Carnival of Souls (1998): Grossman’s Ladder

Matty reflects upon the brief horror career of writer/director Adam Grossman and pays particularly close attention to his hugely underappreciated, Wes Craven-presented remake.

It’s a damn shame that Adam Grossman didn’t direct more horror movies. A talented craftsman with a flair for ghoulish fun and a sharp eye for disquieting incidentals, Grossman helmed only two straight-to-video shockers before setting up Good Boy Media — a digital production company specialising in advertising, editorial, and branded content.

Grossman’s debut feature, Sometimes They Come Back… Again (1996), is a treat. Sitting alongside Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995) and The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999) as one of the best sequels extrapolated from the work of Stephen King, Sometimes They Come Back… Again captures the author’s spirit and evokes his prototypical themes of childhood, nostalgia, and dormant evil better than a lot of the so-called ‘legitimate’ adaptations do. And despite the kicking it received upon release, with genre bible Fangoria describing it as “the worst horror movie of the year” and “a stain upon a classic”, Grossman’s second and final directorial venture, the 1998 CARNIVAL OF SOULS remake, is a neat psychological frightener deserving of more than the ignominy it’s currently saddled with. 

A film that deals with the deep-rooted effects of trauma, Grossman’s robust if slightly predictable overhaul might seem a touch passé by modern standards now that the whole ‘facing your demons before you can find peace in the afterlife’ thing has been done to death, but it’s a fine example of how to do such explicitly Jacob’s Ladder (1991)-inspired material correctly — though I’d argue that itself is a double reference of sorts. After all, what is Jacob’s Ladder if not a riff on the ideas that the original Carnival of Souls was exploring in the first place?

Initially intended as a sequel to Herk Harvey’s 1962 hair-raiser, Carnival of Souls was twisted into a loose, concept-grabbing reboot by producers Trimark Pictures during the development process. Trimark then paid the mighty Wes Craven a hefty chunk of change to brand the film a ‘Wes Craven Presents’ title, the shingle wanting to cash in on the terror titan’s cachet post the box office success of Scream (1996) and hoping to fool unsuspecting renters into thinking that their new Carnival of Souls was vaguely Elm Street-esque thanks to some Krueger-tinged key art.

The leap from Freddy to Carnival of Souls’ antagonist isn’t too big a stretch, mind. A paedophile, dream-invading bogeyman with a penchant for dark, smart-arsed wisecracks, Louis Seagram is closer to the Springwood Slasher than the mute, white-faced ghoul tormenting Candace Hilligoss in Harvey’s classic creeper (a fiend that was, of course, portrayed by Harvey himself). There’s even a strange parallel to Freddy and Seagram’s against-type casting: prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Robert Englund was best known for playing a kindly alien in TV miniseries V. Larry Miller, meanwhile, is a comedy icon and his terrifying performance in Carnival of Souls is a world away from the hilarious supporting parts that typifies the rest of his CV. 

A bravura turn, Miller is flesh-crawling as the Gacy-shaded boardwalk clown-cum-supernatural menace that haunts Carnival of Souls’ leading lady, Alex (Bobbie Phillips). Embodying the auteurist flourishes of Grossman’s screenplay — which, like Sometimes They Come Back… Again, swirl around childhood, remembrance, and festering malevolence — Miller sinks his teeth into Seagram’s nuances as much as he does the unashamedly wackier bits. The artfully judged flashbacks surrounding Seagram’s molestation of Alex as a young girl are bone-freezing, Miller rendering something as relatively innocuous as a smile or the closing of a bedroom door seat-shiftingly uncomfortable. Further dark drama is provided by Phillips, whose convincingly perturbed reactions to Miller’s sinister tomfoolery — both the quiet stuff and his louder, IT (1990)-aping antics — paint a vivid picture of a woman forever trapped in a horrific moment in time. 

Tech-wise, it’s this notion that informs Grossman’s visual approach. Imbuing Carnival of Souls with a quality akin to that of a child’s nightmare, Grossman makes excellent use of bright colours and exaggerated production design (think Bob Balaban’s Parents (1989)), further suggesting that Alex’s inevitable fate was sealed the second Seagram entered her life as a child. Grossman also unleashes a tireless barrage of circus imagery. Ranging from the obvious to subtle background details and simulacra, his savvy exploitation of a common phobia is infinitely scarier than a lot of the reshoot footage mandated by Trimark in order to beef up Carnival of Souls’ jolt quotient. However, that isn’t to say any of the additional footage cut into Carnival of Souls is bad, and nor does the film come across a victim of studio interference. It’s just that the cattle prod-y style of the additions are a little jarring compared to the character-based and situational shudders conjured by Grossman. 

Interestingly, the reshoots were overseen by fright-meister Anthony Hickox. Having supplied Wild Street Pictures with a similar service a few years earlier on their ace, proto Event Horizon (1997) chiller The Dark Side of the Moon (1990), and having struck a solid working relationship with Trimark via Warlock: The Armageddon (1993) and neo noir flick Payback (1995), Hickox was recruited by Trimark to shepherd five extra scenes for Carnival of Souls and re-shape Grossman’s ending, bagging himself a co-executive producer credit for his troubles.
“Trimark wanted more scares and they wanted more demons,” Hickox once told me. “So what did they do? They contacted the scary guy with the demons [laughs]. I just copied Jacob’s Ladder for their Bacon/Bosch design, and did the Alice in Wonderland-type scene at the end.”

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