When you delve into the glut of independent American cinema just from the 1970s, you’ll be amazed at how many films were actually produced in that decade by penniless mavericks far from the infrastructure of Hollywood or New York City. Remember too, that filmmaking was a massive undertaking, not just in the pre-digital world, but we are talking pre-video. [For some insight into the trials and tribulations into the hardships of the indie horror director in the 70s, please check out the book Shock Value by Jason Zinoman.] That fact that we have small indie efforts like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deranged, Night Of The Living Dead, Last House On The Left, Driller Killer, or Phantasm that have risen to the status of bonafide American classic or, at least, cult classic is something we should all be thankful for. So many films on the grind circuit have been lost to history.
That’s where Arrow Video comes in with their amazing new series, American Horror Project. There has been a three-year gap between the two volumes, but it was worth the wait to see these six films lovingly restored and packed with interviews and other extras. Each film arrives with brand new artwork by the Twins of Evil, with reversible sleeves featuring the original poster art. All the films get lovely 2K restorations and come in dual disc Blu Ray and standard DVD sets. The cherry on top of these sexy box sets are the 60-page booklets with each set, featuring brand new articles about each film. Also, on all the films of Volume 1’s menu page, you have the option to play the film with or without an intro from Stephen Thrower. I recommend choosing ‘with’ introduction. Volume 2 has video appreciations by Thrower. I also recommend watching these prior to each film. For me, his expertise and depth of knowledge really opened my mind, gave me things to look for, and generally improved my overall experience.
Volume 1 features three films, of which I’ve only heard of one: Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood, The Witch Who Came From The Sea, and The Premonition. Of Volume 2’s collection, I was only familiar with The Child, but only because Rob Zombie sampled a bit of dialogue from it. Also included are Dream No Evil and Dark August.
The Witch Who Came From The Sea was the only film from the set I’d heard of, though I never knew what it was about. The Witch… stars Millie Perkins (The Diary Of Anne Frank) and was written by her husband, Robert Thom (Death Race 2000). Matt Cimber directed this strange journey into psychological horror. The film follows Molly (Perkins) as an aunt of two boys whose single mother struggles to make ends meet sewing clothes. Molly is plagued with visions of murdering good-looking, muscular men. The visions start to bleed into reality as Molly slips deeper into a waking dream state. We see her relationship with her father and the trauma she endured as a child, which clearly informs her spiraling psychosis as an adult.
The Witch Who Came From The Sea is beautifully shot thanks in no small part to cinematographer Dean Cundey (Escape From New York, The Thing, Jurassic Park). His wide-angle shots look gorgeous and help elevate The Witch… well above standard grindhouse fare. Cinder’s direction is somewhat dreamy, a bit like Phantasm, but more linear. At the core of the story is a bit of a gender swap Psycho, but that’s as far as I’d go with the comparisons. Cimber orchestrates the symphony of murder and madness creating a fairly unique film in the horror genre that has gone criminally overlooked for four decades.
Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood is the most straight-up grindhouse horror film in this set, full of ghouls, lurid set pieces, and plenty of that glorious bright red 70s blood. While more exploitative and somewhat cheaper looking than the other two, Malatesta’s gets high points for its creepy setting and inventive shots. A bit of a dark carny retelling of the legend of Sawney Bean with Night Of The Living Dead and Carnival Of Souls tossed in a blender.
The Norris family arrives at a fairground under the guise of people looking for work, but really they are searching for their missing son. The film fast tracks into bloody murder and mayhem with a creepy cast of ghouls living underground in the bowels of the park. The ghouls have a similar look to George Romero’s zombies and the film has a mash-up of dirty American grind with Hammer Horror feel to it. What really made me love it though were the great shots of the ghouls in their underground lair writhing with excitement in front of the silent horror films being projected on the wall before them. These shots are very cool, better even than the rollercoaster beheading director Christopher Speeth treats us to.
While not exactly a Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest, Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood is quite a gruesome thrill ride, amateurish but stylish, cheap but inventive. Not to be confused with the lurid and nasty Carnival Of Blood from 1970.
The last film in the set is The Premonition, starring genre legend Richard Lynch (Lords Of Salem, Scanner Cop). It’s a story of mental illness, child loss, and parapsychology. The Premonition is a beautifully shot and scary adult horror film.
Parapsychology was all the rage in the 70s, certainly helped by Brian DePalma’s Carrie (based on the Stephen King novel). There would be many films to explore the various facets of parapsychology, like Amityville Horror and The Psychic. The Premonition falls between those two films, with a bit of carnival creepiness mixed with a suburban drama. There is also a bit of a feminist undertone to the film where you have a skeptical husband with a wandering eye, giving his wife the pat on the head and the ‘there, there it’s just your imagination’ treatment.
You have Andrea (Ellen Barber) searching for the child that was taken from her by the state when she was locked away in a mental institution. Then you have Sherri (Sharon Farrell) who is the adoptive mother of the young girl in question, Janie (Danielle Brisebois). The escalating desperation and madness of the two mothers as they battle over Janie makes for an incredibly harrowing tale and provides the film with its best scares. Behind each woman are the men in the lives. For Andrea, it is Jude (Richard Lynch) and for Sherri, it is her husband Miles (Edward Bell). In both cases, the men fail to be there for their women, in very different ways, but ultimately leading to catastrophes that propel the story into very dark territory. The horror of a missing child would have been enough, but as the parapsychology subplot begins to take over the film, the fear factor is ramped up and Barber and Farrell shine.
Of the three films in this set, The Premonition is the most mature and least exploitative of the bunch. I can’t see any good reason that the film “flew under the radar” (according to Brian Albright). I enjoyed it at least as much I did Carrie or The Omen. While it’s not as polished as either of those films, it still gets the job done splendidly as a mature horror film that goes straight for the heart of suburban security rather than simply racking up a body count. And the young Richard Lynch is just as good and creepy as he is in his more famous roles.
John Hayes’ bizarre psychological thriller, Dream No Evil, falls somewhere between Psycho and some trashy hicksploitation from the old grind circuit. And I don’t say that disparagingly. Starring Brooke Mills and Edmonde O’Brien, Dream No Evil has the weirdest premise out of either set. Grace (Mills) was raised in an orphanage always believing her father would one day come back for her. As an adult, she’s a high diver in her future brother-in-law’s traveling holy roller sideshow (stay with me!). She eventually finds her father, but he has died. Grief-stricken, she somehow brings him back from the dead. He gets up off the morgue slab and kills the undertaker. Afterwards, he and Grace go off to live happily on a ranch, until people start showing up, threatening to take away her joy, and start dying for their trespasses.
I’d be lying to say I completely enjoyed this film. I certainly had a great appreciation for the total piece after it all wrapped up. While actually watching it, I found it to be a bit of a slog at times, and I felt that far more in Volume 2 than I did with 1, overall. Dream No Evil feels more lurid than it actually is and could probably have been improved with some more skin and gore. But, conceptually, it’s a very interesting story and I liked the way the whole drama played out.
Martin Goldman’s Dark August is a slow-burn descent into New England witchy horror. It has slight shades of Lovecraft’s fiction outside the Cthulhu mythos and pairs exceptionally well with George Romero’s Season of the Witch. Both feature weird, magical realism, a tip towards madness, and a modern anxiety commentary.
JJ Barry plays Sal, a New York artist, who’s moved to rural New Hampshire. One day, he accidentally hits and kills a young girl. The court rules her death an accident and he serves no jail time, but her grieving grandfather is left behind feeling justice has not prevailed and so he cooks up a backwoods curse. Sal starts to go crazy with hallucinations and tragedies and seeks the help of a spiritualist, A Streetcar Named Desire’s Kim Hunter.
Well directed and more consistent than Dream No Evil, Dark August suffers mainly from a pacing problem, which is the same criticism I level at Season of the Witch. I think both films are conceptually strong with believable characters, but the scenes that drag really drag. Dark August’s third act really kicks things up a bit and saves the movie overall.
The best of the box is certainly Robert Voskanian and Ralph Lucas’ The Child. This was the film that inspired Stephen Thrower to initiate the American Horror Project to begin with. It is a very odd and chilling film that at times feels like a beautiful synthesis of Lucio Fulci and George Romero.
Laurel Barnet plays a young woman who’s hired as a housekeeper for an eccentric family whose matriarch has died. Their house sits by a cemetery and the young daughter, Rosalie, goes there at night to talk with her “friends.” Her friends turn out to be zombies who she sends out to seek revenge for her mother’s death.
There are some pacing issues with The Child, but it does a great job of building tension, with releases like a snapped rubber band in the third act. Voskanian creates an amazingly eerie atmosphere that may remind fans of Fulci’s City of the Living Dead at times.
I can’t overstate how much I love these box sets. The Arrow Video team deserves some kind of award not just for the lavish restorations of these six films, but for rescuing them and giving them a second chance at thrilling horror fans. In an age where mass audiences are walking away from physical media, it’s more important than ever that lesser-known films are being protected and preserved.
Both box sets are available from Arrow Video, Amazon, and wherever fine Blu-rays are sold. Part of this review originally appeared on Popshifter in 2016.