Review of "American Horror Project Vol. 1 (Blu-ray)"

published 11/04/2016 | hogsflesh
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Not as much time as I'd like for ciao at the moment.
Pro Interesting films, well presented
Cons Although the films are good, none stands out as absolutely essential
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"Off the beaten track"

Some creepy looking guy (Carnival)

Some creepy looking guy (Carnival)

This three-film boxset from Arrow Video is £40 on amazon or HMV. It's described as a 'limited edition', so presumably there will either be a cheaper version at some point, or there will be individual releases of the films.

This is a set containing three obscure American horror films on blu-ray and DVD. The ‘American Horror Project’, as Arrow are calling this, is based on critic Stephen Thrower’s book Nightmare USA, which focuses on the regional, independent horror movies released in America in the 70s and 80s. Thrower is a critic whose work I greatly enjoy, even if I frequently disagree with him – he has a gift for finding the worthwhile in films that are extremely unpromising on the face of it.

That would certainly seem to be true of the three films on offer here. Only one, The Witch That Came From the Sea, has any real recognition among fans, and then only because it was on the video nasties list in the 80s. All three do have a lot to offer, though, if you give them a chance.

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)

A number of people have gone missing at a run-down looking fairground. A family that seems to have moved to the fairground to work is really there to investigate the disappearance of their son. The fairground turns out to be full of vampires who prey on both workers and tourists alike.

This is my favourite of the films in this set. While the other two are slow-paced with well-drawn characters, this one is short and a little bit silly. Certainly the plot almost feels like it could belong in an Andy Milligan or even Ed Wood film, and the special effects aren’t much better than the lowest-budget schlock. But – as with the other films here – it creates an atmosphere that stays with you.

And it doesn’t mess about – no sooner has the audience been introduced to the most appalling child I’ve ever seen in a film (“I want that dead chicken, that’s what I want!”) than she and her family are murdered (sadly offscreen) in the Tunnel of Love. The gore effects are poor – a decapitation on a roller coaster is especially lame – but strong enough to earn a 15 certificate. (It has a close-up of a real injection, the only thing in the entire set that actually made me wince.)

The décor in the interior scenes has an almost amateurish feel, but an aesthetic sense all its own. And the external scenes are in a rundown fairground, which is clearly the best possible location for a horror movie. There are some recognisable cast members – Hervé Villechaise, the small actor who later appeared in The Man With the Golden Gun, gives a good, disorienting performance. Jerome Dempsey, a familiar face from films like Network, is on great form as the subtly-named Mr Blood, imposing some really bizarre intonations on his dialogue. Malatesta himself is less impressive, sadly – too normal looking and giving what seems to be a Vincent Price impression that doesn’t really work.

The Witch that Came from the Sea (1976)

This one was categorised as a video nasty for a while – an utterly baffling decision – and is the reason the set overall has an 18 certificate. The other two films are 15s.

Mollie lives in a rundown seaside town. She works in a bar and mythologises her dead father, a sea captain, telling her young nephews how heroic he was. In truth he was an alcoholic who sexually abused her. Molly, in denial about her childhood and drinking too much, has vivid hallucinations about tying up and murdering men who she picks up – but are they really hallucinations? (Well, no, otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a horror film.)

This is a slow-moving character piece, driven by a great performance from Millie Perkins as Molly. She has a really creepy languor as she eyes up – and fantasises about – body builders on the beach. There’s a slightly skewed feel to the whole thing, and Molly’s fantasies often intrude on reality without warning, frequently from her TV set. It’s also an unusually authentic feeling vision of working class poverty, not something you often find in horror movies, unless you count the grotesques of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The special effects aren’t so good – the blood looks like raspberry sauce or something – but I like the way the film reverses the usual misogynistic violence of the video nasties. There’s a notorious sequence in The New York Ripper in which a woman is tied to a bed and tortured with a razor blade – more or less the same thing happens here, but to a guy. It also has something in common with Videodrome, which has similar intrusions into reality of TV-based fantasies, and distantly resembles Ms 45, a rape revenge film in which a victim goes on an increasingly deranged killing spree against men. But while that film is full of anger and attitude, Witch is a more melancholy affair. All the characters are believable, and none of them deserve what happens.

The Premonition (1976)

A dangerously unbalanced woman is released from a mental hospital, and goes in search of her daughter, aided by a besotted fairground clown. The daughter has since been adopted by a nice suburban couple, who will do anything to stop her from falling into the hands of her insane birth mother.

The girl’s (adoptive) mother starts to have apparently psychic flashes that give her clues as to what’s happening. Her husband is an astrophysics professor at the nearby university, and he reluctantly enlists the help of a friendly parapsychologist colleague to help out.

It’s the apparently psychic episodes that make this into a horror film – otherwise it would be at best a thriller, at worst an issue-of-the-week TV movie. The psychic moments are generally very well executed, and occasionally very creepy. Beyond that, and an effective home invasion scene, there aren’t many scares in this film. But it’s still quite a rewarding watch.

The pace is slow, but that gives the characters a chance to breathe a bit. Even though the mad woman and her lover are the ‘villains’, we’re allowed to understand their point of view, at least up to a point, and even have a measure of sympathy for them. And while the couple who have adopted the child are clearly good parents, their world is a bit too dull to make us completely root for them.

There’s good, lush music, and it’s very well acted. The best-known actor is Richard Lynch, playing the clown accomplice – he’s in a load of other movies, including God Told Me To, where he memorably plays a glowing alien hermaphrodite messiah. He’s very good here, but so is everybody else. It has a more realistic fairground setting that Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, and if it’s the film in the set I’d be least likely to watch more than once, it’s certainly worth a look.

All three films look more than decent. These aren’t the kinds of films that get pristine restorations, and the available materials are probably in a slightly rough shape – Malatesta was feared lost for some years. There’s minor damage – speckles and small scratches – on all three movies (I found it most noticeable on Witch) but it’s not terribly distracting. All three films look pretty good, but don’t expect miracles. There are also DVDs included, but I didn’t watch those.

All three have extensive making of extras, with interviews and commentaries from various relevant people – the directors of all three films are still alive. How interesting you find these will depend on how interesting you find the films, I guess. The interview with Richard Lynch on the Premonition disk was my favourite (this was probably made for a different release, as Lynch died in 2012). All three films also have short but good introductions by Stephen Thrower, the author of the book, who explains a bit about why he thinks they’re interesting. There’s also a booklet included in the set, with a decent essay on each of the films from three different authors (it'sd described as a 'journal', which adds to the faint whiff of pretentiousness hanging over the set).

All in all, it’s a good package. Its mission statement is to try to rescue some deserving films from obscurity, and it makes a good stab at it. Perhaps the main problem is that giving films like this the kind of treatment Arrow usually reserves for genre classics will create unrealistic expectations from purchasers about the type of films involved. These are quirky, low-budget horror films - I found them very rewarding, but a lot of horror fans will be looking for something faster-moving and gorier.

I think all three films are worth watching, even if they’re not likely to make anyone’s personal top ten any time soon. I hope we’ll see plenty more volumes in this series.

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Comments on this review

  • Pointress published 22/05/2016
    Anr E review
  • jb0077 published 14/05/2016
    An E from me, top reviewing.
  • siberian-queen published 27/04/2016
    fab review
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Product Information : American Horror Project Vol. 1 (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

DVD Region: Blu-ray

Actor(s): Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Janine Carazo, Herve Villechaize, Sharon Farrell

Classification: 18 years and over

Director(s): Matt Cimber, Christopher Speeth, Robert Allan Schnitzer

EAN: 5027035013756


Listed on Ciao since: 26/03/2016