American Horror Project Volume 1 (Dual Format DVD & Blu-Ray)
Out Now from Arrow Video
This week, I had the privilege of reviewing a box set of three Blu-Ray movies, released by connoisseurs of forgotten horror Arrow Video; the brainchild of the fantastic American Horror Project, who aim to bring attention to the lesser known treasures of the American horror genre. This, Volume I, is the first instalment in what I truly hope will be a long-living series. Although I have a damn good time with Dead Teenager Movies, monster and slasher movies, I really love an artistically communicated horror which performs on a wavelength independent of overindulgent gore.
This is the wavelength that American Horror Project seems to be on: here we have three broody and visually explosive films which subscribe to classic chapters of filmmaking, such as neo-noir and surrealism.
American Horror Project identifies these three movies as worthy of further scrutiny, and I encourage real, versatile horror fans everywhere to admire these artistic works, and support the cause of the AHP.
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
Director: Christopher Speeth
Starring: Janine Carazo, Jerome Dempsey, Daniel Dietrich, Lenny Baker
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is an interesting work: were a film student to be awarded a big enough budget, and happened to choose old-fashioned 35mm film camera, this might be the result. There is a good deal of experimentation and homage to classic directors’ work, and a surprising amount of screen time and attention is given to the more ‘artistic’ sequences. And as a feature movie, a number of things stand out about it.
Let us take the classic story arc, and number it for convenience’s sake. At the first stem of the arc, Part One, we have the introduction of a setting and characters and a particular situation. The bow of the arc, Part Two, throws some conflict or dilemma in the works, which is concluded in some way or other at the final stem of the arc, Part Three. Well Carnival of Blood kicks straight in at Part Two, with absolutely no Part One. It plonks us at the top of a figurative mountain and gives us a push. We are forced to pick up on situational information to know who and what and when (why is the more evasive part), but then I appreciate a movie that doesn’t take its audience for a fool and spoon feed the important parts.
Basically, there is a carnival, with big wooden rollercoaster and all the other bits and bobs you’d expect, and it is run by one Mr Blood (there’s an original villain name for you) and the dastardly Malatesta, who is a modern spin on Gaston Laroux’s Phantom and watches silent Lon Chaney movies. The Norris family park their trailer in the dump of a carnival and get work there, while secretly searching for their missing son, who disappeared there. Thing is, the fellas in charge are definitely up to something, and we know this because for every action and dialogue sequence, there is a surrealist sequence of similar length. The movie feels about 50% traditional, 50% surrealist.
This said, it is a very primary form of surrealism.
This is one of the reasons why it feels student-y: it is a less polished, would-be Dali or Brunuel work. Writer Liepolt and director Speeth obviously looked to the works of such auteurs when they conceived their movie. I would say because of its non-traditional narrative and quasi-surrealist style, it is an acquired taste. I enjoyed it: the setting is great, the murders are cool enough, and the guys bloody tried. Many a roll of celluloid hath been wasted on methodless, gratuitous crap over the years, but at least the Carnival of Blood crew gave it a damn good crack, and put some thought and technique into their work. A+ for effort.
The Premonition (1976)
Director: Robert Allan Schnitzer
Starring: Sharon Farrell, Richard Lynch, Jeff Corey, Ellen Barber
American Horror Project characterises The Premonition in its introduction as a more mature horror movie than one may expect in a genre bombarded by teenage victims with teenage problems. I would suggest it in the same vein as Rosemary’s Baby or Don’t Look Now, and describe it as a domestic horror movie, in which a horror befalls adult characters experience traumas which may not be so relatable to a younger audience. It has style and exists in a darkly-toned world, where all may or may not be well, and one may or may not be insane.
In addition to this, The Premonition takes on a Lynch or Craven-style duality, in which two sets of characters with very different lives collide with terrible consequences. On a dusty dormant carnival site live Andrea (Barber) and her clown husband Jude (Lynch), the wife a depressive recluse, the husband an endearing and talented performer, first appearing performing an illustrative mime dance outside the trailers.
On the other side of the tracks live Sherri (Farrell) and her professor husband Miles (Corey), a wealthy couple who have a five year old daughter, Janie (Danielle Brisebois). But the girl was adopted at birth, and when Andrea shows up at Janie’s school one day, Sherri starts to shrink into hysterical paranoia, and experiences a premonition of the birth mother coming to claim the child. Turns out it’s not such a paranoid thought. Problem is, though she has issues I wouldn’t be surprised to see as a result of separation from a child, Andrea is not a bad person, and Jude looks certain to be a good father, were their plan to be successful.
This emotional conflict is a major theme of the movie, hence its maturity. In a contrast of classes, personalities, backgrounds, possessions, there is no good guy or bad guy. Each person is a proper character, and Schnitzer’s writing and direction stirs sympathy for each of them in their individual struggles. The almost documentary-style realism achieved by Victor Milt’s cinematography brings the audience intimately close to the characters in the more emotionally-oriented sequences.
Another level brought to the movie is a hot topic of the late ‘70s that Exorcist II: The Heretic tried but failed to incorporate is that of parapsychology, which was of peak professional and cultural interest at the time. This, combined with the domesticity, is what makes The Premonition a different kind of horror, and the kind that I really appreciate. It takes life’s organic grief and terror, and makes art of it.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)
Director: Matt Cimber
Starring: Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Vanessa Brown
The Witch Who Came from The Sea is a dark, moody, broody movie about a young woman who wobbles on the knife-edge of sanity as a result of repeated sexual abuse by her father as a child. It is one of those pictures, somewhat like Polanski’s Repulsion or Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, that is so striking in its visual presence and strong performances, that it seems to occupy its own little dimension, independent of any other influence, diegetic or otherwise. The plot is threadbare, meaning that the whole artistic product is what we’re judging.
Molly (Perkins) is one of those girls who is your archetypal ‘60s/’70s muse. With short dark curls, wide dark eyes and white skin, she has a permanent look of simultaneous wonder… basically stick her in a velvet-strewn room with dim lights and plumes of smoke. The visuals are, probably, the very best thing about this movie. From the very first shot – a long shot of several minutes – which watches a grey beach as three figures approach from the distance, we see craft. My horror-trained mind automatically expected red captions against such an establishing shot, and found myself bowled over when they came up in a mild shade of teal, shockingly illustrative of the monotonous, cloudy world we are entering.
Despite its sensationalist tagline ‘She really knows how to cut men down to size!’ and its status as a Video Nasty, the film is mind-bogglingly mild. I think there were two murders throughout, and funnily, I wasn’t really even looking out for them. The idea is that Molly is traumatised from having been raped by her father throughout childhood, and in traditional horror terms this equals a psychotic revenge rampage on unrelated and non-offensive males. However, as made evident from the thoughtfully added special features on the Blu-Ray, writer Robert Thom wanted very much to retain sympathy for Molly. This is no I Spit on Your Grave, in which the morality of the supposed protagonist comes into question; The Witch Who Came from the Sea summons more sympathy for its femme fatale than any rival, and with significantly less on-screen trauma.
Though it may not be to everyone’s taste, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a really powerful visual narrative, well-acted and emotionally driven. The themes and tangible characters of Thom’s writing are brought to hallucinogenic existence by Cimber’s masterful direction to produce a wonderful and undervalued gem of bygone times.
The Special Features are immense for this release, so here they are!!
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
Brand new 2K restorations of the three features
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard DVD presentations
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Reversible sleeves for each film featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil
American Horror Project Journal Volume I – Limited Edition 60-page booklet featuring new articles on the films from Kim Newman (Nightmare Movies), Kier-La Janisse (House of Psychotic Women) and Brian Albright (Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990)
MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD – SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
Brand new interview with director Christopher Speeth
Brand new interview with writer Werner Liepolt
Draft Script (BD/DVD-ROM content)
Production stills gallery
THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA – SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
Audio commentary with director Matt Cimber, actress Millie Perkins and director of photography Dean Cundey
Brand new interview with director Matt Cimber
Brand new interview with Dean Cundey
Brand new interview with actor John Goff
THE PREMONITION – SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
Audio commentary with director-producer Robert Allen Schnitzer
Brand new interview with composer Henry Mollicone
Interview with actor Richard Lynch
Three Robert Allen Schnitzer short films: Vernal Equinox , Terminal Point and A Rumbling in the Land
4 Peace Spots
Trailers and TV Spots