The original Carnival of Souls (1962) was a one-of-a-kind experience. Forged on a tiny budget in the middle of nowhere Kansas, it was undeniably crude. Yet the film by Herk Harvey was surreal and creepy too; a mesmerizing, unsettling journey into a disturbing, black-and-white netherworld.
In my review of the film, I wrote:
"Performances in Carnival of Souls are truly variable, from the exquisite and sublime (the entrancing Hilligoss) to the terrible (there's a moment when a stranger by a water fountain addresses the camera directly), but there's an alchemy at work in Carnival of Souls, one impossible to dismiss.
The film's production deficits somehow manage to play into the overriding sense of the unreal and dream-like. There are no zombie attacks, no fierce action sequences, no bouts of blood-letting here. Instead, the venture methodically and memorably (and with unforgettable imagery) charts one woman's tragic plight as she slips slowly - piece by piece - from the world of the living to the world of the dead. In that half-detected twilight between life and death, she begins to regret that she never embraced life as meaningfully as she should have. Because now, death's cold embrace - a dance partner in the carnival of souls - is all she can look forward to.
The 1960s Carnival of Souls had budgetary drawbacks but viewers could easily overlook them because the film nonetheless expressed something powerful and resonant about mortality. That abandoned Saltair Carnival was a realm of terror, and our heroine was never going to escape it; no matter how hard she tried. Ultimately, we're all going to have our dance card punched by Death too; and thus something rings true about the stark, mysterious film and the hopeless, inevitable air that dominates it.
The same could not be said for the dreadful 1998 remake. It stars Bobbie Phillips as Alex Grant, a young woman who witnessed the murder of her mother twenty years ago by an abusive clown, Louis Seagram (Larry Miller). On the anniversary of her Mom's murder, Alex is accosted by Louis once more, and she drives her car into the waters of a California harbor rather than let the sadist endanger her younger sister, Sandra (Shawnee Smith). Following the accident in the harbor, Alex begins to move throughout different stages of her life, is terrorized by Louis repeatedly, and even sees gesticulating, spasming demons straight out of Jacob's Ladder (1990).
Technically-speaking, Wes Craven Presents Carnival of Souls is a much less-accomplished effort than the original film, an odd fact given that the remake undoubtedly cost far more than Herk Harvey's groundbreaking original. In fact, this 1998 film is staged so ineptly that sometimes reverse angles don't even match. And the characters are so often shot in in close-up and medium-shot that you can't tell where characters are positioned in relationship to each other. One scene that features Louis popping up in the back-seat of Alex's car is so badly composed and edited that you aren't even sure that Miller and Phillips were in the same car at the same time to shoot the scene. Additionally, the movie is over-lit and blandly shot in a style that makes your average Sci-Fi Original Movies look like Fellini.
The newer Carnival of Souls also boasts all the tell-tale marks of bad 1990s screen-writing. In the original film, we met a character who happened to be in a car wreck, but the audience knew little about her background. As the movie went on, we learned she was a bit of a cold fish, and that she had held a job as a church organist. But we came to sympathize with her through her experiences; through the strange events occurring all around her. We identified with her because something strange and terrible was happening to her; and because, we felt, it could happen to us too.
By contrast, the 1998 film layers on facile psychology and off-the-shelf characters (in much the style as Rob Zombie's Halloween remake, actually...). Alex is a "psychologically damaged" character with "a tragic past" she must overcome. The events of the film take place on the anniversary of her Mother's murder...the event she could never get past. How many times have we seen that kind of predictable set-up before?
The Boogeyman of Carnival of Souls this time around has changed too. He is not some wide-eyed, pale-faced personification of Death, but rather Alex's "personal" demon: the groping, gruesome and utterly obvious Louis. The focus on the inner life -- on mortality itself -- has been turned outward to the simple defeat of a two-dimensional "bad guy" the audience can hiss at. Certainly, a good film could be made from these concepts, but this isn't it. These changes only make Carnival of Souls much more two-dimensional, much more run-of-the-mill than the original film.
The 1998 film is also slathered with dopey New Age, touchy-feely dialogue about death. Alex shares a discussion with a man who might be an angel. He tells her, "It's time to let go." She replies "I can't. I haven't lived yet." At another point, during a discussion of closing down her bar (The Mermaid Bar), Alex tells her sister "I'm not ready to go." Sandra replies "I know, but you're closer than you think." Welcome to Foreshadowing 101. But once more, the whole concept of the original film is undercut because death is now a safe harbor, a peaceful zone...not a realm of the unknown and the terrifying. I suppose this change has occurred so that the film can end with a kind of happy ending: our heroine has beaten the bad guy, "achieved" the rescue of her sister, and moved on to a "good place."
This movie should have been titled Horrorway to Heaven.
Really, I could go on and on about what a lousy film this is. There's a gratuitous sex scene on a boat that pops up out of nowhere with bizarre urgency but then leads nowhere. And the movie constantly skips time frames -- back and forth between scenes -- thus negating even the most rudimentary sense of narrative momentum (and precluding the need for that pesky thing called "continuity.")
And rather ungraciously, Wes Craven Presents Carnival of Souls even fails to credit the original 1962 film as a source of inspiration. There's no "based on" opening credit here, despite the fact that the overall outline of the film is the same as the original (a woman dies and doesn't know it...) and despite the fact that certain shots are explicitly re-staged (the car pulled from the water...). The IMDB lists John Clifford, the writer of the original Carnival of Souls in the credits for this film, but I watched this film yesterday and his name is nowhere on the front of the film. The opening credit reads: written for the screen and directed by Adam Grossman.
Bottom line: Wes Craven Presents Carnival of Souls is a bad remake, and an arrogant one too. It has the audacity to adopt the title of a beloved older film but then substitutes weak ideas for the powerful ones of the original. A remake of Carnival of Souls need not have been slavishly imitative of the original, but it could have captured at least some of the ambiguity, some of the terror, some of the spikiness of the 1962 effort. This remake fails on all fronts.
I'm a big admirer of Wes Craven, but I sure as hell wish his name didn't appear before the title of this travesty, the lousiest of horror remakes.
What were my other contenders for that title? Next in line: the remake of The Hitcher (2007), and Jan De Bont's The Haunting (1999).