainly served him well while making Carnival of Souls, which looks surprisingly glossy and distinctive given its shoestring budget, and if some of the material seems just a shade overdone, more than enough of it hits the target (especially the slightly surreal dance of the ghouls, and Hilligoss' panicky final reel) to make one wish Harvey had been able to make a few more features before retreating back to movies about proper classroom etiquette. Carnival of Souls is that rare cult movie that truly deserves its reputation; while the film is available on home video from a number of sources thanks to its public domain status, the double-disc Criterion Collection DVD is certainly the best way to go, offering a pristine transfer that makes the most of the film's excellent camera work, and plenty of bonus features which tell you everything you might want to know about the making of Carnival of Souls, its locations, and the career of Herk Harvey. Mark Deming, All Movie Guide