American Horror Project: Volume One Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Arrow Video has announced the June 25th release date of the second volume of their American Horror Project series, which will include John Hayes’ Dream No Evil, Martin Goldman’s Dark August (1976), Robert Voskanian’s The Child (1977). In celebration, I’m republishing my review of their first American Horror Project Blu-ray review.
American Horror Project: Volume One
Everyone knows the classic American horror titles: Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street to name but a few. But we want to tell you a different story – a story of the unsung heroes of American terror. Whether it’s a film that has languished in obscurity or a movie that’s at risk of being lost, due to lack of source materials, American Horror Project is here to ensure that these unique slices of the American Nightmare are brought back into the public consciousness and preserved for all to enjoy. (From Arrow’s official press release)
The first of what will hopefully be multiple collections of obscure and oddball American horror movies from Arrow Films includes three films that were heavily featured in Stephen Thrower’s massive coffee table book meets critical encyclopedia magnum opus, Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (2007, FAB Press). Thrower doesn’t appear on any of the extras, but he was apparently involved with this release in a curator capacity.
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
The Norris family arrive at a creepy, dilapidated fairground in search of their missing daughter, only to find themselves at the mercy of cannibalistic ghouls lurking beneath the park. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Christopher Speeth’s Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (not to be confused with Leonard Kirtman’s Carnival of Blood, 1970) kicks this collection off with an unexpected burst of outrageously gory, ultra avant-garde energy. The film’s stats read like a laundry list of cult movie requirements:
It was Speeth and writer Werner Liepolt’s first and only film before both of them disappeared into utter obscurity.
It was lost for 30 years, following a very limited drive-in distribution.
Its story is vague and tonally schizophrenic enough to welcome a wide array of interpretations.
It beat other, more popular exploitation movies to the punch in terms of taboo content (it’s really graphic for a 1973 release).
It features a central performance from one of cult culture’s most enigmatic figures – Hervé Villechaize (the dwarf actor from Fantasy Island).
Better yet, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood meets expectations with an impressive weird streak – some of it purposeful, loads of it accidental. These warring bouts of creativity and amateurism give the film its artful, anti-mainstream appeal. Speeth and his crew break so many basic rules of storytelling, editing, and photography that it transcends its minimalistic and familiar plot. Major plot points are skipped or seemingly forgotten at every turn, there’s little indication as to exactly how events intersect or overlap, and almost every shot is either over-stuffed or nearly empty, as if the footage was culled from the efforts of five different camera operators with five different sets of instructions. I assume most cult audiences would compare the film to early colour gore flicks from the ‘60s, like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy or Tobe Hooper’s more famous southern-fried horrors (given its 1973 release, Speeth’s film may have inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eaten Alive). However, given the insane production design (someone involved must’ve worked for a bubble wrap and tinfoil distributor) and maddening disdain for rationality, the better comparison might be the surrealistic horror of Brazilian horror personality Jose Mojica Marins, specifically At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1963) and This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967). In any case, fans of Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) will definitely want to take notice.
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood was lost, rediscovered in 2003, remastered by Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, and released on an independently-produced DVD under the Windmill Films label. Unfortunately, it was a non-anamorphic transfer. Arrow’s 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer comes from a 2K scan of the director’s personal 35mm answer print. This is probably the weakest of the three transfers in this collection, due almost entirely to the condition of the print. There are a number of artefacts (scratches, dirt, snowy noise, and vertical lines), the details are often soft, and the contrast/gamma levels are inconsistent. To appreciate what Arrow has done, one needs to think of the transfer as an incredibly accurate and uncompressed representation of what the answer print would look like if it were projected. The damage and heavy grain fit the mood of this unusual movie and cinematographer Norman Gaines’ fusion of amateurish and arty compositions is rarely overwhelmed by artefacts.
The original mono soundtrack is presented in LPCM 1.0. Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is awash with busy sound design, abstract echoing effects, and overlapping tracks (in a particularly weird moment, the sound of birds chirping is mixed into the background of a chase sequence that is set at nighttime). Despite the problematic film quality, the audio is surprisingly clear and neatly layered. Most of the obvious inconsistencies in volume and clarity are usually clear-cut examples of faulty/limited sound editing. These include sudden drops in the sound-floor/ambience and sharp differences between set-recorded and ADR dialogue. There is no credited composer and a lot of the music falls under the category of traditional choral or carnival fare, but there are also atmospheric analogue keyboard moans and screams during the scarier sequences. Based on the non-melodic qualities of this ‘music,’ I’m going to assume it should be credited to sound effects supervisor Daniel Miles Kron.
Commentary with Richard Harland Smith – This critic/fan track with the TCM Movie Morlocks writer is a bit flowery and ‘fanny,’ but Smith’s rapid-fire behind-the-scenes info is pretty infectious. There’s a lot to absorb here with very little down-time.
The Secrets of Malatesta (14:10, HD) – Speeth talks about the film’s odd heritage. He discusses the fact that the story was built around available locations, the casting process, cinematographic difficulties (sure enough, not enough footage was shot, which explains the weird look and editing), censorship, Kron’s unique soundtrack, distribution, and being included in Nightmare USA.
Crimson Speak (12:00, HD) – Writer Werner Liepolt talks about his education, writing plays, working with Speeth, the real-world inspiration of the Sawney Bean family (the same cannibalistic family that inspired The Hills Have Eyes), assisting Speeth with casting and collaborating with that cast on the screenplay, massive structural changes between the script and the movie, and audience reactions.
Malatesta’s Underground (10:10, HD) – An interview with art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson, who were hired after Speeth saw an art installation they assisted with. In addition to the discussion, there are behind-the-scenes photos of the plastic-wrapped sets. Sure enough, the building materials were mostly what was available in the warehouse they shot the movie, in addition to a surplus of rejected orange ‘bubblepack.’
Outtakes (3:00, HD) – A gruesome reel of unused cannibal bits.
Gallery of production stills and behind-the-scenes photos.
The Premonition (1976)
Five-year-old Janie (Danielle Brisebois) is snatched away by a strange woman (Sheri Bennett), claiming to be her long-lost mother. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
At first blush, Robert Allen Schnitzer’s The Premonition feels like a cold shower, following the rush to the head that is Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood. It is easily the most mainstream-friendly of the three films in that even its strange and spooky qualities match the tone and patterns of many similar, medium-budget horror films from the era. It also had a major theatrical release. But, once this more psychologically-driven feature gets moving, it fits the mould of oddball ‘70s Americana. The studious filmmaking techniques (loads of close-ups, low-angle shots, slow pans and zooms) and utilitarian production design recall the mechanisms of early Cronenberg and ‘70s-era George Romero. This slightly skewed naturalism is seasoned with unusual editing and sudden shocks of psychedelic imagery that elevate Schnitzer and Anthony Mahon’s unbalanced, occasionally boring screenplay. Like Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Schnitzer and Mahon juggle family drama with heady pseudo-science (there’s even a bit of body-horror during one of the the hallucinations) and, while don’t exert the same control – the basic plot is underdeveloped in favour of ineffective soap operatics and the pseudo-science, though initially quite intriguing, devolves into more typical supernatural happenings – The Premonition does have a strong sense of melancholy in its drama. As presented in the box set (physically – it sits between the other two Blu-rays), Arrow has put it at the end of the triple-feature, but it definitely fits better in the middle slot, where its more esoteric terrors can be mulled and absorbed. Schnitzer made a total of three features, including the pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone vehicle, No Place to Hide (1970) and a German-financed stripper drama called Kandyland (1987). Cult favourite Richard Lynch makes a memorable appearance as Anthony Mahon’s psychotic circus mime boyfriend.
The Premonition was released on anamorphic DVD in North America by Media Blasters under their Guilty Pleasures banner, but that disc is OOP and I believe it was the only digital option, before this Blu-ray debut came around. The 1.85:1, 1080p image was created by scanning a color reversal intermediate (CRI) in 2K. This is another a nearly perfect representation of a less-than-perfect source, just with a better condition source than Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood. Specific print damage artefacts are minimal, but cinematographer Victor Milt’s dark compositions and the age of the material does lead to considerable grain – some of which creates colour clarity issues. Edges are reasonably sharp and elemental delineation is pretty tight, even when wide-angle details are purposefully softened (this kind of fuzzy filtering is surprisingly common for mid-’70s horror movies). It appears that the key to keeping the material from becoming muddy was found in the grading process, which is quite delicate considering how dark the bulk of the film is. Despite the cross colouration effects the grain sometimes makes, the palette is plenty vivid.
The Premonition’s original mono sound is presented in LPCM 1.0. It is a bit softer and more muffled than the Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood track, in large part because it features a more simplified mix that depends on dialogue and the most basic environmental noise. Again, there are few signs of wear and the volume levels are generally consistent. Music doesn’t play a heavy role, but it is used thoughtfully, often to convey unspoken emotions between the characters and even as a plot device. Henry Mollicone’s more traditional piano/string/oboe (?) score is coupled with Pril Smiley’s electronic music to create further contrast between the domestic and supernatural elements.
Commentary with director/producer Robert Allen Schnitzer – Schnitzer is well-spoken and passionate while running through the behind-the-scenes process. There’s a lot of info here and most of it offers insight into the director’s mindset during production.
Pictures from a Premonition (21:20, HD) – This new retrospective featurette is a thoughtful look at the film’s strange blending of mainstream and metaphysical elements, as well as the ins & outs of its development and production. Not surprisingly (at least not to anyone that has read Nightmare Movies), the behind-the-scenes story is more interesting than the final film. Interviews include Schnitzer, cinematographer Victor Milt, and composer Henry Mollicone.
Interview with Schnitzer (5:50, SD) – This earlier interview, taken from the Media Blasters DVD, covers much of the same ground as the commentary and previous featurette.
Interview with star Richard Lynch (16:10, SD) – Another Media Blasters interview. The late actor talks about his career and has very nice things to say about Premonition, which he claims to have just re-watched prior to the interview to jog his memory.
Three Robert Allen Schnitzer short films:
Terminal Point (40:50, HD) – This B&W domestic drama fulfills just about every student film stereotype imaginable, to the point that it sometimes smells like a satire of conventions, but still features a unique musical soundtrack and has a really interesting sense of rhythm.
Vernal Equinox (30:10, HD) – The second film is actually Schnitzer’s first. The title card informs us that he was 17-years old when he directed/wrote it and that it is meant to explore the unconscious mind, set against a commentary of the pop culture of late ‘60s New York. It’s a bit heavy-handed and slow-moving, but also incredibly impressive for a teenager. I can barely read the lyrics to a songs I wrote at that age…
A Rumbling in the Land (11:10, HD) – The third short is a document of the 1969 occupation of Stony Brook University by Students for a Democratic Society, which had been the largest anti-war student activist group at the time. It is made up of raw B&W footage and stills (some of war crimes, some of the protest itself), set to narration and clips from interviews that were recorded at the time.
Four “Peace Spots” (3:40, HD) – Short anti-war clips that Schnitzer seemingly produced for a group called Film Industry for Peace.
Trailers and TV spots
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (Filmed in 1971 and distributed in 1976)
A young, disturbed woman named Molly (Millie Perkins) has bizarre and violent sexual fantasies start to bleed into reality – literally. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea is the crown jewel of this collection and likely the chief reason many fans will purchase it at all. Arrow probably could’ve released it on its own to decent sales, but I respect them using it to bring attention to the other two features. And it certainly fits the timbre of the rest of this collection, because its weird beauty, stiff pacing, and intimate, rule-breaking qualities could never be confused with the more mainstream-friendly and socially aware American horror films of the 1970s. The Witch Who Came from the Sea has the ambition and polish of a more expensive production, not to mention the moral ambivalence. The other two films in this set can appropriately be called ‘dream-like,’ but The Witch Who Came from the Sea is more ‘dream-literal,’ as it accurately captures the distorted reality of delirium (as opposed to the artful eccentricities of Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood). The time frame is gnarled, the photography is foggy, and Robert Thom’s already warped screenplay is perverted further by unpredictable editing techniques. Sex and violence are stirred into a kinky delusion in which one is indiscernible from the other. In addition, there is no outsider character to anchor the story, which leaves the audience at the mercy of an untrustworthy, completely insane narrator/protagonist. There’s little indication as to what is real, what is imagined, what is flashback, what is a nightmare. Uninitiated viewers might blame the irrationality on bad filmmaking, but Cimber absolutely knew what he was doing and so did Millie Perkins, whose maniacal performance and non-sequitur dialogue is the lynchpin of the entire film. Perkins’ history as the star of George Stevens’ Academy Award-winning The Diary of Anne Frank, so the sight of her castrating men while topless raised more than a few eyebrows at the time.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea is the best movie in this triple-feature, but only barely. So what makes it so popular among cult horror fans, despite being so overlooked during its initial release? That would be because it was one of the more notorious entries in the BBFC’s list of banned ‘Video Nasties.’ As it had with many other forgotten exploitation movies, the BBFC’s prohibition brought the film to the public’s attention and turned it into a valued collector’s item. Unlike the majority of the Video Nasties, Cimber’s film actually deserved the attention and, despite the majority of the violence being left to our imaginations, its imagery is genuinely shocking. Not to imply that it deserves to have been banned, but I can at least understand the BBFC’s objections.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea was released on anamorphic DVD by Subversive Cinema in North America and Anchor Bay in the UK. I’ve personally seen the Subversive release and it was decent – some print damage and substantial over-brightening. This 2.35:1, 1080p version was taken from a 35mm print found at the UCLA Film Archive and was scanned in 2K. It still has some rough artefacts – specifically vertical lines that streak down throughout a handful of shots (they’re pretty well-disguised by what seems to be digital clean-up software), some scratchy transitions between reels, and debris/green flecks peppered over the bulk of the film. The gamma also still leans a bit too light, which leads to blooming during brighter sequences. Otherwise, this is a substantial upgrade in terms of clarity, complex details (specifically the close-up textures, which appear flat on the DVD), and tightened lines. Grain levels are as heavy as any other movie in this collection, but also appear accurate based on the lower budget and advanced age. The cinematographer credited on the tin is one Ken Gibb (whose credits mostly include porn), but the studied and unique compositions mostly belonged to an uncredited Dean Cundey, who was only two years away from his star-making turn as the director of photography on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Cundey isn’t establishing any trademarks just yet, but he is developing what would become his more typical lighting schemes. Experimentation might actually explain the heft of the heavy contrast during daylight sequences. I honestly might be wrong about the blooming being a problem – it could be part of the design. The colours are more vibrant and varied than the SD release, though they skew too orange during some of the more damaged reels. While there aren’t any major issues with bleeding or fading, the sheer redness of the palette is sometimes exorbitant.
The LPCM 1.0 mono audio track is free of distortion, damage, and has a very low sound-floor as well. Dialogue is understandable and consistent. That said, the weird sound design doesn’t make life easy for the track. A lot of the footage is either ADR’d or flatly recorded on set. This creates a bit of dissonance between the audio and the image. Fortunately, it’s not really a problem, considering the heavy reverb, octave drops, and louder environmental ambience used during the dream/murder sequences. There’s a sort of ‘rational irrationality’ to the whole thing. Composer Herschel Burke Gilbert’s music alternates between off-puttingly gentle/playful and appropriately menacing. The score tends to be sharper and more dynamic than the dialogue and effects.
Commentary with director Matt Cimber, actress Millie Perkins, and director of photography Dean Cundey – This track was borrowed from Subversive Cinema’s DVD. It’s not the most well-orchestrated or focused commentary, but there’s charm in the sort of “dinner table conversation” tone of the discussion.
Tides and Nightmare (23:30, HD) – This new retrospective featurette includes interviews with Cimber, Cundey, and actors Perkins and John Goff. It tracks the film’s early development, Robert Thom writing the script specifically for his then-wife Perkins while he was sick in the hospital, Cundey’s technical input, Perkins’ post-Anne Frank career, casting, MPAA rating woes (the cuts made for an R were reinstated after the rating was awarded), and the film’s release.
A Maiden’s Voyage (36:10, SD) – This featurette, which also features Cimber, Cundey, and Perkins interviews, was originally part of the Subversive release’s extras. There is overlap with the commentary and new featurette, naturally.
Lost at Sea (4:00, HD) – Further thoughts from Cimber on the film’s enduring success
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page, except for Premonition, because I lost the original caps. Full-sized versions of the other two can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.