It’s no surprise that American Horror Project: Vol. 1 delivers on its promise.
If your taste in films veer off the beaten track, or the creativity that can come from strains of low budget filmmaking excites you, Arrow has released just the set for you. American Horror Project: Vol. 1 serves as their attempt to celebrate the American horror films of the 1970s and 80s that slipped through the cracks due to their controversial nature, struggle to find the right audience, lack of funds etc. Given Arrow’s already great track record of horror releases, and considering this is co-curated by horror film critic Stephen Thrower, it’s no surprise that American Horror Project: Vol. 1 delivers on its promise, bringing three very strong films back into print and in an excellent presentation.
In Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood a family is in search for their son who has gone missing. Verna and her parents believe his last known location to be at a carnival—Malatesta’s, of course—where she and her parents take jobs hoping to find a lead on where her brother might be. Soon (but not soon enough!) Verna realizes that her boss Mr. Blood and his ghoulish gang of employees feast on the blood and guts of the carnivalgoers. The film features an early role for Herve Villechaize, whom Bond fans may remember Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun.
Out of all three features in AHP: V1, this is probably the most unfamiliar to even the hardcore horror fan. It is the only feature film by director Christopher Speeth, and only briefly screened in the southern portion of the US. It did see a DVD release in 2003 but has been long out of print up until this point. All three films feature glowing introductions from Thrower (author of Nightmare USA) though in Malatesta’s case he warns that this film won’t be for everyone. Rightfully so, as it is by far the most esoteric film of the bunch, and the least concerned with plot. That being said, Malatesta leaves a strong impression. Using mostly recycled goods including an eye-catching orange bubble-wrap that pops up everywhere like ivy (trust me, it really works!), the resourcefulness of the set pieces are something to marvel at. It’s unbelievable how much they managed to stretch a modest budget.
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is loaded with special features, just as the other two films are. There are three different interviews with the director, writer, and art directors, respectively. Also included is a gallery and outtakes, which I rarely have much use for (especially in the case of the latter). Although this might not be my favorite film in the set, it does include my favorite special feature—the commentary track that features Richard Harland Smith of MovieMorlocks.com. Smith kicks off the commentary track with a spirited welcoming to his “Carnival of Blood party,” and backs up his charm with plenty of trivia about the film. If only all commentary tracks were as good as Smith’s is here.
Up next is 1976’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and I can guarantee you have never seen anything
like it. It’s more of a psychological thriller than it is a horror film, and there aren’t any witches in the traditional sense. However, it is the most subversive film of the lot, and by far my favorite. The Witch Who Came From the Sea is about a young woman named Molly (Millie Perkins, The Diary of Anne Frank) who spends her days babysitting her nephews and telling them fantastical stories about her seafaring father. To her nephews, she’s something like Mary Poppins: sweet but firm in what she presents to be her moral convictions. This seems to be the way Molly thinks of herself as well, but in reality, she’s someone altogether different. Molly’s a drunk and drug addict, constantly choosing fantasy over reality. She works at a dive bar where she often lusts after the TV screen’s promise of perfect men—football player types, the American alpha male. After work, she’ll seduce these types of men and rile them up in some fetishistic foreplay, only to kill them shortly after. This isn’t like most serial killer movies, in that film manages to keep you sympathetic to Molly’s disposition. If you’re open to the very dark and completely bizarre scenarios, The Witch Who Came from the Sea plays with very interesting intellectual ideas about the images we craft for others and ourselves as a way of coping with life’s harsh realities.
Unfortunately, The Witch Who Came From the Sea’s restoration makes it clear that Arrow didn’t have great resources to work from for this feature. The commentary track is poorly recorded (this isn’t a newly issued commentary track, so it’s not really Arrow’s fault), and the images look a little rough at times. Also included are two newly-issued interviews by Arrow of the cast and crew, which heavily feature the film’s director of photography, who is none other than Dean Cundey (The Fog, The Thing, Escape From New York).
The last installment is 1976’s The Premonition, which has both the most traditional horror sensibilities and had the widest prior release of all three films. Fear overcomes a suburban family when the biological mother Andrea (Ellen Barber in a very dedicated performance) of their adopted daughter breaks into their home in an attempt to take back the child. Assisted by her carny boyfriend, Andrea succeeds in kidnapping the child. The parents eventually resort to parapsychology in an attempt to get their child back. The psychological strain these events have on all involved will certainly appeal to fans of the recent horror film The Babadook. It’s a highly approachable horror film but by far the least stimulating in the set. Just like the previous two installments, it is heavy on the special features including two rounds of interviews, some short films, and a commentary track that’s a bit too dry for my tastes. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for it, The Premonition rounds out the set nicely and is a very competent film. Here’s to hoping there’s a volume 2, and soon! | Cait Lore