Review: American Horror Project Vol. 1 (Arrow Video Blu-Ray)

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American Horror Project Vol. 1 is a labor of love from Arrow Video and curator Stephen Thrower, who has assembled three horror films relegated to general obscurity besides this 6-disc release. The collection includes Malatesta‘s Carnival of BloodThe Witch Who Came from the Sea, and The Premonition, all three of which come from the early-to-late 1970s. Are these lesser-known films the American classics that Thrower claims? Read on for reviews of each of the three films, and a look at the features available in this set.

[wptab name=’Malatesta*s Carnival of Blood Review’]

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Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is probably the most obscure out of the three films on this release, admitted by Thrower in his introduction to the film. The movie was directed by Christopher Speeth and released in 1973, and it remained unnoticed for many years before eventually getting a DVD release from the director himself in 2003. Thrower’s reasoning for inclusion in this set of films has to do with Speeth’s use of surrealism, atmosphere, and setting to tell the tale of a carnival at night, but it’s also easy to see why Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood never generated much fanfare.

The film has a loose plot; “plot” itself is a term that’s probably giving the script more credit than it’s due. Speeth follows the Norris family, and particularly their daughter Vena (Janine Carazo) as they attempt to find their missing son at the local carnival. It seems they’ve gotten themselves jobs to infiltrate Mr. Blood’s (Jerome Dempsey) operation, and Vena has become good friends with Kit (Chris Thomas), a fellow worker who seems to know the dark secrets behind the carnival.

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When Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood opens, most of the proceedings have already gotten underway. Speeth spends no time on characterization, barely even naming the characters (Vena’s mom is just Mrs. N (Betsy Henn) most of the time) before Vena and Kit explore the carnival after-hours. The lack of development for these characters isn’t the problem; it’s the way Speeth structures the film. The audience gets very little exposition about the Norris’ besides a couple of key moments where Mr. Norris lets it slip that he’s out for revenge if he can’t find his son at the carnival. If it weren’t for this scene, there would be no forward momentum at all for the film, no reason for the Norris’ to stay at the carnival when they continue to note how dangerous it is after dark. This is still an issue anyway, as Vena continues to go to the carnival to work during the day even though she was attacked the night before.

That Speeth wants to drape his characters in mystery is no surprise. Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood‘s off-kilter approach figures heavily into the atmosphere of the film, and in truth the droning score and strange, stilted dialogue make for some eerie entertainment. Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is clearly influenced by classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; in fact, that film – along with The Phantom of the OperaDracula, and Frankenstein – are shown during a ghoul party led by Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich) himself every night during the carnival’s after-hours. But unlike Caligari, the film suffers from its forays into surrealism, plodding on for long periods of time as Vena runs through the carnival at night while being chased by zombies. Speeth offers some interesting cinematographic choices, along with weird carnival-themed setpieces like a clear ballooned canvas that threatens to envelope Vena when she steps into it; still, their presence is more about the psychedelic effect it has on the viewer rather than a conveyance of story.

Ultimately, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is less impressive as a film than as a lost artifact of horror cinema. Though its trippy moments provide some tense sequences and a memorable blend of odd characters, the execution of the story surrounding these scenes is too shoddy to recommend as a true classic of horror cinema – it’s more of a sporadically entertaining art piece. At only 84 minutes, however, the film is short enough for viewers to at least give it an initial viewing before completely disregarding. But it’s hard to see the appeal in this otherwise unimpressive surrealist circus besides an admittedly beautiful red color scheme and the occasional thematic exploration of a shady carnival after its patrons have gone home. [/wptab] [wptab name=’The Witch Who Came from the Sea Review’]

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The Witch Who Came from the Sea is similarly surreal, although not as esoteric as Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood. Before its release in 1976, the film promptly received an X-rating, forcing the filmmakers to edit risque scenes to garner a proper R rating; that didn’t stop it from getting thrown on the UK’s Video Nasty list and elevating it to near cult status among hardened genre fans, however. It’s strange how censorship works, because director Matt Cimber handles the disturbing content of The Witch Who Came from the Sea with a finesse that one doesn’t normally see from a traditional Video Nasty. Despite its ban, the movie is actually a sad, affecting piece about mental illness, incestual rape, and the effect television’s distortion of reality has on people.

The Witch Who Came from the Sea technically has no witches, at least in the most derivative sense. Molly (Millie Perkins), a clearly disturbed young lady, finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation after people she sees on television wind up dead. Her sister and her boyfriend Long John (Lonny Chapman) try to protect her as long as possible, but as she begins to have more intense headaches that she combats with pills and alcohol, she starts making mistakes that lead the police to her door.

Robert Thom’s script is simple and concise, and the film capitalizes on Molly’s stilted and often disjointed dialogue. The Witch Who Came from the Sea makes no attempts to hide Molly’s mental illness, quickly exposing her strange thoughts in the way she expresses herself to both her sister and her nephews Tadd (Jean Pierre Camps) and Tripoli (Mark Livingston). Thom begins to show her unravelings with Molly’s fixation on her father – she’s unable to accept the fact that he’s dead, instead remarking that he’s just lost at sea and could return at any moment. While her sister says their father is a drunk, Molly refuses to see him in that damning light.

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As the film continues, Cimber’s close focus on Molly forces the audience to pity her, and cutting away from key moments presents a doubt about her involvement in the multiple homicides. The Witch Who Came from the Sea has a dream-like tendency to present events that don’t necessarily seem concrete, and since Molly is such an unreliable character, there’s always a question of whether what the viewer is seeing is actually reality. It’s no more apparent than in an early sequence where Molly daydreams about a threesome with two popular football players where she ties them together and then cuts them with a razor that implies sexual violence; though it happens in a haze, the event plays out in reality later that night.

But the film doesn’t attempt to bait-and-switch the viewer by leaving it up to the imagination whether Molly’s the real killer. Her disturbances keep getting worse, and eventually Cimber follows her throughout her attacks. She cuts a popular TV commercial star with his own razor, then cuts off a large mermaid tattoo on her stomach. The violence – and the anticipated descent into madness – grows, until eventually Molly is forced to confront her demons.

That’s where the impact of Thom’s script comes in, though. While The Witch Who Came from the Sea doesn’t veil its themes much (its mermaid tattoo symbolism is too heavy on the nose, for example), it doesn’t diminish the alarming memories from Molly’s past where she is raped by her father repeatedly, or where, out at sea, her father dies on top of her from a heart attack. It’s a bleak moment, even moreso when Cimber flashes shots of dismembered bodies on a raft as Molly screams. He leaves the explanation of this scene to the viewer, but the intent of the title weighs heavy on the viewer.

Perkins is fantastic in her role, often aloof and barely coherent at times. The film’s atmosphere is thick and tense, and though The Witch Who Came from the Sea is relatively slow despite a presumption from its Video Nasty status that it’s filled with blood and gore, it never drags because of its character focus. There’s an interesting thematic statement about the effects of television, too, that indicates how infectious the fake TV world can be.

Truly, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a long-lost horror classic, a film that presents the terrors of humanity rather than a made-up monster or demon. For those with an appreciation for character studies, especially unreliable ones like Molly, Cimber’s film is a perfect example of how horror films can dredge up the sadness and darkness of real life. This isn’t a feel-good movie, but it is an excellent and hypnotic tale that’s been lost out at sea for far too long.

[/wptab] [wptab name=’The Premonition Review’]

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Despite the supernatural experience of the film’s title,  Robert Allen Schnitzer’s The Premonition is much less horrific and surreal than the other offerings in this set. It could be because the film’s original script simply centered on a mother’s attempts to get her daughter back from the girl’s foster parents, changed by Schnitzer and screenwriters Anthony Mahon and Louis Pastore to incorporate the pseudoscientific elements that fascinated Schnitzer. Whatever the case, though, The Premonition lacks a strong eerie atmosphere throughout much of the film, and so its placement on a set like the American Horror Project is somewhat suspect. But as a film undefined by genre restrictions, Schnitzer’s exploration of psychic connections and the complexities of quantum physics is an interesting, if often laborious, excursion.

The film alternates between the Bennett family – Sheri (Sharon Farrell), Prof. Miles (Edward Bell), steeped in the realism of science, and their adopted daughter Janie (Danielle Brisebois) – and Janie’s biological mother Andrea (Ellen Barber) and her friend Jude (Richard Lynch) as they attempt to kidnap her for the first third. It would seem like a straightforward premise, except Schnitzer incorporates that supernatural element when Sheri begins to see visions – what will soon be understood as premonitions – of a bleeding Andrea and a screaming Jude, scaring her half to death and triggering the scientific curiosity of Miles in the process.

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The Premonition is often slow to allow its real point to take shape, and Schnitzer spends an unnecessary amount of time with Andrea and Jude as the focal point before transitioning to the true central characters. Both Barber and Lynch put on a good show, emphasizing their demented personalities, but ultimately the film doesn’t require that relationship to the antagonists; in fact, it muddles the direction of The Premonition and eliminates some of the suspense of Sheri’s premonitions.

The film finds the most success when it shifts to the Bennetts, showing the growing marital rift between Sheri and Miles and contextualizing Miles’ disbelief in the supernatural despite his coworker Jeena’s (Chitra Neogy) parapsychological research. The Premonition clearly takes a stance on that system of belief, showcasing Schnitzer’s dabbling in the supernatural and the realm of quantum physics, but it also smartly explores both topics. At one point Miles even gives a lecture about the formation of black holes in space, noting the formation of stars that live, give off massive amounts of energy, and then die to pull in an astrological connection.

Schnitzer’s direction has a number of startling moments, too. In one of the premonitions,  a stabbed and bleeding Andrea moans and jumps at Sheri. Andrea’s corpse is dragged from the lake in her red dress. Nearly possessed with the premonition, Sheri plays Andrea’s original music on a piano to draw Janie back to her. These fragmented moments are poignant, often profound, but they’re enveloped by The Premonition‘s tendency to drag on that never tightens up the loose plot connections.

The Premonition as a concept is intriguing, but its execution doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It doesn’t take any retrocognitive powers to identify why the film has not become a shining example of the genre, and it seems a bit misplaced on this set. Still, it’s worth a watch to see psychics and physics working together.

[/wptab] [wptab name=’Video/Audio’]

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This set comes with six discs, three being the Blu-Ray version of the films and three being the standard DVD. For this review, I was only privy to the Blu-Ray versions. Each of the three films has had a brand new 2K restoration in 1080p, which is probably better than any film in this series has had or will ever have. I’ll break the video/audio quality down by all three films.

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood: Video looks pretty good considering the lack of preservation of the original print. There is definitely some unavoidable damage in the film, including a couple of green lines that play at the center and edge of the screen at times. Cigarette burns can be noticed at certain points in the film as well. However, color and grain is well-controlled, and that’s good for this film since it does have some deep red tones. Audio is also good with the mono track – no significant issues, and this is a film that emphasizes the use of its score for a lot of its suspense. This film will probably never get a better release.

The Witch Who Came from the Sea: Again, there are a few issues with damage to the film – we see some lines and burns, but otherwise grain is very good. Actually, the preservation is often surprisingly excellent, especially with outdoor scenes and the footage from the television commercials. Audio mono track is crisp as well.

The Premonition: The film probably has the best transfer of the three, with very little in terms of damage besides a few spots in the picture at times. Otherwise, this is a good-looking transfer besides the obvious issues with budget present in the original film. Again, the mono audio track is about the same in quality as the two other films.

[/wptab] [wptab name=’Special Features’]

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As a package, this is a great set. American Horror Project Vol. 1 comes with reversible sleeves for each film with new artwork from Twins of Evil, as well as a pull-out booklet with essays about each film from Kim Newman, Kier-La Janisse, and Brian Albright. It’s a 60-page full color book that adds a ton of value.

This set features special features for each of the three films on their discs, so again, I will cover them individually.

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood: This film gets English subtitles, a nice menu, and an audio commentary track from film historian Richard Harland Smith. Bonus interviews come from director Christopher Speeth, who talks for 14 minutes about the making of the film and the idea behind the surreal world of the film; writer Werner Liepolt, who interestingly provides a reasoning behind the disjointed nature of the film thanks to Speeth abandoning the script halfway through; and art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson, who talk about the recycling of trash around the amusement park they filmed at to make some of the sets and designs.

Also included is an outtake reel (a couple of minutes of extra footage), a gallery of photos, and a draft screenplay that one can get from the BD-ROM. All told, a couple hours of extras when factoring in the audio commentary, and that’s quite a bit for a release of this size.

The Witch Who Came from the Sea: This movie gets a number of special features including English subtitles, menu, and an audio commentary track from Matt Cimber, Millie Perkins, and director of photography Dean Cundey. If you don’t want to watch with the commentary, however, there’s a documentary included that spans about 20 minutes, and a second making-of that’s a little bit older that clocks in at over 30 minutes. Honestly, I’d recommend Arrow’s new one more than the old footage – better quality, but also more concise in a shorter amount of time. There’s also an interview with John Goff, who plays the father.

The Premonition: This film has the most extras out of the three flicks. Along with the usual trailer, subtitles, and menu, the film gets an audio commentary track with Robert Allen Shnitzer and a 20-minute documentary featuring Schnitzer and composer Henry Mollicone. There’s also an isolated film score track. An older interview with Robert Lynch (who died in 2012) is featured, about 16 minutes long. A shorter interview with Schnitzer is also included, where he talks about the reception of the film. Also, three of Schnitzer’s short films are included, as well as his “Piece” spots. A trailer and TV spots round it out.

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