Blu-Ray Review: American Horror Project Volume One

Published on March 8th, 2016 in: Blu-Ray, Current Faves, Horror, Movie Reviews, Movies, Retrovirus, Reviews, Underground/Cult |

By Tim Murr

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When you delve into the glut of independent American cinema from the 1970s, you’ll be amazed at how many films were actually produced in that decade by penniless mavericks far from the infrastructure of Hollywood or New York City. Remember, too, that film- making was a massive undertaking, not just in the pre-digital world, but also pre-video. (For some insight into the trials and tribulations into the hardships of the indie horror director in the ’70s, please check out the book Shock Value by Jason Zinoman.)

The fact that we have small indie efforts like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deranged, Night Of The Living Dead, Last House On The Left, Driller Killer, or Phantasm that have risen to the status of bonafide American classics or, at least, cult classics, is something we should all be thankful for. So many films from the grindhouse circuit have been lost to history. That’s where Arrow Video comes in with the start of an amazing new series, American Horror Project.

Volume One features three films, only one of which I knew about beforehand. Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood, The Witch Who Came From The Sea, and The Premonition are all included in this set and each film arrives with brand new artwork by the Twins of Evil, with reversible sleeves featuring the original poster art. All the films get lovely 2K restorations and come in dual disc Blu-Ray and standard DVD sets. The cherry on top of this sexy box set is a 60-page booklet with brand new articles about each film. Also, on all the films’ menu pages, you have the option to play the film with or without an intro from Stephen Thrower. I recommend choosing “with” introduction.

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The Witch Who Came From The Sea was the only film from the set I’d heard of though I never knew what it was about. This was the film I started with and I was not disappointed. The Witchstars Millie Perkins (The Diary Of Anne Frank) and was written by her husband at the time, Robert Thom (Death Race 2000). Matt Cimber directed this strange journey into psychological horror which follows Molly (Perkins), the aunt of two boys whose single mother struggles to make ends meet sewing clothes. Molly is plagued with visions of murdering good-looking, muscular men. The visions start to bleed into reality as Molly slips deeper into a waking dream state. We see her relationship with her father and the trauma she endured as a child, which clearly informs her spiraling psychosis as an adult.

The Witch Who Came From The Sea is beautifully shot thanks in no small part to cinematographer Dean Cundey (Escape From New York, The Thing, Jurassic Park). His wide-angle shots look gorgeous and help elevate The Witch well above standard grindhouse fare. Cinder’s direction is somewhat dreamy, a bit like Phantasm, but more linear. At the core of the story is a bit of a gender-swap Psycho, but that’s as far as I’d go with the comparisons. Cimber orchestrates the symphony of murder and madness, creating a fairly unique film in the horror genre that has gone criminally overlooked for four decades.

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Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood is the most straight-up grindhouse horror film in this collection, full of ghouls, lurid set pieces, and plenty of that glorious bright red ’70s blood. While more exploitative and looking somewhat cheaper than the other two, Malatesta gets high points for its creepy setting and inventive shots. It’s a bit of a dark carny retelling of the legend of Sawney Bean with Night Of The Living Dead and Carnival Of Souls tossed in a blender.

The Norris family arrives at a fairground under the guise of looking for work, but they are really searching for their missing son. The film fast-tracks into bloody murder and mayhem with a creepy cast of ghouls living underground in the bowels of the park. The ghouls have a similar look to George Romero’s zombies and the film is a mash-up of dirty American grindhouse and Hammer Horror. What really made me love it, though, were the great shots of the ghouls in their underground lair, writhing with excitement in front of the silent horror films being projected on the wall before them. These shots are very cool, better even than the rollercoaster beheading director Christopher Speeth treats us to.

While not exactly a Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest, Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood is quite a gruesome thrill ride; it’s amateurish but stylish, cheap but inventive. It’s definitely not to be confused with the lurid and nasty Carnival Of Blood from 1970.

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The last film in the set is The Premonition, starring genre legend Richard Lynch (The Lords Of Salem, Scanner Cop). It’s a story of mental illness, child loss, and parapsychology. The Premonition is a beautifully shot and scary adult horror film.

Parapsychology was all the rage in the ’70s. That craze was certainly helped by Brian DePalma’s Carrie (based on the Stephen King novel). There would be many films that explored the various facets of parapsychology in that decade, like The Amityville Horror and The Psychic. The Premonition falls between those two films; there is a bit of carnival creepiness mixed with suburban drama. There is also a bit of a feminist undertone to the film where you have a skeptical husband with a wandering eye, giving his wife the pat on the head and the “there, there it’s just your imagination” treatment.

Andrea (Ellen Barber) is searching for the child that was taken from her by the state when she was locked away in a mental institution. Sherri (Sharon Farrell) is the adoptive mother of the young girl in question, Janie (Danielle Brisebois). The escalating desperation and madness of the two mothers as they battle over Janie makes for an incredibly harrowing tale and provides the film with its best scares. Behind each woman are the men in the lives. For Andrea, it is Jude (Richard Lynch) and for Sherri, it is her husband Miles (Edward Bell). In both cases, the men fail to be there for their women in very different ways, ultimately leading to catastrophes that propel the story into dark territory. The horror of a missing child would have been enough, but as the parapsychology subplot begins to take over the film, the fear factor is ramped up, and Barber and Farrell shine.

Of the three films in this set, The Premonition is the most mature and least exploitative of the bunch. I can’t see any good reason that the film “flew under the radar” (according to Brian Albright). I enjoyed it at least as much I did Carrie  or The Omen. While it’s not as polished as either of those films, it still gets the job done splendidly as a mature horror film that goes straight for the heart of suburban security, rather than simply racking up a body count. The young Richard Lynch is just as good and creepy as he is in his more famous roles.

I can’t overstate how much I love this box set. The Arrow Video team deserves some kind of award not just for the lavish restorations of these three films, but for rescuing them and giving them a second chance to thrill horror fans. In addition to the films themselves, each has plenty of supplemental material, including director interviews and audio commentary. I can’t wait for the next volume.

I also, want to thank Arrow for making this set Region Free. I know there are often restrictions on doing so with many of their releases (the recent Deep Red and Hellraiser box sets are not available to Americans who don’t have Region Free players, LIKE ME!!!). American film fans should jump on this set, because Arrow does an amazing job on their releases.

American Horror Project Vol. 1 was released by Arrow Video on February 23.

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