The American Horror Project, Volume One

AmericanHorrorProjectThe dedication and determination of Arrow is remarkable, in the breadth of product they bring to the market, cult classics, obscure specialist titles and genuine rarities, and in their presentation, sourcing the best quality and most complete prints and locating those involved in productions to create supplementary material; even on the those occasions where an actual film can most kindly be described as an oddity, it should never be doubted that there will be an interesting story behind it waiting to be told in an Arrow feature.

Never has this ethos been so explicitly expressed as in the recently released triple film boxset of the first volume of The American Horror Project, dedicated to bringing to light “the unsung heroes of American terror… (ensuring) that these unique slices of the American Nightmare are brought back into the public consciousness and preserved for all to enjoy.”

AmericanHorrorProjectMalatesta1The opening feature of these “tales of violence and madness” is 1973’s Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, introduced, as are all the films, by project curator Stephen Thrower who posits that this film rests on the images it presents, “a real feast, incredibly creative.”

Disorienting from the opening shot of an ambiguously gendered tarot reader performing their art, a free reading for a new employee at the titular carnival as the table spins and the camera circles, they are approaching opening day under the mysterious Mr Blood, five years previously he had been given six months to live but still survives thanks to his “strict diet.”

AmericanHorrorProjectMalatesta2Looking behind this façade, the Norris family are seeking their missing son, believing that his disappearance is linked to the carnival or its workers, but what they uncover is stranger and more horrifying than they could have expected, a tribe of cannibals living beneath the rides and feasting on flesh.

Superficially similar to the late Ray Dennis Steckler’s notoriously bad 1964 creation The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, mercilessly savaged by Mystery Science Theatre 3000, it shares similar production values and matches that ethic of using whatever they can lay their hands on, the film having been shot at Philadelphia’s dilapidated Willowgrove Park which closed less than a year after shooting was completed where a shopping mall now occupies the site.

AmericanHorrorProjectMalatesta3The only feature film directed by Christopher Speeth, he explains in the accompanying interview that despite the amazing efforts of his producer to raise funds the slow shooting with cumbersome equipment resulted in insufficient coverage for many of the scenes which led to problems in the pacing of the film when they were finally in the editing suite.

Even so, alongside the requisite hall of mirrors showdown there is a real kinetic feel in the nocturnal roller coaster scene, the camera fixed to the carriage and no frame of reference in the dark other than distant flashes of light, a surreal dream sequence, some freaky dolls and a surprisingly beautiful moment of blood draining accompanied by a choral performance by the subterranean denizens.

AmericanHorrorProjectMalatesta5Written by a friend of Speeth’s from college who had an interest in “American grotesquery,” playwright Werner Liepolt says it was inspired by the story of Sawney Bean, apparently unaware that the legendary Scottish mass murderer and cannibal is himself an entirely fictitious character.

With an approach informed by the possible etymology of the word carnival, “the last celebration of meat before Lent,” Liepolt observes that this idea is often approached by horror films through cannibalism and vampirism, but is aware of the shortcomings of his sole produced screenplay: “My script, I wouldn’t say it was tight, but it was far tighter than the movie that eventually emerged.”

AmericanHorrorProjectMalatesta4Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Motion Picture Association of America strenuously objected to the scenes of cannibalism, and having received no payment for directing on the promise of a share of the profits upon a release which turned out to be extremely limited, Speeth received little remuneration but remains philosophical about the experience. “There’s parts of it I like very much, parts I’m not so proud of.”

Lieptolt is similarly sanguine about the outcome, praising the visuals of the film but admitting it was perhaps “more than Philadelphians were ready for in the nineteen seventies.” Forty years later, modern viewers will be less shocked though still perplexed by Malatesta, though they may find some interest in the appearance of actor Hervé Villechaize, a year before he found international fame in The Man in the Golden Gun.

AmericanHorrorProjectWitch1Released in 1976, project curator Stephen Thrower comments that as a “strong film with strong performances,” The Witch Who Came from the Sea was unjustly labelled as a “video nasty” and lumped within a number of films collectively looked down upon as “low brow, low ambition movies which are just about violence.”

Superficially, it is easy to understand why it would have come to the attention of the Department of Public Prosecutions who attempted to have it declared the seventy two titles on their list, but ultimately The Witch Who Came from the Sea was among the thirty three titles which were not “prosecuted for obscenity,” and it was eventually released uncut in the UK in 1976.

While neither particularly graphic, particularly violent, nor particularly convincing in what violence and gore there is, it never-the-less managed to strike a nerve with the DPP both in that all the violence which is presented is closely tied with sex, and that the perpetrator is a lone woman whose multiple victims are all men, many of whom she has seduced specifically for the purpose of killing, even though she may not realise her true intentions herself.

AmericanHorrorProjectWitch2With the languorous titles setting the pace of the film, the surf washing up and down on the beach as a pair of young children approach from the distance, there is some minor damage evident on the print but it is immediately apparent to be a technically superior film to Malatesta, shot by John Carpenter’s frequent cinematographer Dean Cundey two years before their first collaboration on Hallowe’en.

It is unusual for a film to be so brazenly voyeuristic from the opening moments, yet as she sits on the beach with her nephews Molly (Millie Perkins) is transfixed by the men working out nearby, wearing only the briefest of swimming trunks, but already in her mind she is imagining their bloody deaths.

AmericanHorrorProjectWitch3A fantasist, she spins tales to the boys, Tripoli and Tadd, telling them of their grandfather, his death at sea, everything in superlatives. Her sister Cathy remembers their father quite differently, Molly becoming angry at what she sees as a betrayal of her perfect father, but Cathy backs down, not wishing to provoke an argument in front of the children. “They love you, the kids. You and welfare, that’s all they got.”

Driving and completing her fantasy is Molly’s relationship with what she sees on the television (“Is it on television? Nobody knows if it’s true if it’s not on television!”), the characters in commercials seemingly talking to her, her explicit dream of the two football players she saw interviewed on the news, the two of them tied to her bed as first she flirts with them, then she kills with them. The next evening at the bar where she moonlights, Mollie learns that the two athletes have indeed been murdered.

AmericanHorrorProjectWitch5A curious slice of underground seventies cinema, there is minor damage evident on the print and neither is the sound quality perfect though no doubt this reflects the source materials, some quiet scenes accompanied by a noise which can only be the original reels turning.

The intentional sound, or lack of, is interesting: the voices of Mollie and the men in her dream sequence marginally slowed as if they are drugged, her own voice removed from the flashbacks to her childhood with her explicitly abusive father as though she has been metaphorically silenced.

AmericanHorrorProjectWitch4Written by Perkin’s own then-husband Robert Thom, who also scripted the Roger Corman productions Death Race 2000 and Bloody Mama, The Witch Who Came from the Sea was drafted in his hospital bed as he recovered from pneumonia, with Perkins herself commenting on the situation in a newly filmed interview “I did it for the money because Robert was in the hospital and I needed the money.”

Looking back on it as “soft porn,” Perkins, who rose to fame twenty years earlier for the title role in The Diary of Anne Frank, recalls that despite her frequent state of undress that she was respected on set and that director Matt Cimber “acted like he was lucky to have me.”

AmericanHorrorProjectWitch6A film of ideas which remain frustratingly disconnected and underdeveloped, it was never-the-less ahead of its time and unusual in that unlike those others labelled as “video nasties” the tone is never gratuitous nor exploitative, but the accompanying features, including an extended archive featurette from 2004, examine more closely the themes Cimber wanted to explore, the need for escape and Millie’s desire to return to the sea.

Expressed as the recurring mermaid motif which runs through the film, the final scene of Mollie on the purpose built raft did not go according to plan, with Perkins towed out to sea, throwing food to attract the seagulls, the line on which she was towed then snapping, leaving the cameras rolling as she drifted further out to see before the footage was captured and she was rescued.

AmericanHorrorProjectPremonition1Having been the distributors behind a slew of rental video classics in the early eighties including The Fog, The Howling and Escape from New York, the Avco Embassy logo which opens The Premonition brings on a rush of nostalgia, though having originally been released in 1976 this film predates any of those Saturday night classics.

Described by Stephen Thrower as “a mature film with a mature take on its themes,” like The Witch Who Came from the Sea it is another depiction of mental illness in a woman, Andrea Fletcher (Ellen Barber), recently released after four years institutionalised in a mental hospital and seeking the daughter she was forced to give up.

AmericanHorrorProjectPremonition4Her accomplice in this search is Jude (the late, great character actor Richard Lynch, remembered from his frequent casting as “the heavy” in shows as diverse as Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Star Trek The Next Generation), a carnival worker who scans the faces of the children on the rides seeking one who resembles Janie, not seen since she was a baby, taking photographs of the visiting families.

Believing he may have found her, he shows the picture to Andrea who is equally convinced, and they plan to kidnap the child so she can be reunited with her true mother. Janie’s new family are Sheri (Sharon Farell, later the wicked stepmother of Night of the Comet) and Professor Miles Bennett (Edward Bell), an astrophysicist by training who has been asked to help set up a “paraphysics” department with the assistance of Doctor Jeena Kingsly (Chitra Neogy).

AmericanHorrorProjectPremonition3If this development seems a bizarre development bolted on to the film, it is: the film is inspired by a short story, The Adoption, a straight drama of a woman seeking her lost child, but as director Robert Allen Schnitzer explains in the accompanying featurette, he had an interest in “the paranormal, metaphysics, the supernatural,” so those were added into Schnitzer and Anthony Mahon’s script.

The supernatural elements seemingly tangential to the story which is being told, Sheri and Janie’s shared nightmares, the frosting of the bathroom mirror – an effective practical effect created via an ice crystal spray for Christmas decorations – it is not until much later in the film that Schnitzer pulls the rug, the audience suddenly realising that much of the film has not been as the events happened but as they have been perceived by Sheri, the premonition of the title that someone is coming to take her daughter.

AmericanHorrorProjectPremonition2With the university scenes feeling as though they have been written almost to give paper-thin legitimacy to the mystical elements of the plot, Doctor Kingsly’s line “clairvoyance finds expression in art, music, religion” prefigures both the “bleeding” portrait Sheri painted of her daughter and the piano pieces which link the characters together, Sheri, Janie and Andrea.

Switching between the ethereal and the carnivalesque, Henry Mollicone’s soundtrack is as much a highlight as Victor Milt’s cinematography, the former tying the the different threads of the film together and the latter providing glorious lens flare as Andrea walks across the fields towards the river before the rising sun, then later capturing the shimmering water as her body is pulled from that same river, still wearing her showstopping red dress.

AmericanHorrorProjectPremonition5Mollicone is keen to emphasise that his music was “connected to the movie, not just an underscore,” and indeed it is that which provides the dramatic resolution, while Milt describes it as “one of the best experiences of his life,” not only for the work itself, with a then state-of-the-art Panaflex camera which he wanted to use hand-held for extra movement, Steadicam not yet in wide use, but also because he was able to persuade his girlfriend to accompany him on the shoot and get her work in the wardrobe department; four decades later, they are still married.

Filmed in Jackson, Mississippi, through the winter months, Schnitzer recalls that all the local agencies were accommodating and praises his “terrific” cast, particularly the young Brisebois, later a winner of a Young Artist Award for her long running role on Archie Bunker’s Place and now a musician, of whom he says “it was a dream working with her,” Lynch (“one of my favourite actors”) and Seconds‘ Jeff Corey who plays Detective Mark Denver, the veteran actor and drama teacher coaching his other performers between takes.

AmericanHorrorProjectPremonition6An atypical work even when released, Schnitzer states that “slasher films were very popular at the time; I resisted that,” instead having most of the violence occur offscreen; while this should have shifted the focus to the characters and the supernatural elements, in truth the film does not entirely work. While there are good ideas, the various threads are underdeveloped, their connections tenuous, and the performances are insufficient to overcome the weaknesses; were it not for Mollicone’s beautiful score the film would not work at all.

While the first selection of The American Horror Project is at best a mixed offering, Arrow have been unstinting in their efforts to restore them and bring them to a wider audience, many of whom would likely have neither been aware of them in the first place or would not have had the opportunity to view them in this condition. That alone is a praiseworthy dedication to their craft which echoes the comments of the much-missed Richard Lynch in an archive interview where he discusses his acting career: “I’m in the running for life.”

Having established their intention, it remains to be seen what gems may be polished for volume two.

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

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