I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I use to watch this movie back when I was a kid and I remember the day that I went into Hollywood Video and saw the box cover in all it’s frightening glory. This was yet another case where I based the movie solely on what I saw on the box cover: the creepy silhouette of a clown that was mostly in shadow save for his demonic eye makeup. The ghostly carnival behind him that seemed like hell and the colorful balloons that had images of twisted demons and people in pain. All of it was enough to make me grab the VHS as much as I could, but I always wondered why I was the only one who seemed to rent it out. At the time, I didn’t know it was a remake and I also thought that Wes Craven directed it since it said, “Wes Craven Presents,” so naturally I thought it would be a great movie. From a child’s standpoint, it’s scary… very scary but from a more mature standpoint… well we’ll get to that soon.
Taking out the fact that this is a remake, the movie follows a young bartender named Alex Grant who, as a little girl, saw her mother raped and murdered by Louis Seagram who works as a clown for the local carnival. Emotionally and mentally scarred by this incident, she tries to live a normal life in the town she grew up in but she is constantly reminded of the terrible afternoon when it all happened. As the movie progresses she keeps having apparitions of these deformed monsters harassing her, and soon she begins seeing Louis everywhere even when the police tell her that he’s dead. It all boils down to that fateful night when she first met him at the carnival. Perhaps the only way that she could save her sanity is by going back to the carnival and confronting her demons once and for all.
There were several scenes that scared me and several scenes that would later influence me into becoming a filmmaker. Specifically, the scene that always stood out to me, more than any of the others, was the car wash sequence. It was probably the best scene because it really put you in this nightmarish world and I remember fighting with my mom every time we would go into a car wash, mainly because I didn’t want demons jumping out at me. To describe the scene wouldn’t nearly be as effective if you see it but I’ll try and do my best: as the car enters the car wash we are immediately bombarded with streams and jets of water, that in its own right is pretty creepy, then bright flashes begin to appear all around you and you begin to hear thunder as though you are driving through a storm. People pop out of random to wash your car but they have these faces of anger and sadism in their eyes, soon, you begin hearing these screeches and before you could even find out where they’re coming from some demon with a twisted, mangled face lunges at you. It was frightening for me to see this and I begin to develop a slight fear of car washes.
While on the topic of creatures, I love the creature design in this movie. I remember getting so freaked out by the way they look and they way they jump out at you, that I wanted to know everything about them. I wanted to know how they looked, how they were made and what the name of the effect is where you speed up footage of somebody shaking their head. This would serve as a catalyst for me to inevitably get into the movie making business. My research led me to a movie called Jacob’s Ladder because somebody stated that Carnival of Souls was a rip-off of Jacob’s Ladder. So, I thought Jacob’s Ladder was the original movie that had the “shaky-head ghosts.” Little did I know that the person was talking about the storyline and not the creature effects. But, that scene where all the creatures were sitting around the table staring at you will forever be burned into my brain. I can’t tell you how many times I would pause the tape on that moment and stare at that image, just trying to absorb their image. Honestly, I can go on and on about all the different memories I have attached to this film but I figure you want to know what I think about the movie now.
It’s obvious that I loved this movie as a kid but how does it fare up to now? Honestly, it’s not bad but it’s far from good and that’s if I stretch it out. Let me elaborate on the good things about the film. First off, the production design, though small as it was, was really surreal and very dream like. I’m not just talking about the car wash scene but the scene when Alex is walking through the carnival; there are just subtle visuals that give the carnival this ghostly surreal feel. Take for example, when Alex is walking down the row of carnival games and everybody keeps looking at her as she walks buy, if you look closely their faces are all pale and dead. More specifically, the scene where Alex finally confronts Louis has that nightmarish carnival quality to it and I’m talking about the over-sized bed and the melting clown in the background. I have to hand it to the production for making a really well made movie and the acting isn’t too bad either. It’s certainly not Oscar worthy but it’s better than most horror remakes and the overall tone of the movie wasn’t “glossy,” for lack of a better term.
There is only one problem and that problem affects the entire the entire movie and makes it almost impossible to get through. The story keeps jumping around, first you are in the dream-world (nod to Nightmare on Elm Street), then you’re back into reality, but then reality becomes the dream, then you wake up into realty 2, but that also becomes a dream so you’re constantly trying to figure out where you are in the film. This one problem distracts me from the entire plot and makes it a chore to get through. This was a problem that Jacob’s Ladder and the original Carnival of Souls didn’t have. The original had a set mood, a creepy mood might I add, that didn’t bounce back and forth but rather showed you the progression of this woman’s insanity. Jacob’s Ladder bounced back and forth but because the entire movie was set in the reality, the “dreams” acted as hallucinations and you excepted that Jacob was descending to hell. The end of this remake leaves you left puzzled and angry because all the buildup and all the confusion didn’t pay off. That was a huge problem.
I expected this movie to be awful. I expected to turn it off within the first 10 minutes but I was pleasantly surprised that visually the film is nice but as far as writing goes… that’s another story. It’s not the amazing movie I grew up with and I’ll probably never see it again (at least not for a long time) but I enjoyed watching it for nostalgic reasons. It brought back memories of me anxiously waiting to get home to pop this sucker into the VHS player and watch it all night. It reminded me of being a kid again and even though, to most people, the film is absolute shit it made me smile at times. I don’t think many people are aware that there is a remake of Carnival of Souls, let alone knowing that a movie called Carnival of Souls existed back in the 60’s but perhaps it’s better that way. Perhaps its obscurity would give it cult movie status and maybe that’s the only way people would like it. As for me, I’m just glad I got to revisit the demons of my childhood and I feel as though I should follow this up with Jacob’s Ladder since that was also a childhood favorite. So until then, here’s to you my “shaky headed demons” from the deepest pit of my childhood: