Arrow Video's American Horror Project, Vol. 1, is, at its very core, a challenge to the powers that be in Hollywood to delve into the underbelly of classical film archives and bring them to life in a Blu-ray format. The powers that be in Hollywood would do well to take notice of Arrow's efforts that include this wonderful project that includes three under-appreciated 1970's horror films - The Witch Who Came From the Sea, The Premonition, and Malatesta's Carnival of Blood.
As someone who often looks for elements of childhood abuse in films, I'm almost embarrassed to admit my lack of awareness of the wonderful and complex The Witch Who Came From the Sea, which features a riveting performance from Millie Perkins as Molly, a conflicted woman whose past influences present in dramatic and profound and quite moving ways. The middle-aged Molly is triggered by the sight of a couple of beefcakes weightlifting and seemingly oblivious. Director Matt Cimber dances around this imagery, as is often done throughout the film, and the film itself seems as constantly off-kilter as is Molly herself. Perkins' performance here is complex and emotionally honest without ever giving everything completely away. It's never really completely clear, at least not until Cimber wants to reveal it, what's going on as Perkins vacillates between seduction and psychosis-induced homicide. Cimber, a veteran of both Blaxploitation and porn, is surprisingly subtle in his work here and surprisingly deliberate and disciplined in his pacing. It's a definite reminder that you can't completely dismiss someone on the basis of their preferred genres.
The film was penned by Perkins' ex-husband, Robert Thom, and is lensed by Dean Cundey, who would eventually become a household name through his cinematography on the original Halloween. A somewhat original film when originally released, The Witch Who Came From The Sea has mostly languished on the shelves with the exception of a Subversive Cinema DVD release. Fortunately, that's all changing with Arrow Video.
Malatesta's Carnival of Blood centers around a rather odd fellow named Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey), who runs a deceprit and clearly worn out carnival owned by the mysterious Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich). Those who work the carnival, even the normal ones, are decidedly abnormal. Freaks, if you will. When Vena (Janine Carazo) arrives in town with her family in tow in search of a missing brother, the strangely intelligent approach of director Christopher Speeth becomes obvious in subtle ways that only true cinematic connoisseurs will notice. Rest assured, you don't have to be a cinematic connoisseur to appreciate the twisted joys of Carnival of Blood. The film's most memorable performance comes from former Fantasy Island's Tattoo, Herve Villechaize, whose brief appearance gives the film a solid spark. The rest of ensemble cast doesn't particularly stand-out, through Dietrich and Dempsey are solid as villains.
Carnival of Blood is a warped little film, a film where you notice something different each time you watch it. It's a film that defies logic by creating an alternative universe that is surreal and increasingly sinister. You may not understand what you've seen after watching it, but you'll likely find yourself wanting to watch it again.
The Premonition is the final film in this first collection, 1976 film from director Robert Allen Schnitzer that did receive a DVD release from Media Blasters in the past. This Blu-ray, in fact, also includes a trio of Schnitzer's short films. The Premonition is this collection's weakest entry, an ambitious yet not entirely successful psychological thriller with supernatural elements. Andrea Fletcher (Ellen Barber) is released from a mental hospital after years of observation. She tracks down an old friend, a carnival clown named Jude (Richard Lynch) and hopes to track down the daughter she'd had to give up years before. Jude has a photo of Janie (Danielle Brisebois), who bears a resemblance to the long lost daughter, but who lives with her family, Professor Bennett (Edward Bell) and his wife, Sheri (Sharon Farrell). Convinced that Janie is her long lost daughter, Andrea becomes determined to get her back no matter what.
Schnitzer can pretty much be credited with giving the world Sylvester Stallone, who appeared in Schnitzer's No Place to Hide, but his work here is uneven and occasionally awkwardly paced. While there's something to be said for a film that chooses atmosphere over gore, it's not always successful in a film that tends to move a bit too slowly anyway. That said, Sharon Farrell gives a terrific performance as Sharon while Richard Lynch's performance as Jude slight yet memorable.
To say that Arrow's devotion to all three films is impressive would be an understatement. Arrow has taken three largely forgotten films and constructed memorable packaging with vastly improved technical presentations. If this is what I can expect from the American Horror Project, I can hardly wait for volume two!
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic