- Year: 1998
- Director: Adam Grossman & Ian Kessner
- Starring: Bobbie Phillips, Larry Miller, Shawneee Smith
I’m finishing up my series on horror remakes with a remake of one of the biggest cult classics of them all. In 1962, with just a budget of $33,000, Herk Harvey wrote, produced and directed Carnival of Souls, a psychological horror film about a traumatized woman who sees visions and feels oddly attracted to a local carnival.
With unknown actors (many of them locals), no budget, and a first-time filmmaker, it has all the elements to be so-bad-it’s good in the vein of Troll 2 or Robot Monster. However, against all odds, it’s so good-it’s-good. It doesn’t rely on special effects like so many disastrous low budget films, and the lead performance by Candace Hilligloss is fantastic. The other performances are undeniably hit-or-miss, but even some of the bad ones just add to the overall weirdness factor.
The 1962 film starts with Mary Henry (Hilligloss) walking away from a car accident where two of her friends die, but the end shows her dead body in the car with them.
Whether she was dead all along and the whole film was her dying dream, or she somehow slipped out of The Grim Reaper’s clutches for a while is left ambiguous. Regardless, it’s a fascinating film, and the ambiguity adds to it rather than hurts it. The remake is very loosely inspired by the original, but it really runs with the “dead all along from a car accident” thing.
I need to offer up a warning to anyone reading this and especially to anyone thinking of watching this film. In less than 90 minutes, the 1998 remake of Carnival of Souls contains two scenes of rape, one scene of attempted rape, and another of implied child molestation (It cuts away.). The original film features absolutely none of this save for a creepy neighbor. There are plenty of films that deal with themes like this in a nuanced and even poignant way without being exploitative. This is not one of those films.
The film starts with young Alex Grant witnessing the rape and murder of her mother at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend Louis Seagram (Larry Miller). Twenty years later, Louis is released from prison and holds Alex at gunpoint, forcing her to drive to an abandoned carnival so he can murder her, planning to attack her sister next. I will admit that Louis popping up in her car is an interesting twist on the original. In the original film, Mary kept seeing visions of a creepy man, often in her car. Fans of the original are probably expecting that again here, so knowing that this is actually Louis mixes it up a bit.
However, Alex drives the car off the pier in an attempt to kill both herself and Louis. She then wakes up, leaving us to wonder if this was a dream or something one or both of them lived through. There are long dream sequences, other ambiguous situations that feel like dreams, and a whole lot of confusion as to what’s real and what’s not.
Like in the original, the ending reveals that Alex’s body is in the wrecked car, thankfully along with Louis’s.
I know dream sequences are cliched, but there is a way to do this sort of thing and make it work. The original Carnival of Souls did this to a lesser extent, and it worked very effectively. However, there’s another film that this remake resembles as much if not more than the original Carnival of Souls, and that’s the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. Unlike the film I’m reviewing today, I highly recommend seeking out Jacob’s Ladder, a weird psychological thrill ride with incredibly memorable performances and imagery. At the end (spoiler), it’s revealed that Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) died in Vietnam after an experimental drug was tested on his unit, and the entire film (including the future he imagined for himself) has been his dying dream.
It full-on embraces the weirdness factor, and it’s very effective. Carnival of Souls, despite being about a literal carnival, never gets weird enough.
Recapping the plot would be pointless, because it happens out of sequence and everything is ambiguous, but I’ll do a quick rundown. Twenty years after her mother’s death, and after she believes she has killed Louis, Alex Graham (Bobbie Phillips) and her sister Sandra (Shawnee Smith) run a bar across the water from the abandoned carnival where her mother met Louis.
Sure, the original film was about running away and starting a new life, but whatever. Alex begins to suspect that Louis is trying to weasel his way back into her life, but everyone else thinks she’s just going crazy. Meanwhile, the mysterious carnival across the water is beginning to open up again. On these grounds, she meets Michael, a wooden board played to perfection by Paul Johansson.
There’s a weird tension between them, but it’s not really sexual, as SEE IF YOU CAN GUESS WHAT THE CHARACTER CALLED MICHAEL WHO ROWS A BOAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE. ISN’T IT SUBTLE? They think they’re so clever with a good character named Michael and an evil character named Louis, but none of the other characters have biblical names, so it doesn’t really land. You know who else did this? Jacob’s Ladder! The only difference in that one was that every main character had a biblical name.
The Michael character also makes no sense, because the weird tension (again, not really sexual) leads to them having sex. He’s clearly made himself out to be an angel who doesn’t indulge in human vices (refusing alcohol at one point), so why do they have sex? As it goes on, it’s revealed that Alex is being raped by Louis. While I suppose you could argue that the opening scene adds something to the overall narrative, this adds absolutely nothing except a cheap scare. Hey, here’s an idea. Don’t use rape as a cheap jump scare.
Also, was Michael the same character as Louis the whole time? I’m not even sure what they’re trying to imply here? Is it all a dream here too? Who cares at this point? This movie is terrible.
I understand that Carnival of Souls is trying to be about facing your demons from a traumatic past. Fine. There are plenty of movies that do that well. The backstory here just doesn’t work. Alex and Sandra were raised by a single mother who apparently fell for a clown at a carnival, despite the fact that he is dressed like Raggedy Ann Richard Karn.
Then, sometime later, she leaves her daughter alone with creepy clown man. The mother is barely on screen, but she is not a believable character.
Despite a private investigator showing Alex that Louis is dead (in photos later revealed to be from her car crash)…
He doesn’t leave her alone, and she decides to go to the carnival. She enters an attraction that turns out to be her childhood bedroom, where Louis again tries to rape her, but this time she fires a gun and kills him. Then, she’s back in the car drowning, followed by a cut to her driving off the pier, killing them both.
I could say more about it, but why? This film is simultaneously repulsive and pointless. It doesn’t serve any purpose as a remake, and it’s cheap and exploitative. What is Wes Craven’s name doing above the title? Watch the original. Watch it twice if you want. Don’t watch this garbage.
No one really adds anything here. Larry Miller doesn’t play the role seriously enough for it to work, but to be fair, no one has anything to work with. Some of the acting in the original was weird, but it kind of worked there. This is just bland.
It takes a weird, psychological story and turns it into a rip-off of Jacob’s Ladder that isn’t very good.
If they wanted the movie to be more about the carnival, they should have made it weirder and more disorienting. The carnival in the original isn’t even open, and it is way more effective.
The worst remake I’ve watched this year by far, and there have been some bad ones. There is nothing redeeming about this film.