American Horror Project – Volume 1

American Horror Project - Volume 1 (Malatestas Carnival of Blood)

Dave author picOne of the perks – or side effects, if you consider my bank account – of my foray into cinephilia has been my introduction to the UK Blu-Ray/DVD distributors, Arrow. While perhaps less prestigious than the widely-celebrated Criterion Collection, Arrow combine a fantastic, diverse library – cult and trashy horror under Arrow Video and arthouse and experimental under Arrow Academy – with consistently superb packaging, transfers and special features.

I’ve spent a sizable chunk of coin on Arrow’s back catalogue over the last year or so, and I’ve yet to be disappointed; even the average films have something in there to recommend them, whether it’s a thought-provoking essay in the included booklets or a revealing interview on the special features.

So it didn’t take me long to put money down for one of Arrow’s recent initiatives: the American Horror Project. Curated – or, at least, introduced – by musician/author/horror fanatic Stephen Thrower, the first volume is a boxset housing three examples of American horror from the ‘70s; films well outside the conventional canon and largely unknown to anyone without a substantial investment in indie American horror. I’d certainly never heard of Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, The Premonition or The Witch Who Came from the Sea, but I had enough faith in Arrow to blind buy the set.

That was always going to be a gamble and, in this case, I’m not entirely sure it paid off. Films like this, barnacles scraped from the dark underbelly of some decomposing beast, aren’t going to be for everyone. While, in some cases, there are outside circumstances explaining these films fading from memory – The Witch Who Came from the Sea, for instance, was slapped with both the ‘Video Nasty’ label (not always a downside, marketing-wise, admittedly) and the indignity of its original print being destroyed in the wake of bankruptcy and a divorce. But by and large, these three films are not easily accessible. From one perspective, they refuse to conform to conventions of mainstream, ‘commercial cinema; from another, they’re shlocky and/or shoddy.

That’s pretty how how The Premonition hit me, disappointing with its narrative, thematic and aesthetic qualities. Despite a bang-up restoration from the folks at Arrow, the film’s defined by unimaginative cinematography and jarring editing. The story – of a daughter torn between her biological (Ellen Barber) and adoptive (Sharon Farrell) mothers – attempts to assume, per its title, a kind of ambiguity with its dream sequences. Outside of one or two memorable scenes, the film’s pedestrian pace and visuals disperse any accumulating atmosphere.

The disjointed, artificial performances of its cast (including Richard Lynch, who prominently featured in its original marketing) do it no favours, either. Perhaps there’s some insight lurking its margins about the anxieties of motherhood, but anything of the sort is obscured by its underwhelming trappings.

I’m undecided if The Witch Who Came from the Sea offers any more psychological complexity in its portrait of a poisoned parental bond. In the Horror Project’s accompanying booklet, Kier-La Janisse offers a detailed and convincing explanation of how Matt Cimber’s film interrogates the psychology of the abuse victim – in this case, Molly (Millie Perkins), who internalises her father’s molestation by reimagining him as a paragon of perfection …oh, and by murdering any other man who similarly embodies perfection (football players, successful businessman, etc). Catching it within a couple days of The Witch also inadvertently highlighted how much better the older film represented the fear of female sexuality, by framing the woman as sexual being and victim and monster all at once.

That all sounds pretty good, but the above paragraph doesn’t really gel with my relatively disappointing experience watching the film. Part of that is simply a reflection of the film playing better in retrospect, when you can disregard Perkins’ overcooked performance and Cimber’s uneven attempts to emulate Nicolas Roeg’s oneiric, achronological aesthetic (call it Roeg-like, if you will). (Sidenote: the nautical-tinged cinematography, featuring uncredited contributions from Halloween’s Dean Cundey, remains impressive even through the ravages of age and unappreciative creditors.) The psychology has its flaws, too, with the strong notes jarring with the old song of the serial killer motivated by childhood trauma.

While I suspect I’d be more charitable to Witch on rewatch, two films in to the American Horror Project set I was …underwhelmed, to say the least. Oh, the presentations were sumptuous – all the bells and whistles you’d expect from Arrow – but the films didn’t necessarily justify the energy spent fishing them out of the crevices of a mouldy video store.

Thankfully, there was still one to go. While I suspect Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood will prove a divisive film – I’ve seen a couple people single it out as the worst movie in the set – it resonated for me in a way that The Premonition and The Witch Who Came from the Sea did not. On paper, there’s little to distinguish it from its peers: it’s noticeably cheaper, for starters, and the actors are a collection of no-names who, more often than not, stumble through their lines like they’ve either never acted before or they’re mugging for their parents in the school play.

Ah, but Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood has something that its Horror Project compatriots lack: charm. That grimy, ramshackle, unnerving sort of charm that the best low budget horror flicks possess. Oh, its plot is nigh incoherent, unravelling from a fairly stock premise (carnival, scary, cannibals) into a ghoulish mess of rollercoasters, merry-go-rounds and Lon Chaney films. And sure, its budgetary limitations are achingly apparent, with the sets – built in and around an article carnival – so rickety they’re perpetually on the verge of collapse.

But where the other pair of films in the Project pair their dabbling with dream logic with (relatively) neat narratives, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood gleefully allows itself to careen off the rails. Those rickety, obviously hand-made sets – designed by a collective who’d go on to create installation art – go hand-in-hand with an appreciably rough-edged yet vibrant production design. There’s an uncomfortable intimacy and oneiric absurdity that transcends the cobbled-together clichés (inspired by vampires, zombies, cannibals, you name it). In short: it’s exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for when I ordered the set. In fact, it’s so good that I wonder if I’d appreciate the other two films’ experiments with tone and story more had I watched the films in another order, having been conditioned to expect something a good distance from the ordinary.

Does one good film justify the cost? Perhaps not. But it has me optimistic for the future of the Project; while one out of three isn’t the best ratio, it does reflect Arrow’s willingness to make bold choices with their inclusions. I can’t imagine everyone else will have the same reaction to Carnival of Blood as I did, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there’s a horror fan out there who loves the heck out of The Premonition. This is a different sort of box set than I’m used to, and while that difference might be divisive, it’s interesting enough to get me spinning a wheel one more time … assuming we get a Volume Two.

 

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