The first in a projected series of releases, American Horror Project Volume One collects three obscure films from what Kim Newman calls the “American Nightmare”: a high-point of American horror that begins in the late-60s with Night of the Living Dead and runs until around the mid-1980s. This first release contains 1973’s Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, long thought missing, with 1976’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea and The Premonition.
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is the strangest, obscurest, and the best of the three films contained here. Set in an old-school carnival of horrors, the film updates the conventions of some old movie starring Vincent Price with Romero-inspired zombies, the same gritty documentary feel as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the hip influence of late-60s/early-70s counterculture in frequent, incongruous psychedelic sequences; more effective, however, is the stilted, mundane surrealism of, say, a scene in which Mr. Blood repeatedly, uselessly squirts a fire extinguisher at a small flame. Hypnotically strange, uncommonly depraved, and completely bewildering, the film shares most particularly with the other giants of the American Nightmare its combination of downbeat realism with the illogical, relentless intensity of an actual nightmare; Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood – even the title “ain’t quite right!” – may be the only “dream-like” picture to come close to the actual experience of dreaming.
Where Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is set around a melancholically, realistically crap fairground, The Witch Who Came from the Sea gains a similar atmosphere from the run-down seaside town in which it is set. With the sincere, unaffected weirdness one is occasionally lucky enough to encounter in a B-picture, the film obsessively dwells on imagery of oceans, mermaids, and ships, as it recounts the sad little story of a grown-up woman, Molly, who murders men because of an unresolved complex about her sexually abusive sea-captain father. While the ideas of Psycho are an obvious influence, the wistful realisation of the film owes more to the artsy fugue of Don’t Look Now. The film boasts a fine central performance by Millie Perkins, for whom this all may have been a little too close for comfort: she was the wife of writer Robert Thom as well as a real-life sea-captain’s daughter, though not, thankfully, a victim of sexual abuse.
With themes of familial bonds, madness, and dark secrets, The Premonition connects well with the other pictures in the set, though in terms of quality it’s very much the runt of the litter with its slight tale of a psychic mother determined to snatch her baby back from its adoptive parents. Borrowing stylistic conventions from European arthouse, but missing their point, the film coasts along on what can only be called pretension before finally arriving at one of the flattest anti-climaxes in horror, though Ellen Barber is a memorably tragic villain, and the accidental squishing of a pet tortoise contains more genuine horror than many an elaborate death sequence in other, bloodier pictures.
Audio and Visuals
Aside from shared thematic elements, the three films are also linked by a similar washed-out visual tone, depicting the sad, decaying leftovers of places of supposed joy (two carnivals and a seaside town). Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood has the most obvious damage to its print, but also suffers the least due to its helter-skelter quality. The Premonition looks just fine, but The Witch Who Came from the Sea is legitimately beautiful. None of the films do anything astonishing with their scores, but all three benefit from high-quality sound restorations.
With an attractive box housing the three films, three reversible sleeves, and three new essays by Kim Newman, Kier-La Janisse, and Brian Albright, it’s difficult to imagine what more you could ask for from this boxset presentation-wise.
Impressively for such a little obscuro, Arrow managed a decent set of extras for Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood: new interviews with director Christopher Speeth (“The Secrets of Malatesta”) and writer Werner Liepolt (“Crimson Speak”), an engrossing discussion with production designers Richard Stange and Alan Johnson (“Malatesta’s Underground”), a series of outtakes, a stills gallery, and a draft script accessible via ROM, plus audio commentary by critic Richard Harland Smith. The Witch Who Came from the Sea fares better, with an audio commentary plus three new interviews with director Matt Cimber, cinematographer Dean Cundey and actor John Goff respectively, while The Premonition boasts a director’s commentary, a new interview with composer Henry Mollicone, a new interview with actor Richard Lynch, 4 “peace spots” – TV spots promoting peace, basically – trailers, TV spots, and three short films by director Robert Allen Schnitzer – the interminably pretentious countercultural pieces “Vernal Equinox” and “Terminal Point”, plus the reasonably interesting documentary “A Rumbling in the Land”. There are also optional introductions to each of the three films by professional horror fan Stephen Thrower, who appears passionate and unscripted, if occasionally repetitive.
Bringing to light three obscure films, two of them brilliant, and one of them thought missing for years, in a great-looking set with extras to match, the American Horror Project is a must for fans of horror and of independent film.
The American Horror Project arrived on Blu-Ray & DVD on the 22nd February, are you going to be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!