Monday, 29 February 2016

American Horror Project (1973-1976)

Here at the House of Mortal Cinema we have a special place reserved for Backwoods USA movies, the kind of films put together by independent American moviemakers often working outside the Hollywood system (and sometimes, it must be said, outside any kind of system at all). Sometimes the directors in question only ever made one film before going back to their day jobs (or before being captured and returned to their longterm care facilities for all we know). Often quirky, frequently interesting (if only for their sheer bizarreness), and always low-budget, there still remains a wealth of weird and obscure films out there that deserve to be brought to the attention of a (slightly) wider audience than those who already know about them.
Bravo to the team at Arrow Films, then, for attempting to do just that with their planned AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT series, the first volume of which has just been released. This time around we get three films and without any further ado here’s what you can expect to find inside their gorgeously presented three-disc set:

The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)

Matt Cimber’s character study anticipates William Lustig’s 1980 MANIAC in its tale of a psychotic character abused by a parent who is subsequently driven to murdering members of the opposite sex in graphic fashion. The difference here is that the individual concerned is a woman. Millie Perkins does a great job as Molly, who lives in the dreariest depiction of Malibu ever filmed. She spends her days looking after her nephews Tad and Tripoli (me neither), her evenings working in a bar and her nights slashing off the genitals of football and television stars. Or does she? 
          Her increasingly fragmenting sanity is called into question from pretty much the first frame, and it’s difficult to know how much of what we see is only going on inside her head. Don’t expect a forerunner of HALLOWEEN, or any other slasher, though - Cimber’s film is a languid character study that’s not altogether successful, with some ropey dialogue and several scenes that go on a bit too long. It’s an interesting watch but don’t expect anything too special from this item whose sole claim to fame is probably going to be that it made it onto the UK’s Video Nasties list.
Extras include an introduction by Stephen Thrower (author of the ultimate Backwoods USA movie book Nightmare USA) a commentary by the cast and crew, and making of featurettes with director Cimber, star Perkins and DP Dean Cundey amongst others. The print looks a bit scratchy in places but is 2.35:1 and looks pretty good overall for such an obscure item. 

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)

More ramshackle, more amateur, more insane and consequently rather more interesting is this weird offering from one-off feature director Christopher Speeth. The Norris family get a job working at the tattiest, most depressing amusement park ever committed to film and fall victim to the monsters that seem to make up the rest of the staff. That’s pretty much it for plot as most of the 74 minute running time is taken up with the stuff of low-budget nightmare.    
          You’re best off forgetting any standard rules of narrative (as one presumes the film-makers did) and just lose yourself in the parade of weird images and bizarre situations that present themselves. Herve Villechaize pops up as Bobo the dwarf, there’s a bunch of flesh-eating ghouls in the basement who watch old silent movies, and the place seems to be run by vampires. Whatever’s going on it’s very odd, strangely disorientating, and probably only for certain tastes. I loved it but bear in mind I love the movies of Jess Franco, too. Arrow’s disc comes with a number of interviews, including one with the director and another with the ‘writer’, and there are out-takes and a stills gallery as well.

The Premonition (1975)

Quite possibly the best film in this set, both in terms of quality of film-making and general watchability, THE PREMONITION also boasts a fairly off-kilter plot combined with some arresting imagery (especially at the end). Mad Andrea Fletcher gets released, Pete Walker-FRIGHTMARE-like, from a mental hospital ‘completely cured’ but immediately plans to kidnap her daughter Janie from Janie’s foster parents of the past five years. To do this she enlists the aid of boyfriend Jude, a circus clown who works at yet another scary rundown American amusement park (how many of these things were there in the 1970s?). 
          She dons a bright red dress and breaks into the foster home, kidnapping a doll by mistake. Jude pulls the head off the doll and stabs Andrea to death. Then things get really weird as foster mum Sheri starts to see strange visions and ends up playing the harpsichord on the steps of what looks like a huge museum in an attempt to gain psychic aid in the search for her now-vanished daughter. The climax is wonderfully batshit-Italian and gives THE PREMONITION well-deserved pride of place as the best film in the set. You also get a commentary track, short films, and several interviews (including ones ported over from a previous DVD release). 

Is AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT worth getting? Hopefully the above has helped you decide. Personally I think it’s an excellent and wholly admirable project, and it’s marvellous to see curiosities like these being made more readily available. Stephen Thrower’s little introductions help to tie the movies together, and the packaging is gorgeous. Let’s hope the project takes off so that we get the chance to see oddball delights like THE REDEEMER, WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS or HOMEBODIES given the same treatment. 

Arrow Films released the AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT in a 6-disc set of 3 Blu-rays and 3 DVDs on Monday 22nd February 2016. Let's hope Volume 2 is on the way.

1 comment:

  1. I doubt we'll see The Redeemer as part of this project, as Code Red still has the right, I believe, and it would make sense to include only movies where Arrow has the rights in the UK as well as the US. That said, this is such an awesome project that I'll take almost anything they can throw at me - I have total faith in Stephen Thrower's taste. ;)