When Arrow Video announced the American Horror Project they caused a lot of excitement, at least with me personally. For those that don’t know, the idea behind the project is to shed light on some of the lesser known American films. The films people don’t discuss often. We know Halloween and Friday the 13th but there’s so much more out there that is also worthy of our time.
Stephen Thrower, an expert on independent exploitation cinema from America among many other things, sort of serves as the curator for the project. This first release is a limited to just 3,000 copies and contains a 60-page booklet with articles from Thrower and fellow writers Kim Newman, Kier-La Janisse and Brian Albright on the three films including in the collection. And that’s just scratching the surface of what this set offers. Every movie comes with an intro from Thrower as well as a ton of other special features.
The first volume (not sure how many volumes there will be, but there will be more) contains Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, The Witch Who Came from the Sea and The Premonition.
This set not only lived up to my expectations, but exceeding them in many ways.
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood – 1973
Dir. Christopher Speeth
The set opens with Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood which is easily the most independent film included in this volume. It was made completely outside of Hollywood and any type of studio system. A bunch of people who had never made a movie before, and many who haven’t made one since, got together in a small town in Pennsylvania and created a super trippy little flick.
There is a bit of plot and story, but it’s the bare minimum of what you’d call either of those things. A family consisting of a mother, father and daughter get a job at a carnival. Their son became missing after attending the carnival so they plan to go undercover to determine what happened to him. As it turns out the carnival’s manager Mr. Blood is a vampire, you’d think that name would be a dead giveaway, and the carnival owner, Malastesta, controls a horde of cannibals who live within the carnival.
This film has a lot of things that most would consider to be bad. The acting is pretty awful, the effects are less than great and the story has a lot of pieces and tidbits that don’t really make a whole lot of sense. This should all be expected when you’re working with people that aren’t filmmakers. At the same time, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood contains a loss of passion and excitement that you can only get when working with people that aren’t filmmakers.
The cinematographer on the film was Norman Gaines. As far as I know he’s never worked on a single other project. I’d also wager that he wasn’t a trained cinematographer. He was likely the guy who had access to a camera or the first to volunteer. Because he didn’t know what he could or couldn’t do, it resulted in some cinematography that I would go as far as to call stunning at times. There are some really beautiful shots and sequences. A scene with a man riding a roller coaster by himself at night comes to mind. It ends with him be decapitated. It’s brilliant.
The carnival itself is such a great location for a horror film. While carnivals are generally full of fun and laughter they do have a naturally creepy tone. Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood uses this to great effect. The cast and crew may not have been film people, but they knew to play up their location.
I’m not sure what I’d compare Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood to. In a way it’s sort of like Manos: The Hands of Fate but quite a bit more fun and enjoyable. Maybe Manos if done by Herschell Gordon Lewis? Yeah, I like that description. Either way, this is just one of those films you have to see for yourself.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea – 1976
Dir. Matt Cimber
The second and arguably best film on the American Horror Project is Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea. Despite the film’s name this is probably the one entry on the set that may not generally be considered horror, but it is quite bizarre.
Millie Perkins, of The Diary of Anne Frank fame, stars as Molly a young woman who is quite disturbed. The film opens with her on a beach with her two young nephews. As the boys have some fun in the sun, Molly gets lost looking at some body builders working out on the beach. She begins to have some strange fantasies about them but this is just the tip of the iceberg into the mind of Molly.
Molly has sexual fantasies. Weird ones. Violent ones. And these fantasies always involve powerful men. Some of the men are powerful physically, like football players, and some are powerful in statue, having money and respect. These fantasies eventually begin to bleed into reality and Molly isn’t able to separate the two. As the fantasies turned reality become increasingly violent, Molly is almost oblivious to the real damage being done. As far as she knows everything is still taking place within the make-believe world of her mind.
It probably doesn’t help that the relationships Molly has in the real world are less than great. She’s in a mentally abusive relationship with the owner of the bar she works at. They both treat each other terribly and use one another for sex. Then there’s her sister who wants the best for Molly and tries to help her but Molly doesn’t see it that way. Molly is convinced her sister is out to get her.
Throughout much of the film Molly talks about her father and what he meant to her. She says his lost at sea but may return one day. Her nephews hold onto this hope she provides, thinking one day their grandfather will return. But everyone else knows that’s not the case. Her father is dead and has been so for a long time. We can sense that there was something not quite right about the relationship Molly had with her father, but through the first half of the film we’re not entirely sure what it was. Then we do find out and it’s terrible.
Molly was sexually abused by her father for years, ever since she was a little girl. The Molly we see and meet is a destroyed woman, somehow trying to deal with the abuse she suffered from a man she trusted, a man that was supposed to protect her, not hurt her. Molly tries to keep the pain she’s experience all these years buried but eventually it finds its way out. Unfortunately at that point it’s too late. Molly is beyond repair and her years abuse lead to her being more abusive and more violent.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a very dark and disturbing film. They are some scenes that are absolutely chilling. Nothing is overly graphic, but the subject matter is difficult to deal with and you see enough that it hits you.
What makes this film truly special and work is the performance from Perkins. She’s stunning in a role that is not easy to pull off. From the start we can tell her character is disturbed, but not to what level. Sure, she has issues but she still seems happy and fairly “normal.” But then she takes a descent into madness that is rarely seen. For a modern comparison I would look at Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. Amy Dunne and Molly are two completely different characters, but both are seriously disturbed and their conditions worsen throughout the course of their respects films, each reaching a pretty frightening conclusion.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a movie people need to see. Again it’s not horror in the typical sense, though it was a video nasty, but it is without question horrific. And despite it’s grim nature, the film is quite beautiful thanks to the DP work of the legendary Dean Cundey.
The Premonition – 1976
Dir. Robert Allen Schnitzer
Rounding out the set is The Premonition from director Robert Allen Schnitzer. This film has a sort of supernatural vibe going on.
Sheri (Sharon Farrell) and Prof. Miles Bennett (Edward Bell) have a young daughter named Janie (Danielle Brisebois), who is about six. Janie is adopted and one day Sheri starts having these visions that Janie’s biological mother is going to kidnap her. These visions start to make her paranoid. One day while picking Janie up at the school she sees a woman talking to Janie and is convinced that the woman is Janie’s real mom. Miles sort of shrugs it off.
As it turns out, Sheri was right. Janie’s biological mother is a woman named Andrea (Ellen Barber) and she works at a carnival. With the assistance of her boyfriend, a mime at the carnival named Jude (Richard Lynch), Andrea attempts to kidnap Janie. Sheri catches Andrea in the act and she’s unable to actually take Janie away.
Jude is furious. He has no ties to Janie, but he has spent a lot of time planning this kidnap with Andrea and now that she didn’t go through with it he can’t handle it. The two get into an argument that results in Andrea ending up dead.
Sheri continues to have strange visions and doesn’t feel safe. The visions result in her getting into a car accident with Janie. The accident knocks Sherri unconscious and Janie wanders off through the woods. When she makes it through the woods to the other side, she finds the carnival that Jude works at. Jude spots Janie and snatches her up.
Sheri is convinced she can find Janie because of a psychic connection she has with her that she can see in her visions. Sheri and Miles enlist the help of Dr. Jenna Kingsly (Chitra Neogy), a professor specializing in parapsychologist at the same school Miles works at. Miles isn’t much of a believer in Dr. Kingsly’s teachings, but he’s willing to give it a go to find Janie.
Out of the three films on the set it was definitely my least favorite, but that’s not to say it’s the worst film of the three. It’s certainly a better made, more polished film than Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, but it’s not as enjoyable, at least it wasn’t for me. Things start of a little slow and it takes a while to get into it. Once the attempted kidnapping occurs, things start to pick up. Sheri has more visions and the supernatural element plays out more and things just get more engaging in general.
The story tends to get a little clunky at times and doesn’t flow perfectly. It’s never clear why Jude feels the need to kidnap Janie after he’s murdered Andrea. Janie’s isn’t his daughter; he was only helping Andrea get her. With Andrea now out of the picture, what does he want? It doesn’t seem as if he was in any danger of getting arrested for attempted kidnapping. His truck may have been seen living the scene, but really Andrea was the only suspect. Maybe there was a ransom aspect, but that was never touched on.
The nice thing about having Jude kidnap Janie is that we get to spend a lot of time with Richard Lynch, who is very good. Lynch was a classic movie villain playing the lead baddie in films like Invasion USA. The Premonition is another example of him playing the bad guy and even though he’s intentions are unclear and frankly make no sense, he’s scary. Maybe it’s the whole no motive thing that works for him? I’m not sure. He kills his girlfriend for seemingly no real reason. This is a girl he was helping plan a kidnapping with. If he could turn on her that quickly, who knows what he’s really capable of doing. Plus, he’s a carny which is scary.
I probably sound like I’m contradicting myself a bit, but Lynch’s performance is good enough to save the movie. His character as it is written isn’t great, though there are good elements. Lynch’s performance is good enough that I’m able to stay engaged, even if I’m not fully convinced. That might not make sense, but it does to me.
Even with its slow start and flaws, The Premonition is quite eerie and has a terrific ending. You may want to give up on this one, but stick with it and you’ll find some enjoyment.
In addition to the three films, these set comes loaded with bonus features that truly make the release a special one. I mean look at all this stuff!
•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)
•Brand new interview with director Christopher Speeth
•Brand new interview with writer Werner Liepolt
•Draft Script (BD/DVD-ROM content)
•Production stills gallery
•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
•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
The idea of the whole project is to release films that are under the radar. Just getting those films out to the public is a success in my opinion. Managing to release all three with brand new 2k restorations is going the extra mile. But picture quality is just scratching the surface of what The American Horror Project Vol. 1 has to offer. If you’re able to grab one of the limited edition sets with the 60-page booklet, do it! The articles are fascinating and give a ton of insight on the films. If you don’t manage to get that booklet, that’s not the end of the world. You’re still going to get quite the education that’s to all the commentaries and interviews included. The stuff for The Witch Who Came from the Sea is really cool because you hear from Perkins, Cimber and Cundey.
Arrow has been at this for a while now and they still manage to surprise and impress me. We’re not supposed to get great quality releases of obscure films, and yet here we are getting them on the regular. That’s insane and I truly hope we’re all taking the time appreciate how special that really is. This is just the first in what will be a series of entries into The American Horror Project. This is already perfect, but I know somehow, someway, Arrow is going to keep making these better.
The American Horror Project Vol. 1 is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.