The American Horror Project, Volume Two

It’s been three years since Arrow delved into the archives of obscure cinematic oddity to create their first volume of The American Horror Project, remastering three relatively unknown features from the mid-seventies, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, The Witch Who Came from the Sea and The Premonition, a pattern which has now been repeated with their long-awaited second volume.

This time comprising John Hayes’ Dream No Evil from 1970, Martin Goldman’s Dark August from 1976 and Robert Voskanian’s The Child from 1977, the trio are perhaps closer thematically, unconventional narratives of outsiders in tenuous situations, making the best but out of their depth, often wandering lost through the scenes.

All of them low-budget films which were independently produced and distributed, none have an established awareness with the mainstream audience, and in common with all low-budget filmmaking with little budget for costuming, sets or design they represent the period in which they are made in their totality, time capsules in all their broken beauty.

Opening the set, Dream No Evil is the tragic story of Grace MacDonald (Brooke Mills), taken from the Davis County Orphanage as a child and now lost as an adult, a showgirl assistant to a seedy preacher, the Reverend Paul Jessie Bundy (The Changeling‘s Michael Pataki), told she is “an angel in the service of the lord” as she dives thirty feet onto a makeshift crash mat.

“We are all haunted by things other than the dead,” the opening voiceover declares, and Grace is haunted by the belief that her father is still alive despite attempts to dissuade her by her fiance, Jessie’s younger brother Doctor Patrick Bundy (Paul Prokop), yet on the slab of a morgue which shares premises with a low-rent brothel she finds her father Timothy (Birdman of Alcatraz‘ Edmond O’Brien).

A shoestring film about desperate people clinging to nothing but groundless faith and hope, Dream No Evil is abstract and disjointed, bland despite the oddness of the individual scenes, a corpse rising to stab the undertaker about to embalm it (Marc Lawrence), a bizarre dance number to please daddy, yet it is only in the final scenes that the reason for the absence of narrative logic underlying the film becomes apparent.

Despite this, there are moments of twisted beauty and the supporting features make clear the tragedy which informs the film, Hayes’ own sister Dolly having been educated in a convent school and then later in life developing schizophrenia informed by religious mania.

Oscar nominated for his short The Kiss, Hayes was a prolific director who often used the pseudonym Harold Perkins, project curator Stephen Thrower providing an extended look at his often genuinely transgressive career, much of which is now lost, with insight provided by commentary from an audio interview with Hayes’ friend and frequent collaborator Rue McClanahan, later to find fame in The Golden Girls.

Filmed in Vermont, the tragedy of Dark August is more recent to the events of the film though only depicted in flashback, an accident in which a young girl died, the driver of the car Sal Devito acquitted of charges but suffering from waking nightmares centred around the girl’s grieving grandfather McDermott who holds him responsible.

Co-written by director Goldman, J J Barry and Carole Shelyne, the latter husband-and-wife team play the leads, artists Sal and his wife Jackie, she trying to understand the behaviour of her husband who is increasingly caught up in a world of dreams, nightmares and hallucinations tied to the woodland and the hooded figure by the river.

At the urging of their friend who has been reading the tarot deck for Sal and finding repeating images, he visits “the witch,” the powerful psychic Adrianna Putnam who advises that “In order to rid yourself of this demon you must burn your studio to the ground.”

Putnam played by Planet of the Apes‘ Kim Hunter, she was a casting coup for Goldman who found she was in New York for a brief spell between roles and had no engagements so he was able to persuade her to join the production, and even in little more than a cameo she is head and shoulders above the other performers, bringing presence to the key role.

The locations gorgeous and beautifully filmed, Dark August is otherwise shapeless and lacking impact, and in the accompanying interview Goldman admits that while shooting he had no idea how the film was going to end, though with producer Marianne Kanter’s recollections of filming in a region where superstition is rife, they should perhaps be grateful they made it through the shoot at all.

Goldman also provides a commentary, and author and artist Stephen R Bissette discusses the varied history of film set in Vermont, from novelties such as Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory and Snow Devils to Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry to Dark August, praising Arrow’s restoration of the latter, filmed near where he grew up in woodlands he knows well.

Closing the set is The Child, also known as Zombie Child and House of the Zombie, shot piecemeal over a period of three years as funds became available with exposed cannisters of film sometimes stored in the fridge because the production couldn’t afford to have it developed until later.

The most atmospheric of the three and the most comfortable in the horror genre, the child in question is Rosalie Nordon (Rosalie Cole, director Voskanian taking the coincidence of her name as a good omen when casting), young charge of Alicianne Del Mar (Laurel Barnett), returning to the rural area where she grew up.

Bordered by trees and a graveyard and perpetually shrouded in mist, the Nordon household has a peculiar reputation and eleven-year-old Rosalie in particular, elderly neighbour Mrs Whitfield (Ruth Ballan) believing it was Rosalie who used to scare away her lodgers, the child and her friends who nobody has ever seen.

Offered in two ratios, the 1.33:1 version is presented with black bars on either side but benefits from not having characters decapitated, and with only Rosalie’s grandfather played by an experienced professional actor, Frank Janson, the awkward performances are exacerbated by the extended shooting schedule during which the title character grows up appreciably.

Deeply surreal with flashbacks to rain-drenched funerals in which Rosalie is ironically at her oldest and dream sequences of dancing with scarecrows, Alicianne then waking up to find straw by her bed, anything The Child tries to achieve falters in the final half-hour, an extended chase and siege sequence as Alicianne and Len Nordon (Richard Hanners) flee rampaging low-budget ghouls.

Described as “a smörgåsbord of of the weird, wonderful and the unusual” by Thrower in his appreciation, he also shares a lively commentary track with director Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian, aware of the limitations of the production but still delighted forty years later with their work, particularly the detail apparent in the Blu-ray restoration.

The American Horror Project, Volume Two, is available now from Arrow Films

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