“Carnival of Souls” was a low-budget horror film from 1962 that developed a cult following and influenced other directors in the genre. Since it was so well-regarded, the only reasonable thing to do was to produce a terrible in-name-only remake, thus reminding people how good the original was.
The remake came along in 1998, and it was officially titled “Wes Craven Presents: Carnival of Souls.” As you know, Wes Craven’s name on a movie is a guarantee of one thing: Somebody asked Wes Craven if they could put his name on a movie. That was definitely the case here.
We begin with a lovely 11-year-old girl named Alex carrying a basket of flowers home to her mother, only to find that Mom is being slapped around by her boyfriend, Louis (Larry Miller), an off-duty carnival clown. (The movie doesn’t tell us until later that Louis works in the clown industry, but I feel a duty to announce it immediately. I have stricter “obligation to report” standards than the movie does when it comes to clowns.) As Alex looks on in what the blank-faced young actress mistakenly believes is “horror,” Louis becomes sexually aggressive, too, finally prompting Alex to say, “Please don’t hurt my mommy.” So what does Louis do? He snaps her mother’s neck — exactly the opposite of what she asked! Louis is a jerk.
We jump ahead 15 years or so. Alex is now a grown woman, played by Bobbie Phillips, who was in “Showgirls,” which gives you some idea of the caliber of acting we’re dealing with here, i.e., no caliber. After visiting her mother’s grave one day, Alex is alarmed to find Louis in the backseat of her car! That is definitely not where she left him. Louis sticks a gun in her mouth and paws at her bosoms and makes lewd comments about how much she has “grown up,” and just generally behaves in an icky, Sheen-like fashion. Though it’s unpleasant, we’re at least intrigued to see the killer from Alex’s past reappear so early in the movie. Usually that sort of “surprise” gets dragged out forever. Kudos, movie, on being original!
Oh, but wait, it turns out Alex is safe at home and this whole sequence was a dream. An eight-minute dream. Which started four minutes into the film. The movie is only 12 minutes old, and the bulk of that was spent tricking and manipulating us. Kudos rescinded, movie. Instead, screw you. Screw you right to hell.
So the deal is that grown-up Alex and her sister, Sandra (Shawnee Smith), own a rustic old dockside tavern called the Mermaid Inn, located on what appears to be the California coast. (The original “Carnival of Souls” was set in Utah, which is much creepier, believe me.) Alex is plagued by nightmares such as the one we just wasted eight minutes watching, in which her mother’s killer returns to pester her. Sandra seems fine, though. Sandra got over Mom’s violent death years ago. What’s YOUR problem, Alex??
Having established the basic scenario, the film treats us to “a day in the life” of Alex. There’s a plumbing leak in the basement of the inn, so she goes to rent a pump. Then she stops by the carwash. This is a horror movie about a woman running errands — only it’s even more boring than it sounds, because Bobbie Phillips has but a single facial expression and recites her dialogue like a text-to-speech application from a late-’90s Macintosh. It’s like we’re driving around town with a particularly uncharismatic bucket of white paint.
While she’s at the carwash, Alex has another hallucination. She imagines that the carwash guy has turned into a devil with a long tongue. It is scary (to her). For us, it’s hard to get invested in the story when we know anything remotely interesting will turn out to be imaginary. Also, it becomes apparent that this is going to be one of those movies where the ONLY thing that happens for the first hour is the heroine being afraid of things that aren’t there.
We get a reprieve from this relentless tedium in the form of flashbacks to Alex and Sandra’s youth, to the night they met Louis selling balloons at a carnival. All clowns are pernicious, cloven-hoofed demons from the underworld, of course, but Louis looks particularly unsuited for human society, with a Vincent Price greasepaint mustache, a blond pageboy haircut, and white mime makeup that only covers his eyelid and eyebrow area. You wouldn’t buy a balloon from him if you saw him, you would douse him with holy water and run for your life.
Nonetheless, the girls talk to him, and so does their mother, who is for some reason charmed by him. “Where’s Daddy tonight?” Louis asks the girls, to which Sandra responds, “Daddy’s where the balloons fly,” presumably to indicate he is dead and in heaven, though maybe she means he’s caught in some power lines. Louis asks the girls’ mom on a date, she readily accepts, they become a serious item, and then at some point he kills her, as mentioned. Far be it from me to blame the victim here, but when you enter into a relationship with a clown you met at a carnival, there is a 92 percent chance you will be murdered.
The odds get even higher when the relationship takes place in a movie that enjoys tormenting women as much as this one does. The opening scene, with the near-rape and neck-snapping, leads directly into the one where grown-up Alex dreams she’s molested in the car by the gun-toting ex-clown. All of this is followed by scene after scene of men leering, pawing, waggling their eyebrows, and making innuendo-laden remarks to Alex and Sandra, even in situations that do not call for it.
For example, Alex wants to know if Louis is still in prison for killing her mother, so she approaches a regular at the bar who’s a retired detective. “How would you like to drink for free tonight?” she says, in a manner suggesting businesslike professionalism. “Sounds like you need a favor,” he replies lasciviously, in a manner indicating he hopes the favor will involve sitting on his face. And everybody talks like that! After a while you start to suspect the movie just doesn’t know how actual decent people talk, like the screenwriter grew up in a brothel or something.
Anyway, the detective delivers bad news, which is that Louis is out of prison, followed by good news, which is that Louis is dead. So Alex has nothing to worry about. You know what that means: more hallucinations! When you’re making a horror film, you can never go wrong filling it with material that is frightening to the protagonist and no one else.
If you’ve seen the original “Carnival of Souls,” you know how the remake ends; it’s the only thing they have in common. In the meantime, a great number of nonsensical things occur, many of them only in Alex’s head, some of them in real life, and too many of them involving visions of Louis, who has a lot of screen time for someone who is supposed to be dead. He’s played by Larry Miller, a comic actor who’s been in dozens of movies, notably “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,” in which he plays a college dean who gets raped by a 12-foot hamster. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, “Carnival of Souls” is the 12-foot hamster of horror remakes.