Tuesday, February 23, 2016

AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT VOL.1 (Blu-ray Review)

AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT VOL.1

Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: Region-Free
Duration: 251 Minutes 
Audio: English PCM Original Mono 1.0 with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1), (2.35:1) 
Directors: Christopher Speeth, Robert Allen Schnitzer, Matt Cimber
Cast: Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Janine Carazo, Herve Villechaize, Sharon Farrell, Edward Bell

Synopsis: Everyone knows the classic American horror titles: Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw 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 stars-and-stripes terror, films that have remained on the fringes of the genre either through lack of availability or else sheer obscurity. This is where American Horror Project comes in.


Volume One of this series presents three tales of violence and madness from the 1970s. Malatesta's Carnival of Blood (Christopher Speeth, 1973) sees a family arrive at a creepy, dilapidated fairground in search of their missing son, only to find themselves at the mercy of the cannibalistic ghouls lurking beneath the park. Meanwhile, The Witch Who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber, 1976), stars Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank) as a young woman whose bizarre and violent fantasies start to bleed into reality - literally. Lastly, every parent's worst nightmare comes true in The Premonition (Robert Allen Schnitzer, 1976), a tale of psychic terror in which five-year-old Janie is snatched away by a strange woman claiming to be her long-lost mother.



MALATESTA'S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (1973) 

The first in this trio of obscure American horror is the nightmarish carnival terror Malatesta's Carnival of Blood from 1973, the year I was born. Am odd entry that is largely absent of a compelling narrative thread, but more relies on the unsettling imagery and situations to bring the fright. We have a family arriving at the titular circus as financial investors who hope to profit from the carnival attractions, but instead find themselves on the run from the strange cannibal carnies who favor the taste of human flesh. The carnival of ghouls is owned by Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich) and run by his right-hand man Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey), a fiendishly awesome presence in the movie. The loose narrative doesn't leave a lot to grasp onto though, so you had best resigns yourself to this fever-dream of a carnie movie, one with blue-skinned ghouls and some inspired set-design, be sure to keep an eye out for a Volkswagen Bug made to look like a gaping, toothed-mouth, if you love it weird and surreal you are gonna have fun with this one. If you're rooted in story and plot you might find yourself lost at the carnival with no way out. 



The movie has quite a cast of carnie weirdoes, we have pint-sized HervĂ© Villechaize from TVs Fantasy Island as a heavily French-accented killer dwarf, a tranny tarot card reader, and a creepy groundskeeper played by William Preston, who you might remember from those odd segments on Late Night with Conan O'Brien as Carl 'Oldy' Olson - the guy was always creepy, even back in the '70s apparently. The gore is not great, but fun enough, in a way that brought to mind the gore movies of Herschel Gordon Lewis. There's a scene of a carnival goer losing his head on the roller coaster, and some cheap gut-munching, the real horror show are the labyrinth of underground caverns where the blue-skinned ghouls hang out, nightmare stuff that brought to mind Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) by way of the surreal Spanish asylum-nightmare House of Madness (1973), which is a pretty decent analog as to what you can expect from this movie.

This was absolutely my least favorite of movies on this cool underground cinema set, which isn't to say I hated it, but like House of Madness (1973) which I referenced, I probably won't revisit this one anytime soon. I'd sooner re watch the interviews before I sat through it again, though I did get enjoy seeing the now crumbling William Grove Amusement Park during slightly better days. The landmark carnival had been running since 1928 when it closed in 2005, do yourself a favor and check out pics of the abandoned park now, having been slowly reclaimed by the surrounding forest, creepy stuff. 


Special features for Malatesta's Carnival of Blood include a brand new interview with director Christopher Speeth, who speaks about the origins of the story, working with the producer, the various sets and locations used, the unique sound design of the movie and the troubled distribution history, right up to author Stephen Thrower reaching out to Speeth for inclusion in his book Nightmare USA, which spurred renewed interest in the obscure movie. Theres also an interview with writer Werner Liepolt who speaks about his initial script, how it differed from the movie, and his interest in the grotesqueries of the carnival circuit. Art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson speak about coming into the project, how they created the nightmare underworld of the carnival. Additionally the disc is rounded off with about three-minutes of outtakes, a gallery of images, and a DVD-ROM of the original script for the movie. Almost forgot the Audio Commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith, who goes deep into the history of the movie, a nice blend of humor with more academic approach, of the three commentaries on this set, this is the one I can see myself revisiting at some point. 

Special Features: 

- Introduction to the film by Stephen Thrower (4 Mins) HD 
- Audio Commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith
- The Secrets of Malatesta - an interview with director Christopher Speeth (14 Mins) HD 
- Crimson Speak - an interview with writer Werner Liepolt (12 Mins) HD 
- Malatesta's Underground - art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson discuss the weird, mysterious world of Malatesta's underground (10 Mins) HD 
· Outtakes (3 Mins) HD 
- Draft script (BD/DVD-ROM content)
- Stills Gallery (39 Images) HD
- Reversible sleeve of artwork featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil


THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA (1976)

Director Matt Cimber's The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)) is the story of a deeply troubled young woman named Molly, played by actress Millie Perkins. Molly lives along the ocean with her sister and two young nephews, whom she spends her days with wandering the beach and telling them tales of her sea-faring father whom she says was lost at sea years earlier. 



An early scene of her walking the beach watching muscle-bound young men workout evolves into a sick fantasy of the mind, wherein she imagines each one horribly killed. Molly seems to be on the verge of a mental breakdown, and these murder fantasies begin to bleed into reality, literally. When two footballers are found castrated, Molly becomes the main suspect of local detectives. Perkins gives a wonderfully unstable performance as the woman unravelling, damaged by the worst kind of childhood trauma, raped by her own father. The scenes of violence are slightly muffled by the fact that they happen just off screen but they are still shocking just by the nature of the violence, and as a guy I always find castration scenes make my skin crawl. 

The movie is peppered with trippy flashback scenes of the incest and her own murder fantasies, they are well done, though one goes a little too low-rent psychedelic for it's own good. It heps that this was shot in scope by cinematographer supreme Dean Cundey (John Carpenter's Halloween) who even on a shoe-string budget managed to capture some nicely composed widescreen shots, and this one has a nice low-budget artfulness to the composition. 


The original artwork for the movie is a bit misleading, featuring a robed witch with a bloodied scythe in one hand raised overhead, in her other hand is the severed head of a man. Truly a memorable image, but a bit removed from the amount of viscera you will actually find in the movie, though it does capture the essence of the woman protagonist as a man-killer. 

I am not too familiar with the body of Matt Cimber's movies, but from what I gather this is a cut above his usual trashy sexploitation movies, though I have heard his blaxploitation stuff is pretty great, so I will reserve final judgement. Watching this I was reminded of another woman-losing-her-sanity movie, the haunting Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971), a kindred movie with a slow-burn pace and flights of insanity. The Witch Who Came from the Sea was worth the wait, it lived up to the hype, and offered a surprisingly nuanced performance from Perkins, this is incredibly well acted and handsomely shot, well worth seeking out. 



Special features for The Witch Who Came from the Sea include an introduction from author Stephen Thrower, plus an audio commentary with director-producer Matt Cimber, actress Millie Perkins and director of photography Dean Cundey, which was carried over from the now OOP Subversive DVD, as was the thirty-six minute featurette 'A Maiden's Voyage' containing interviews with Matt Cimber, Millie Perkins and Dean Cundey. New to the set is the brand-new making-of doc 'Tides and Nightmares' with new interviews from Cimber, Perkins, Cundey and actor John Goff, plus an additional four-minute interview with Matt Cimber who speaks about the point of the movie, how the original negative was destroyed, and rightfully praising the new restoration from Arrow Video. 

Special Features: 

- Introduction to the film by Stephen Thrower (5 Mins) HD
- Audio commentary with director-producer Matt Cimber, actress Millie Perkins and director of photography Dean Cundey 
- Tides and Nightmares - brand new making-of documentary featuring interviews with Cimber, Perkins, Cundey and actor John Goff (23 Mins) HD 
- A Maiden's Voyage - archive featurette comprising interviews with Cimber, Perkins and Cundey (36 Mins) 
- Lost at Sea - director Cimber reflects on his notorious cult classic (4 Mins) HD 
- Reversible sleeve of artwork featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil 


THE PREMONITION (1976)

Robert Allen Schnitzer's The Premonition (1976) is a creepy kidnapper tale about a troubled couple, a mentally-ill piano player named Andrea (Ellen Barber) and her crazed carnie boyfriend Jude, played by the always unsettling Richard Lynch (Bad Dreams). Years earlier Andrea was sent to the asylum, and her infant daughter Janie (Danielle Brisebois ) was was taken away from her and adopted by a nice couple, Prof. Miles Bennett (Edward Bell) and his wife Sheri (Sharon Farrell). Andrea has now been released from the asylum, which is where she met her boyfriend Jude naturally, together the disturbed couple set about to kidnap Janie from the Bennets. The movie is played sort of low-key, the horror is not supercharged, but there's a pervasive sense of eeriness about this one with some unnerving Lynchian moments about it. 



Richard Lynch is always a strong presence in any movie he appears in, he has a unique face and unsettling presence about him. His character is an intense white-faced pantomime who is in love over his head with Andrea, and willing to do whatever it takes to make her happy, but a love this intense is bound to burn you one way or another. Mrs. Bennet begins to have frightening visions about Andrea and her daughter, a series of paranormal visions of Andrea, which unsettle the adoptive mother, who becomes both frenzied and despondent to varying degrees. 

When her fears of losing Janie to the unhinged birth mother are finally it is the psychic visions that connect the opposed mothers, and they are key to the recovery of her young adopted daughter. Surprisingly the supernatural elements aren't overly exploited, but are present just enough to give the movie a supernatural tinge that pushed it from just a tense kidnap-thriller to something a little more creepy. The filmmakers take great pain not to paint Andrea and Jude as wholly evil people, just deranged, but Ellen Barber does manage to stir up some threat, and able to hold her own against Richard Lynch's intensity. A scene of her in Janie's bedroom is menacing stuff, as a parent my heart jumped a bit, I cannot imagine walking into my child's room and finding any one of them in the arms of a deranged stranger. The scene is further bolstered by some nice camera trickery, this is the scene that felt very Lynchian to me, definitely surreal and unnerving stuff. 



Extras created for The Premonition by Arrow Video include a new making-of doc with Schnitzer, composer Henry Mollicone and cinematographer Victor Milt, and an introduction from Stephen Thrower. we are also treated to archival interviews with the late actor Richard Lynch and director Robert Allen Schnitzer. Three Robert Allen Schnitzer early short films are included, which are political in nature, and not my cup of tea, it's not like discovering the early shorts of David Lynch, but they're here if you're interested. The disc is finished up with a trailer and handful of TV and radio spots, plus a gallery of images. . 

Special Features:

- Introduction to the film by Stephen Thrower (3 Mins) HD 
- Isolated Music Score by Henry Mollicone
- Audio commentary with director-producer Robert Allen Schnitzer
- Pictures from a Premonition - brand new making-of documentary featuring interviews with Schnitzer, composer Henry Mollicone and cinematographer Victor Milt (21 Mins) HD
- Archive interviews with Robert Allen Schnitzer (6 Mins) 
- Archive interviews with Richard Lynch (16 Mins) 
- Three Robert Allen Schnitzer short films: 'Vernal Equinox' (30 Mins) HD, 'Terminal Point' (41 Mins) HD and 'A Rumbling in the Land' (11 Mins) HD
- 4 Peace Spots (4 Mins) HD
- Theatrical Trailer (2 Mins) HD 
- 4 TV Spots (3 Mins) HD 
- Gallery 
- Reversible sleeve of artwork featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil
- American Horror Project Journal Volume One - Limited edition 60-page booklet featuring new articles on the films from writers Stephen Thrower(Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents), Kim Newman (Nightmare Movies), Kier-La Janisse (House of Psychotic Women) and Brian Albright (Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-by-State Guide with Interviews)



Audio/Video: All three movies have been lovingly remastered with brand new 2K restorations from the best surviving elements for each film, both Malatesta's Carnival of Blood and The Witch Who Came from the Sea were derived from surviving 35mm prints,while The Premonition came from the color reversal intermediate, which is only one stage away from the original negative, as such it is the best looking of the three. The overall results are of the SK restorations are very pleasing. None are reference quality presentations but they are acceptably clean and finely detailed. Colors are mostly strong for all three movies, there's some minor white speckling and vertical scratching, but the natural roughness of the presentations are kept in check and appear very filmic. I don't mind a grit and grime with my cult-classic, and all three of these look great on Blu-ray. 


All three are presented in their original mono presentation by way of lossless English PCM Mono 1.0 audio tracks, like the prints used for the transfers the audio each have some minor issues, though there's nothing too distracting, and the movies sound just fine. My favorite score of the three films would be Herschel Burke Gilbert's haunting accompaniment for The Witch Who Came from the Sea, but Henry Mollicone's comes in a close second. Optional English subtitles are provided. 


Arrow Video have afforded some fantastic extras for these obscure American slices of '70s horror as detailed above, each receiving an intro from co-curator Stephen Thrower, averaging about four-minutes each. Each film presented in a dual-format release, encased in its own keep case with a reversible sleeve of artwork featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil, plus there's a massive 60-page booklet with new writing on each film from writers Stephen Thrower, Kim Newman and Brian Albright, all of it contextualizing the movies and really digging deep into each. Peppered throughout the booklet are images from each movie, plus notes about each of the restorations. 


With the American Horror Project Vol.1 Arrow Video and co-curator Stephen Thrower have set out to document a handful of unsung and throwaway slices of '70s American cult-horror, nuggets of forgotten cinema that didn't get a fair shake on home video, or during their initial drive-in run. When you think about it there are not many banner horror movies left to adorn with deluxe editions these days, the vaults have been plundered and re plundered, so it is great to see these unsung slices of cult cinema getting loving restorations and bountiful extras. What Arrow Video and the crew have put together here is nothing but love for these indie-horrors, and I cannot wait to see what they have in store for future volumes. This something special and is limited to just 3,000 copies, so if you love obscure horror you had best jump on this set fast, this is worth owning, so have at it. 4/5

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