Arrow Video: American Horror Project Vol. 2 (1970-1977) - Reviewed

Two years ago The Movie Sleuth took a concerted look at Arrow Video’s series of obscure yet distinctly American independent horror movies, the American Horror Project.  The first volume encompassed three overlooked films made in the mid-70s which all had something unique not normally offered in mainstream or renowned circles of horror cinema.  Co-curated and introduced by British film critic Stephen Thrower, the trilogy of films was aptly named Vol. 1 which inevitably promises an ongoing series dedicated to highlighting overlooked potential gems waiting to be rediscovered by modern filmgoers.  Circa 2019, Arrow Video and Stephen Thrower have returned with the second installment in the series which we at The Movie Sleuth are just tickled pink to dive headfirst into!

Dream No Evil (1970)

Grace MacDonald (Brooke Mills) hasn’t had an easy upbringing.  Raised in an orphanage before being taken under her adopted brother Jesse’s (Michael Pataki) wing, the young woman’s life now consists of leaping off of high diving boards as part of Jesse’s traveling evangelism act.  Still on a lifelong search for her missing grandfather Timothy (veteran actor Edmund O’Brien), Grace may have finally discovered his whereabouts, leading her to a funeral home before falling into an all-encompassing downward spiral of madness and murder.

Something of a feminine spin on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with the roles reversed as well as a character study of a fragile psyche on the verge of tearing itself apart, underground indie writer-director John Hayes’ Dream No Evil is a quiet yet unsettling thriller steeped in Midwestern Americana.  Though technically a horror piece it plays less on fear with a greater emphasis on tense homegrown drama with an eerie sense of unease.  Blood and gore, normally associative with horror, is also kept to a minimum here.

The first thing one notices over this meat-and-potatoes effort is the casting.  Between Edmund O’Brien as Grace’s violent and domineering grandfather and veteran actor Marc Lawrence turning up as an undertaker, for an all-natural homegrown horror piece the casting is most certainly overqualified.  Next we have strength of the performances, particularly Michael Pataki as a Hellfire and Brimstone reverend who with his wild expressions and animated body movement will remind some of Paul Dano’s evangelist in There Will Be Blood. 

Of the films offered here Dream No Evil also admittedly has some things working against it.  Notably the voiceover narration, which I have to believe was added in later against the director’s wishes, all but sabotages the film’s tightrope walk between fantasy and reality including spoiling some surprises ahead in the plot.  In one moment you have a sequence showing Grace’s home looking ornate and clean to decrepit and squalid in between shots, pulling the rug out from the viewer where we’re not quite sure which plane of reality we’re on, only to have the voiceover narration come right out and tell us.  Moreover, this otherwise inspired slice of Southern Gothic when you get down to it isn’t particularly frightening or spooky.

Still, there’s a real and engaging psychological character study at play here set in the barren, rugged terrain of the Midwest.  An inspired play on dream and memory, past versus present and wishful thinking clashing with unforgiving realities.  Though this one is closer to being a Southern Gothic thriller than overtly a horror movie, it will get your attention.


Dark August (1975)

A notable, atmospheric and moody entry into the Vermont Folk Horror movement, writer-director Martin Goldman’s Dark August taps into an unusual crossbreed between witchcraft and mountain horror.  Featuring Academy Award winner Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire), the film concerns Sal (J.J. Barry), a middle-aged city artist recently moved to a rural Vermont village who finds his world under assault from occult forces after accidentally killing an elderly man’s granddaughter in a car accident. 

Haunted by visions of a dark hooded figure and inexplicably suffering panic attacks in public, Sal grows increasingly paranoid and convinced the old man has placed an evil curse of some kind upon him.  Unsure of how to deal with this inexplicable occult affliction, Sal reluctantly seeks out the help of local witch Adrianna (Hunter) attempting to fend off the angry elder’s curse before his life is destroyed.

Heavier on moody rural superstition than outright scares or shocks, Dark August from the get-go announces itself as a clandestine spooky with emphasis on unfocused dread and unease.  Opening shots in slow motion of the mountainous Vermont landscape with heavy fog and dark clouds brewing about suggests the strange and ominous forces plaguing Sal’s existence are as natural and undetectable as the weather. 

Performances in the piece are generally good with J.J. Barry as the film’s frightened and confused protagonist (or antagonist depending on your point of view) exuding paranoia and fear over the implacable forces closing around him.  As aforementioned, the film features an Oscar winner with Kim Hunter turning over a strong performance as a modern-day witch, furthering the film’s emphasis on what real world witchcraft looks and sounds like. 

Speaking of sound, Dark August has a rather unorthodox soundtrack.  Scored by William Fischer (Tenement) it’s a smorgasbord of synth electronica and progressive rock and elements of percussive Jazz, creating a sonic mixture that does a good job of placing you the viewer into Sal’s disoriented headspace.  Visually the film is striking thanks to Blood Rage cinematographer Richard E. Brooks whose moody photography arguably makes the rural Vermont landscape the real star of the show.

Quiet yet drenched in superstitious paranoia germane to the mountainous Vermont locale, Dark August is the kind of occult movie you don’t expect to see with down-to-Earth (even banal) realism depicting modern-day witchcraft.  There’s also a subtle commentary on the indigenous residents of the area versus an out-of-towner becoming a fish out of water when setting foot in the strange region.  Most of all, it’s a surprising and at times chilling little number which perfectly coins the term ‘Vermont Folk Horror’ for the uninitiated.


The Child (1977)

Unquestionably the coup-de-grace of the second volume of the American Horror Project film series and without a doubt one of the weirdest and most innovative independent horror films to come out of the late 1970s, The Child starts out as a slow-paced surreal and atmospheric creepy child piece before abruptly shifting gears into gore filled zombie horror. 

Think of two tropes you would never expect to see mashed together and you have this movie.  It’s completely bizarre, unexpected and uncategorizable even for the horror genre.  One of those strange thrillers dripping with an eerie, psychedelic mood whose second half cannot be seen coming from miles away, this mannered and truly oddball piece is like a baseball bat being positioned before making a full swing striking you in the face.

Known for the samples used in Rob Zombie’s What?, The Child shot in the Los Angeles, California countryside follows Alicianne (Laurel Barnett), a governess employed to watch over Rosalie (Rosalie Nordon), a peculiar yet disobedient little girl whose real mother mysteriously perished prior to Alicianne’s arrival.  People tread lightly around Rosalie, even her siblings, with her frequent solitary cemetery visits raising more than a few eyebrows.  At first it’s a weird, even dreamy slice of countryside surrealism ala Dark August, until midway through it makes a swan dive into batshit violent and gory zombie horror with some startling gross effects makeup rendered deaths including but not limited to a poor old lady’s face being ripped off. 

The first thing we can’t help but notice is the film’s otherworldly and psychedelic soundtrack by Rob Wallace which is as evocative, strange and enthralling as anything in Nicolas Winding Refn composer Cliff Martinez’s sonic library.  Mixing everything from synthesizers, impassioned piano cues and even the Theremin, The Child first and foremost is a listening experience.  Whether you come away liking this wild, unhinged thing or not, you’re likely to go out and purchase the soundtrack immediately after watching it.

Then there’s the moody, fog-machine choked cinematography by Mori Alavi which draws you into a kind of subconscious netherworld we’re not entirely sure how much of is real or imagined.  Watching The Child you can’t help but think of the seeping foggy horrors of Konami’s hit videogame series Silent Hill featuring gothic zombies which honestly don’t look like anything seen before or since. 

The Child is also, like Silent Hill, one of those pictures where the non-professional ‘actors’ in the piece give performances that are best described as ‘off’.  Though it isn’t particularly well acted, the strangeness of the performances invariably goes along perfectly with the weird reality of the film, creating a world of horror that feels like a nightmare experienced as we come closer to the waking state.

Much like George A. Romero’s iconic zombie masterwork Night of the Living Dead, the microbudget production was largely shot on short ends on the side, i.e. the remnants left in a cannister of film shot for other productions.  Taking this into consideration also helps to fuel the off-kilter peculiarity of the piece, as though lightning was captured in a bottle with what little resources the filmmakers had. 

For my money, The Child was easily the strongest and most memorable offering of the American Horror Project Vol. 2 set, a one-of-a-kind slice of madness and murder you’re unlikely to forget anytime soon.  There’s never been one quite like it before and I’m hard pressed to believe we’ll ever seen anything like it again.

- Andrew Kotwicki