Arrow Video: American Horror Project Vol. 1 (1973-1976) - Reviewed

As the distinguished and eclectic Criterion Collection presses on with film director/curator Martin Scorsese’s aptly named World Cinema Project boxed sets consisting of obscure and rarely seen foreign films, now the UK based home video company Arrow Video has decided to get in on the action.  Presenting what is known as the American Horror Project Vol. 1, this blu-ray boxed set comprises three all-but-forgotten low budget horror films ranging from 1973 to 1976: Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood; The Witch Who Came from the Sea and The Premonition

Though separated by three different directors, each of these nearly lost “tales of violence and madness from the 1970s” represent a side of American horror rarely seen, discussed or given their proper due.  Some of the surviving elements for each picture show their age and technical as well as budgetary limitations, yet each offering present an example of cinematic terror you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.  With this, the Movie Sleuth takes a good hard look at the first of what will hopefully be many volumes of this unique series of horror films ripe for rediscovery and appreciation by cinephiles and horror fans the world over!

Malatesta's Carnival of Blood (1973)

The creepy carnival funhouse of horrors is as old as both the genre and the medium itself, beginning with Tod Browning’s still unnerving Freaks in 1932 through Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls in 1962.  Even the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre maestro Tobe Hooper got into it with his 1981 thriller The Funhouse and only recently we saw Darren Lynn Bousman’s continuing series of musical horror films The Devil’s Carnival.  Musician/film director Rob Zombie made two films about it in addition to his very own amusement park.  And yet after all these years, there is one truly madcap psychedelic and surrealistic offering from 1973 which was thought to be lost forever until it mysteriously resurfaced in 2003 on DVD by the director himself and now makes its high-definition blu-ray debut: Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood.

Directed by Christopher Speeth and written by Werner Liepolt in their one and only film production ever, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is a shoestring take on the creepy carnival tropes yet with an audiovisual design that is completely unlike anything that came before or would follow after it.  While light on characterization with some rusty acting and, at times, sophomore filmmaking, here we have an amalgam of everything from the aforementioned Carnival of Souls to Night of the Living Dead presented in a way that feels like an acid trip gone horribly wrong. 

There’s a sequence in it involving zombies in a movie theater I have to believe played a part in the now infamous movie-theater chase sequence in the equally obscure yet boundlessly imaginative Messiah of Evil.  That the zombies happen to be watching the silent horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari while throwing popcorn and body parts at the screen only serves to heighten the madness oozing out of every frame of this crazy thing.

The film’s most recognizable actor is of course the late dwarf actor Herve Villechaize (Fantasy Island; Forbidden Zone) but the film’s real stars are the production designers who have assembled one of the strangest looking and feeling carnival sets in cinema history.  Though often consisting of common household items including tarpaulin, they’re built in ways that inevitably forecasted the 1989 avant-garde freakout Dr. Caligari.  How many films can you name with an upside-down Volkswagen Beetle covered in red bubble wrap designed to look like a carnivorous beast?  Have you ever seen cotton candy strung about the set like a cacophony of internal organs?  Blood and gore varies from scene to scene, with some effects shots looking better than others. 

While the plot is somewhat difficult to follow outside of characters in peril, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood functions more as a mood piece than a coherent narrative with a series of increasingly bizarre and grotesque images of the occult and demonic.  More than anything, the papier-mâché sets and hall of mirrors are designed, like John Boorman’s still inscrutable Zardoz, to place you in an unpleasant headspace you can’t escape from until the end credits roll.  Despite the often amateurish student nature of the picture and a meager running time of seventy-four minutes, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood as a film will take you places far more expensive offerings of similar ilk have tried and often failed to go.  If you want to experience the so-called funhouse of horror as a hallucinatory head trip without relying on hard drugs, look no further than this.


The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)

Shifting gears with Arrow Video’s loose collection of obscure and forgotten horror films, the American Horror Project’s second offering comes in the form of a disturbing descent into madness and murder known as The Witch Who Came from the Sea.  Filmed in 1971 but withheld from release until 1976 before being branded a ‘video nasty’ in the UK for over a decade, The Witch Who Came from the Sea represents an outlier in the pantheon of surreal psychological horror.  Where the previous entry in the film series aimed for shoestring atmospheric thrills and chills, on the contrary this nearly lost and forgotten indie effort packs in far heavier concepts and images that will sear themselves into your psyche long after the end credits have rolled. 

The story of a deeply troubled middle-aged woman with an abusive childhood at the hands of her seafaring father named Molly (Millie Perkins of The Diary of Anne Frank) who cares for her two nephews when she isn’t harboring violent sexual fantasies involving the seduction and murder of musclebound men, The Witch Who Came from the Sea as a thriller is less concerned with coherence and logic than trying to place viewers within the demented and fractured headspace of the film’s troubled leading lady.  Largely an actor’s piece with a daring performance by Perkins who struts naked between alluring and dangerous often in the same step, you the viewer are left as uncertain as the supporting characters who can’t seem to figure out what’s eating Molly and why physically fit sportsmen mysteriously begin turning up dead.

Directed by soon-to-be Butterfly filmmaker Matt Cimber and written by Robert Thom of Death Race 2000 infamy, both the title and poster suggest something completely different from what I was expecting and as such it managed to burrow itself under my skin when it was finally over.  While not particularly frightening, The Witch Who Came from the Sea when it finally reveals itself will in its manner upset and disturb the faint hearted, touching on subject matter most horror movies were afraid to touch until Srdjan Spasojevic so ruthlessly burst the floodgates open with his still nearly-unwatchable opus A Serbian Film in 2010. 

Much like the Spasojevic film, The Witch Who Came from the Sea despite the micro budget is expertly photographed, sporting early camerawork by soon-to-be Halloween and The Thing cinematographer Dean Cundey.  Despite the rough nature of the last surviving print Arrow Video located for this home video release, the film’s widescreen cinematography of barren open beaches and an abandoned carnival when it isn’t sporting carefully constructed close-ups of the actors’ faces is remarkably well done and inevitably forecast the eventual emergence of one of Hollywood’s most beloved cinematographers.     

Far from a masterpiece of modern horror but impossible to forget once seen, The Witch Who Came from the Sea provides a unique example to a different kind of horror that isn’t necessarily scary but is absolutely horrific all the same.  If there’s room for improvement, the film’s electronic score by Herschel Burke Gilbert buoying between subtle unease and stark terror doesn’t always work and much of the film’s blood and gore isn’t particularly graphic despite implications of extreme violence including but not limited to castration. 

Despite the shortcomings and a deliberate lack of coherence in an effort to draw viewers deeper into the diseased mind of the titular character, The Witch Who Came from the Sea will manage to deeply affect you on some level or another, whether it’s outrage, disgust, fear or sickness.  Whatever the case, it’s a powerful case study of how child abuse can and often does negatively shape our adulthood that still has the power to pack a really heavy punch.  Not for the squeamish or easily offended but not to be missed by staunch cinephiles who don’t always want their horror to play nice.


The Premonition (1976)

Telekinesis, parapsychology and the use of hallucinatory, ghostly visions of the past, present or future as a subgenre of horror found itself catapulted into the mainstream with the release of Brian De Palma’s cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal horror novel Carrie.  Also on the high rise was the horror film involving the innocent little girl after William Friedkin’s film of The Exorcist made tidal waves at the box office around the world.  Naturally, many other offerings of this ilk would follow.  Among the stranger and oddly disjointed entries in the telekinetic horror film came in the form of writer-producer-director Robert Allen Schnitzer’s 1976 psychic thriller The Premonition

The story of a young girl named Janie (played by 7 year old Danielle Brisebois) whose foster mother Sherri (Sharon Farrell) experiences a ghostly premonition that Janie’s biological mother, Andrea (Ellen Barber), and her creepy circus clown partner-in-crime Jude (an unforgettable Richard Lynch) are trying to kidnap Janie.  As time bores on, the premonition starts to become a reality with increasingly bizarre and violent hallucinations start plaguing Sherri.  Soon, as with most thrillers of this kind, it becomes a race against time as a parapsychologist joins forces with Sherri to try and track down the whereabouts of the criminal couple in the hopes of finding Janie.  Initially it plays out as a whodunit police procedural before gradually transforming into a somewhat illogical metaphysical battle of spiritual forces between Sherri and Andrea…I think…

Easily the most frustrating entry in the American Horror Project box, I repeat that the film is disjointed thanks to editor Sidney Katz who aggravatingly undercuts every single scene in the film.  Whatever impetus William Friedkin had with the fast pacing of The Exorcist, trusting the audience to figure it out on their own, Katz whittles it down to such a degree that whatever power the footage and shoestring visual effects sequences had are nearly drained dry of their power.  As a character happens upon a bullet point in the script, a mere second later the film cuts to another bullet point, playing just like that for all ninety-four minutes.  While sporting decent performances, handsome Mississippi location cinematography by Victor Milt and boasting an overqualified score by Henry Mollicone, all of the efforts are shortchanged by the editing with zero time left for dramatic pause. 

Watching The Premonition I was torn between enjoying this unique spin on the telekinetic/unfinished business ghost horror genre and wanting to choke the editor to death for effectively undermining the whole thing scene after scene.  There have been times in the past where this kind of fast paced editing has worked beautifully depending on the film, but here the consistency with which every…single…scene was undercut just drove me crazy! 

It’s a shame because somewhere in The Premonition is an effective little thriller with some indelible images despite being light on scares.  One image imprinted on the mind involves Sherri witnessing her bathroom mirror and, later, the windows and mirrors of her car icing over thanks to metaphysical misdeeds of the film’s villainess.  I remember, for a moment, feeling vague tension as Sherri loses visibility of the road but before we can see the vehicle crash, in keeping with Katz’ bullshit editing, we cut to police pulling the mother from the car. 

If nothing else, The Premonition, while worth a look thanks to Arrow Videos studious efforts to bring this forgotten flick to light, is a case study in how decent material can be all but destroyed in the editing room.  Whether or not this was writer-director Schnitzer’s intention, we’ll never truly know, but I can say keeping up this inexplicably disjointed rhythm did not add mystery, suspense, intrigue or allow the thing to unfold like a puzzle.  Rather, it just aggravated me to no end.  Even the film’s climactic, extras-laden finale felt abrupt.  Whatever the case, in the American Horror Project Vol. 1 boxes set, The Premonition is the worst of the bunch.


- Andrew Kotwicki