American Horror Project: Volume 1 [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (8th May 2016).
The Film

When Arrow Video announced they would be releasing a Blu-ray set called “American Horror Project: Vol. 1”, the reaction online (albeit a small one) seemed to be nothing but adulation and excitement… and, yet, here I was, completely clueless about any of the three titles contained therein. My knowledge of horror runs deep, real deep, yet I hadn’t even heard of a single one of these movies… which, I suppose, was Arrow’s way of schooling even hardcore horror fans. See, this set posits that while seminal classics like “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “Psycho” (1960) helped pave the way for all the horror films that followed, the pictures presented in “American Horror Project: Vol. 1” were the heroes of an alternate cinematic timeline. The connective tissue between these three films and horror’s better-known early works are low budgets, great ambitions, and a wealth of style as well as depth of characters. I blindly went into this set with no expectations, figuring each film would be – at best – an interesting curiosity of the genre. After digesting all three, it’s safe to say not only are these films worthy of horror fans’ time, but each brings with it a unique, nightmarish vision of terrors both real and imagined.

Kicking things off is one-time director Christopher Speeth’s “Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood” (1973), a surreal trip through a dilapidated carnival full of strange inhabitants. Long thought lost until a surviving print surfaced sometime around the turn of the century, the film centers on a distraught husband and wife who pose as carnival workers, securing jobs at Malatesta’s traveling circus in hopes of finding their missing son, whom they believe may be among the weird denizens employed by the mysterious Malatesta. Less a narrative adventure and more a series of seemingly random, bizarre sequences the film gets some notoriety points for featuring diminutive star Hervé Villechaize as a creepy character named Bobo - and for featuring one of the worst examples of a “hook hand” ever seen on film, rivalling that of Chubbs in “Happy Gilmore” (1996)… and also for featuring a deranged character with one eternally wandering glass eye, who creeps around the grounds like a twilight sentinel.

The carnival seems to be run by a Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey), though the real proprietor in charge is the eponymous Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich), a wolf-like man who holds bizarre ghoul parties. He actually seems pretty chill compared to Blood, who hams it up and maybe takes himself a bit too seriously. Random attacks occur on the carnival attractions, with guests and employees both fair game for whatever creatures of the night happen to be lurking nearby. Many of these murders are graphic, though the sight of red, watery blood splashing all over the frame lessens the impact. The film doesn’t play favorites with who lives or dies either, and some characters who appear to be leads are dispatched and consumed by Malatesta’s cannibal horde just as quickly as the forgettable faces. Although to be fair, just about everyone here falls under that rubric.

This is a film for horror fans that don’t mind a lack of cohesive story and are fine with watching low-budget scenes of carnage and kooky characterization unfold on screen. I will say that despite the fact this film makes little sense most of the time, I never found myself completely bored throughout its (thankfully) brief 84-minute running time. I can’t say it’s a title I’ll be eager to revisit soon, but it certainly sets a tone and expectations for the remaining two pictures in this box.

The second picture in this set, “The Witch Who Came From The Sea” (1976), bowled me over by not only completely subverting my expectations but also for being a true gem that has obviously never gotten much acclaim. Based on the name and striking poster art, I had (wrongly) assumed the film would be a literal take on its title – a witch comes from the sea and kills people. Instead, what I saw was a psychological horror film more akin to another unsung gem of the 70's, “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” (1971). In both films the female protagonist is suffering from a breakdown of mental abilities, unable to determine reality from fiction. The cause of insanity is nebulous in “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”; with “The Witch…” it’s not only made abundantly clear but it is of the most heinous variety: child abuse.

Molly (Millie Perkins) has a problem with men – specifically, her graphic, violent sexual fantasies involving muscular guys. But they are just that – fantasies – right? Molly’s job as a waitress at the local seaside watering hole gives her ample opportunity to meet nighttime suitors, whom she is more than happy to entertain. Her life is a mess otherwise. She is continually haunted by the ghosts of events passed, such as the constant sexual abuse perpetrated by her father, whom she chooses to remember fondly rather than as the monster he was. Molly is also quite the lush, binge drinking her woes away. In her inebriated haze, Molly often daydreams about sadistically torturing men twice her size, teasing them sexually before ending their lives as they beg for mercy. Her thoughts seem like nothing more than vivid daydreams… until one such dream, involving two visiting football players, turns out to be true. But how can that be? Her one salvation in life comes in the form of her two nephews whom she absolutely adores. Her sister knows something isn’t quite right with Molly, and she amiably attempts to make Molly see things as they are and not how she chooses to, but Molly’s mind is so fractured and her actions so horrific that there may be no coming back from where she has gone.

There are some interesting reverse parallels between this film and Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fable “The Little Mermaid”, which is referenced numerous times throughout the film. In that story Ariel, the title character, longs to leave her undersea kingdom for a life on land; Molly has a strong affinity for the sea – her father was a captain – and later in the film she gets a large mermaid tattooed on her abdomen. The film’s final shot is a poetic take on Ariel’s final moments, too. Molly clearly feels a strong sense of comfort and warmth with the ocean. I’m not going to write a thesis on the synchronous elements, but needless to say they are clear if you pay attention.

What struck me, and stayed with me, most was the examination of Molly’s increasingly fractured mental state. The film plays up the ambiguity of Molly’s perceived actions, causing viewers to wonder if she’s imagining these murders or imagining the news reports – what is real, what isn’t. Nothing is explicitly clear. Molly means well, as evidenced by her warmth and affection when she is spending time with her nephews, but her relationship with every other male in the film is tumultuous. Men easily fall into her traps because she’s fun and loose and oozes sexuality, allowing her to get them right where she wants them.

But where the film really succeeds is in tackling heavy, dark subject matter in a respectable manner. Molly’s reverence for her father seems normal at the film’s onset until it becomes uncomfortably clear she was frequently abused as a child. These actions are not implied, either, as one scene openly shows Molly’s father thrusting while on top of her. He is played as a deranged man, too. Obviously being a pedo is derangement in itself, but his behavior is so erratic it’s clear something is missing up top as well. Maybe his mental deficiencies were passed on to Molly, who has to deal with the additional burden of trying to suppress a childhood of horrid abuse. “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” peels back several layers of a rotten onion. Some of the things it shows can be tough to watch even today (imagine what it was like in the 70's), but this is an important film that may ostensibly be horror but it really is so much more.

Eagle-eyed John Carpenter fans will note director of photography Dean Cundey shot the film, while J.C. regular George “Buck” Flower appears as a detective (and his daughter plays the young Molly in flashbacks).

The third film in this trilogy of terrors is “The Premonition” (1976), starring Richard Lynch as a carnival clown who is completely p*ssy-whipped by a crazy lady. The film was produced to capitalize on the parapsychology trend that hit horror around this time period – like that year’s “Carrie” (1976) – though the conceit is used much more sparingly than in those similar pictures. This, for me, was the least interesting film in the set. The best thing about it is composer Henry Mollicone’s score, and even that isn’t exactly memorable.

Jude (Richard Lynch) is a carnival worker who dancers around and takes photos of guests when they come to visit the grounds. During one such photographic session he snaps a picture of young Janie (Danielle Brisebois), who years earlier was taken from her biological mother, Andrea (Ellen Barber). This is because Andrea is insane and she was committed to a mental hospital, one from which she was just released the morning before. Jude shows Andrea the photograph and vows to help her get back Janie however he can. Janie, meanwhile, has been living an idyllic life with her new parents. Her mother, Sheri (Sharon Farrell), gets an uneasy feeling when Janie says a woman spoke to her at school earlier that day. That woman was Andrea, who hatches a plan with Jude to steal back “her daughter”. Late one night Sheri hears strange noises coming from upstairs. When she goes up to investigate, she finds Andrea coddling a sleeping Janie. Sheri attacks and Andrea is forced to flee with only a doll, which she treats like a real baby until Jude slaps her back to reality.

Unfortunately, that slap also causes Andrea to slap him and call him many a derogatory name. This angers Jude. Even though Andrea has him around her little finger he still snaps, producing a knife and stabbing her to death. But that won’t stop him from carrying out his plan of having a family, so he continues on with the kidnapping of Janie. All the while there’s a minor subplot going on involving parapsychologists who attempt to make sense of Sheri’s odd visions, including a weird foam that seems to portend danger. Jude succeeds in absconding with Janie and the only way Sheri can get her back is by – long sigh – performing a final song Andrea had composed as a public concert, with the idea being that love can break the spell. Or some sh*t like that. This film is a mess.

There is still some good to be found in here, even if it doesn’t exactly make the film entirely watchable. Richard Lynch delivers a strong performance as a chronic loser who desperately tries to bring together the family he’s never had and likely never will if this opportunity slips away. He’s a character that knows what he’s attempting to do is undeniably wrong, yet his pull toward this crazy woman and her no-longer daughter is enough to make him do unspeakable things. Of course, he’s clearly just as crazy, too, since he winds up killing Andrea and all…

The paranormal angle is squandered almost wholly; it’s inclusion feeling more wedged in than organic. Sheri’s visions don’t seem to be spelling out anything conclusive, and the interpretations from the paranormal psychologists are even more puzzling. The entire ending where love has to conquer evil forces is so hammy and lame, especially given the venue. Why the hell does Sheri have to play a harpsichord in the middle of town, with citizens lining up late at night to watch her pound away like a mad woman? At one point I started laughing uncontrollably because it’s just so ridiculous. If you’ve already invested in the first two films of this set, don’t skip this despite my damning review. Just know that it’s a weaker effort, lacking in a clear vision and only redeemed by a single performance and a strong score.

So, there you have it. Arrow Video’s first (of hopefully a few more) American Horror Project is a mostly rousing success. Individually, the only film I would say could merit a standalone release is “The Witch Who Came from the Sea”, though collectively each film is strengthened by the presence of the others. As a whole this is a great set for horror fans that are looking to delve deeper into the genre, hoping to see those wayward cinematic nuggets that have remained largely unseen for the past few decades.

“Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood” film rating: C+
“The Witch Who Came from the Sea” film rating: B+
“The Premonition” film rating: C-

Video

These three films are low-budget relics, rescued from obscurity and presented as they were found. No extensive, or even minimal, restoration work appears to have been done, with each film’s transfer coming courtesy of surviving prints, not negatives. Quality is not terrible, although the results definitely leave something to be desired if you’re a videophile who wants to see cleaned up prints. I found each film’s video quality to be emblematic of the 70's lo-fi aesthetics, and while restoration work could have improved the look of each I have zero problem with how they’re presented here.

“Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood” features a 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image. The picture is rough, with scratches present, heavy grain and a very “grindhouse” feel. Focus struggles to maintain sharpness, though close-ups do present some nice detailing. Black levels are surprisingly solid, and colors look natural although some filtering has clearly been used to manipulate the tone of certain scenes.

“The Witch Who Came from the Sea” gets a 2.35:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image that is definitely (and unfortunately) the roughest of the bunch. There are frequent scratches and specks that litter the picture, with a couple of scenes exhibiting some serious frame damage. Strong moments of high definition are sprinkled throughout, though much of the movie looks fairly soft. Some of that is due to the inherent softening of frame edges when shooting anamorphic; some is simply due to age. Grain is heavy but not obtrusive. Color appears to be drained of saturation, although black levels are fairly consistent and dark.

“The Premonition” is framed at 1.85:1, with a 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded picture. Once again, expect to see a grainy image, accurate coloration that is slightly faded and average definition. There is a bit of telecine wobble apparent during a couple of scenes. Cigarette burns can be seen as well, although the print is probably the cleanest of all three films, with minimal damage and dirt. Black levels are a bit hazy, looking closer to grey than true black.

“Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood” video rating: B
“The Witch Who Came from the Sea” video rating: B-
“The Premonition” video rating: B

Audio

Audio-wise, things are pretty similar between all three films. Each gets an English LPCM Uncompressed 1.0 mono track, the results of which are limited yet totally serviceable. “Malatesta…” has a slight muffling to the track, though dialogue is easy enough to understand and there is no hissing. The creepy carnival music is fitting, while the majority of the score is off-kilter and disorienting. “The Witch…” is mostly clean, with only a slight crackle heard in some scenes. There is very little scoring in the film. “The Premonition”, as previously mentioned, features a lovely score from Mollicone and is otherwise a perfectly average track. Subtitles are available on all three films in English.

Extras

Arrow Video has made sure to pack this box set with all kinds of fun goodies, including introductions, audio commentaries, interviews, short films, theatrical trailers, and more.

DISC ONE: “Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood”

“Nightmare U.S.A.” author Stephen Thrower delivers his first of three film introductions (1080p), this one running for 3 minutes and 41 seconds.

There is an audio commentary with film historian Richard Harland Smith, who apparently loves the film in a completely non-ironic way. He spews out a never-ending stream of information, highlighting many aspects of the production that are pretty interesting.

“The Secrets of Malatesta” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 14 minutes and 6 seconds. Speeth talks about his film’s cast & crew, MPAA problems, sound effects, FX work and just about everything else you can imagine.

“Crimson Speak” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 11 minutes and 49 seconds. Writer Werner Liepolt is interviewed, comparing and contrasting his original “tighter” script with what wound up being filmed. It sounds like he had lofty aspirations that weren’t quite met, though he doesn’t exactly deride the final film.

“Malatesta’s Underground” (1080p) is an interview with art directors Al Johnson and Richard Stange that runs for 10 minutes and 10 seconds. This was the duo’s first film and they tried to get as inventive as possible, budget notwithstanding.

Outtakes (1080p), which are trimmed odds & ends and not comedic bloopers, runs for 2 minutes and 59 seconds.

A gallery (1080p) contains 39 images.

DISC TWO: DVD

This is a DVD copy of “Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood”.

DISC THREE: “The Witch Who Came from the Sea”

Stephen Thrower delivers another introduction (1080p), running for 4 minutes and 52 seconds.

The film’s audio commentary features producer/director Matt Cimber, actress Millie Perkins and director of photography Dean Cundey. There’s some decent information to be heard here, though the audio quality is dreadful and there are long gaps of silence. Might be best to just watch the interviews instead.

“Tides & Nightmares” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 23 minutes and 28 seconds. The same three participants from the commentary are featured here, discussing all of the essentials about how this film came together and got produced.

“A Maiden’s Voyage” (SD) is a featurette that runs for 36 minutes and 14 seconds. This legacy interview again features the same previously mentioned participants, covering much of the ground from the previous featurette. It’s a nice inclusion but mostly redundant.

“Lost at Sea” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 3 minutes and 55 seconds. This is a little more with Cimber, discussing the film’s central theme.

DISC FOUR: DVD

This is a DVD copy of “The Witch Who Came from the Sea”.

DISC FIVE: “The Premonition”

There is another introduction (1080p) with Stephen Thrower included here, running for 3 minutes and 17 seconds.

The option to play the film with an isolated score is included as a bonus feature.

Producer/director Robert Allen Schnitzer is on hand for an audio commentary. He’s quite the talker, covering the usual topics of discussion.

“Pictures from a Premonition” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 21 minutes and 19 seconds. This is a making-of, covering the film’s production process.

Robert Allen Schnitzer interview (SD) runs for 5 minutes and 51 seconds. The director speaks a little more about his film.

Richard Lynch interview (SD) runs for 16 minutes and 6 seconds. Lynch discusses not only his work on this film but also some highlights of his career and what acting has taught him.

Short films (1080p) includes the following works produced by Schnitzer:

- “Terminal Point” runs for 40 minutes and 45 seconds.
- “Vernal Equinox” runs for 30 minutes and 8 seconds.
- “A Rumbling in the Land” runs for 11 minutes and 5 seconds.

A series of peace spots (1080p) runs for 3 minutes and 38 seconds. These are anti-war PSAs.

The film’s theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 2 minutes and 23 seconds.

A handful of TV spots (1080p) runs for 3 minutes and 27 seconds.

DISC SIX: DVD

This is a DVD copy of “The Premonition”.

Packaging

Each film is housed in Arrow’s usual clear keep case, with one disc on the inside hub and another on a swinging hinge. Cover art for each title is reversible. These three cases are housed inside of a sturdy, attractive side-loading slipcase, along with a 60-page booklet filled with essays, photographs, technical information and more.

Overall

Casual horror fans may not get the same level of enjoyment out of this set as the diehards, but anyone who doesn’t mind low-budget relics from the golden days of the 70's should find value in each one of these entries. Arrow’s box set is an excellent addition to the horror hi-def scene, especially since it gives a new lease on life to forgotten terrors that deserve a wider audience.

The Film: B- Video: B- Audio: B Extras: B+ Overall: B

 


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