Guest writer Bill Shaffer takes us back to Lawrence Kansas in 1989, for a cast and crew re-premiere of Carnival of Souls.
By Bill Shaffer
Note from Glenn Erickson: I think I first crossed emails with Bill Shaffer around 1998, when I was still the editor for MGM Home Video and just beginning to write MGM Video Savant. Bill sent along info that helped me convince the MGM restorers to include a flashback at the end of Duck You Sucker. Although I didn’t find out until much later, Bill was a producer at the PBS station KTWU in Topeka, Kansas, and had actually interviewed Eli Wallach once about The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Bill became a major source for info and connections when it came time to do the extras for the MGM releases of the Sergio Leone movie; all just to help out. I think the fact that I eventually obtained a signed photo from Clint Eastwood for Bill, gave him the notion that I had connections of my own. Later on, “Kansas” ran a yearly Godzilla Film Festival for the kids of Topeka, and in 2010 he invited me out to make a presentation about movie miniatures. Kansas Bill just retired after 40 years working for the one station (amazing), coincidentally almost the same week for Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Carnival of Souls. Topeka isn’t that far from Lawrence Kansas, where Carnival was filmed; and back in 1989 Bill took a cameraman to make a TV docu about the famous ‘local epic.’ The show, The Movie that Wouldn’t Die! was included on the first Criterion disc of Carnival and has been repeated on the new disc. I asked Bill to take time out from his retirement parties to write something about the experience.
Some Thoughts on Carnival of Souls:
I first heard of Carnival (that’s how its makers referred to it) in about 1973 while I was a student working on a Master’s Degree at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Some of my professors held it in high regard despite the fact it was considered a financial failure at the time. I wondered if getting to see the film might be a possibility, but apparently not, although I was told its creators still worked at Centron Films (the industrial/educational film studio in town). Fast forward about ten years to when I got a full explanation of the Carnival story in a well-illustrated, well researched article by Jeffrey Frentzen in the summer 1983 issue of Frederick S. Clark’s Cinefantastique magazine. If you’ve never seen it, this is the article that revived a lot of interest for this little film well before one could find a way to see it. Because of its late-night TV showings and murky copyright status, Carnival became an early pick-up for VHS tape release from numerous distributors. I didn’t see an in-store copy until 1988 or ’89.
In 1988 I asked about doing a short (10-minute) story on Carnival for our local Public TV station, and was very happy to be given a green light to proceed. I contacted director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford (both still living in Lawrence) and Clifford responded first. I went over to his house (about a 20-mile drive) and we watched a VHS tape of the movie. It was the longer Director’s Cut. I found there was something very unique about watching a film with one of its creators. John kept slipping in little remarks about the film — where that scene was shot, who else was involved in this scene and especially who dubbed this or that line. I asked him if he was in the movie somewhere and he said no. However, you can hear him. Clifford has one line. When Mary Henry stumbles out of the lake, an unseen rescuer says,“Why…it’s Mary Henry.”That’s John. It’s almost ironic that he says that line, pointing out the leading character and the person we will be spending the rest of the movie with.
He later showed me the script. It was very much ‘laid out’, but not overwritten. There was room for a lot of visuals and John gave full credit to Herk for putting in some amazing shots for a film that cost so little. In fact, during the interview Herk and John talked about that a lot — that the movie was cheap yet rich with so many creative ideas. They knew what they were after. Sometimes the acting seems a bit stiff, but that’s part of the movie’s charm. Herk and John were really trying to make something original, and they certainly succeeded. To what extent has always been a judgment call.
Star Candace Hilligoss hugs young fan James Shaffer 1989. →
All Photos © Copyright Bill Shaffer.
We shot their interview right next to the Kansas River. Not where the car went into the water in Carnival, but in Lawrence, close to their homes. They were two of the most jovial guys I’d ever met, delighted to give an interview, but pretty sure that this was the last one they would ever do about Carnival of Souls. “It’s dead and gone”, Herk would say. We talked at length about how they shot certain scenes, how they used actual locations around Lawrence in an effort to add production value and conceived of a musical score done entirely on the organ to save money. Some scenes in Salt Lake City were actually shot in Lawrence: the rooming house Mary stays in, the gas station she flees from, etc. Blu-ray viewers should find it even easier to spot signs that say Lawrence, Kansas on them.
That interview was done in 1988. Just over a year later, Herk was hosting a re-premiere for the film in downtown Lawrence. A little company called Panorama Entertainment had bought the rights to distribute it as a theatrical feature again. A little later, another company called Vid-America would handle its ‘official’ VHS tape release. Panorama wanted to provide some good promotion. They helped arrange the event and placed essays in prominent magazines and newspapers across the country. I recall supplying the Harvey/Clifford interview to Leonard Maltin for use on Entertainment Tonight. I also pitched the idea of doing an entire half-hour show on the movie’s revival for our PBS station and got the go-ahead. My friend and coworker Jim Kelly was only too happy to accompany me for many of the video shoots that followed.
Cast & Crew reunion for Carnival of Souls 1989 – (L to R) Sidney Berger (John Linden, the creepy neighbor), John Clifford (writer), Candace Hilligoss (Mary Henry), Stan Leavitt (the doctor), Art Ellison (the minister) and Herk Harvey (producer/director/head ghoul)During this re-premiere Herk appeared in costume as the ghoul, wearing his famous ghastly white face make-up. I have several great shots of Herk, including one of him menacing my son, who was twelve years old at the time and has actually liked the movie ever since. The entire cast was reunited and shared memories with the audience. Candace Hilligoss was the most surprising arrival. Still blonde, thin as a rail and quite attractive. She was also gracious, approachable and happy to talk with anyone about the film. She was also a center of attention in her striking red dress that singles her out in every photograph. Her paramour in the movie, Sidney Berger ((John Linden) was a delight as well. Having been a production assistant on the film, he had several stories of behind-the-scenes events that fit right in with the very independent nature of the picture.
At one point early in the evening, I followed Herk, Candace and Sidney out to the spooky boarding house used in the film (it was located at 6th and Louisiana streets). A photographer from People magazine had brought us there to get a shot of all three stars for a spread in an upcoming issue. I thought I might tape a shot or two, but it was much too dark by that time. The eerie shot he managed to get featured Herk and Sidney closing in on Candace (Herk from behind a tree, Sidney right beside her). In black-and-white, this shot was magic.
The weirdest memory for me came later when they began to run the movie at Liberty Hall in downtown Lawrence. I looked around and couldn’t see Herk. I asked John where he was. He chuckled wickedly and said, “He’s outside. He can’t stand to watch his film with an audience. He gets too nervous.” I checked outside and there he was — a ghoul in a suit pacing about, smoking a cigarette. I haven’t forgotten that image for decades.
Herk, John and I crossed paths quite often after that. Herk appeared at my Public Television studio KTWU in Topeka to do an introduction for the 1990 VHS-tape release of Carnival. We managed the taping in an afternoon. He suggested we light him from below and of course, it was perfect! Herk also drove over to Topeka later to sign autographs for a Carnival comic book which was released in 1991. The coordinator for that project was a young man from a Dallas-based TV station named Gordon K. Smith, who was equally helpful in getting the word out about the Carnival revival. In 1999, I returned to Lawrence to shoot a very short five-minute piece on the locations where Carnival was filmed — many of them are still there. This was included in Criterion’s first deluxe DVD release of Carnival in 2000.
John Clifford and I became close friends and attended several movies together over two decades in Lawrence. The subject of Carnival would often come up, but there were also stories of his moving to Hollywood to become a professional writer in the 1940’s and living at Ma Stanberry’s Home for Youth, a youth hostel for Hollywood wannabes that was once the home of silent film star and early drug victim, Wallace Reid. There were fascinating stories all the time. He kept a 35mm film print of Carnival in his basement for showings at area colleges and across the country. Herk died in 1996 and John died in 2010. I miss them both now and often find it hard to believe they were so easy to contact and talk to.
← Head ghoul Herk Harvey menaces young fan James Shaffer at Liberty hall in Lawrence, Kansas for Carnival of Souls re-premiere 1989.
I was amazed back then by all the activity surrounding that little film, Carnival of Souls. It continues to be seen and appreciated today, especially with the new Blu-ray. I can’t say that I feel the portions of the film that are now viewed as ‘extras’ from the Director’s Cut are not essential to the movie. There is one particular scene where Mary spots the ghoul for the first time standing in the middle of the highway at night. After seeing him again in the glass of her passenger window, she swerves her car off the road. There is a bit of a pause before she attempts to start the car. The engine stalls and there’s another pause. Finally, she gets it started and drives on. That little piece of suspense is essential for me.
Both Herk and John objected to the cuts that were made in the film by the ‘crooked’ distributor, Herts-Lion. They didn’t understand why they were necessary. Having grown up in movie theaters with my theater manager father in Hutchinson, Kansas, I knew a lot about shipping large format 35mm movie films from place to place. The weight of the canisters and how a shorter film could all fit in a single four-reel metal case as opposed to a five-reel film that would have to be shipped in two cases was semi-common knowledge. I later mentioned to Herk that an 83-minute film at the time would require five reels. Trimming the feature film to 76 minutes would only require four reels (one case). How much cheaper would it be to ship? I know it sounds silly now, but I’m pretty sure a penny-pinching distributor would agree there’s a cost savings in there somewhere. — Bill Shaffer
July 3, 2016
THE MOVIE THAT WOULDN’T DIE
Text © Copyright 2016 Bill Shaffer
Savant Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson