• American Horror Project Volume One



    Released by: Arrow Video
    Released on: February 23rd, 2016.
    Director: Matt Cimber, Christopher Speeth, Robert Allan Schnitzer
    Cast: Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Janie Carazo, Herve Villechaize, Sharon Farrell
    Year: 1973/1976/1976
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    The Movies:

    Arrow, in conjunction with Nightmare USA scribe Stephen Thrower, presents the first in an ongoing series of collections dedicated to showcasing some of the more obscure American horror films that have been made over the years.

    Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood:

    Languishing in obscurity for the better part of three decades, Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood was eventually given a home video release for the first time on DVD years ago. That disc was produced by the director of the film, Christopher Speeth, who pops up on the extra features (more on that later) for this Blu-ray debut.

    The film introduces us to an odd man named Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey) who runs a carnival that has seen better days. It’s decrepit and not in very good shape and most of the employees at this particular carnival are, to be kind, weirdos. Mr. Blood is employed by the owner of the carnival, Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich) – yet another mysterious and bizarre older man who would seem to have something sinister about him.

    A younger lady named Vena (Janine Carazo) and her parents move into the town where the carnival is situated and hope to join up with Malatesta, Blood and company. Vena’s family owns and operates a shooting gallery that would fit in quite nicely. Vena is also awaiting the impending arrival of her boyfriend, but while he’s en route, she discovers the studly man who runs the Tunnel Of Love at the carnival and strikes up a ‘thing’ with him in the interim.

    Much to the surprise of Vena and a few of the other people in and around the carnival (notice we are specifying ‘a few’ and not ‘all’) there is a pack of cannibals living beneath the carnival. It seems that the place was built over a bunch of caves that lay beneath the area and those caves made for the perfect place for a pack of cannibals to reside. As luck would have it, the Tunnel Of Love is the in/out door for the cannibals and both Blood and Malatesta are actually the leaders of the pack. While Vena and her family figure it all out in time to escape with their lives or will they end up on a snack tray for Malatesta’s evil crew? Only a machete wielding midget named Bobo (Hervé Villechaize) knows for sure!

    This movie is a trip. There is some seriously messed up action going down in this film and while it was clearly made for peanuts, it never wants for atmosphere or seedy vibes. The settings plays as big a role in the mood and feel that this film creates as any of the actors or actresses do and if you ever thought that carnivals were creepy, this movie will go a long way to reinforcing that for you. The cinematography isn’t fancy and the lighting is rudimentary at best but that just adds to the weird tone conjured up in pretty much every frame of this gritty, grimy little movie. The camera work used in the film is decidedly unorthodox, as there are a lot of strange angles used throughout that almost disorient you. As the movie goes from one freakish set piece to the next, the various dressings of the park itself take on a very ominous tone as the different props from the different attractions become more sinister than they were earlier in the picture. Adding to this is the film’s odd use of sound, with different piercing tones playing over the images that further help to unsettle us as we watch all of this play out in front of us.

    Most, though not all, of the performances are rather pedestrian but Hervé Villechaize (best known as Tattoo from Fantasy Island), who is really only on screen for five or ten minutes combined, stands out in his own little way. The film might have been more satisfying had there been more midget action, but even with Herve in what could be considered a supporting role at best, it still benefits from his magnificent presence. As Vena Janine Carazo is decent enough if not all that inspired, while Jerome Dempsey and Daniel Dietrich are pretty solid as the villains.

    Yet, the movie remains fairly fascinating. Adding to the weirdness that permeates through every frame of this movie are a few odd things worth mentioning. Vera’s father talks about revenge more than a few times in the film but it is never once made clear who or what he’s going to get revenge for. The carnival, which has obviously been around a while, never really has any patrons. It’s basically just the people who work there that we see. And speaking of the carnival, why is it that so many of the rides and attractions are covered in colored bubble wrap? None of this is addressed at all in the film and it’s hard to say if it was intentional or not but it does make the whole experience quite a bit stranger in spite of itself. The movie seems to take place in an alternate universe, the kind where logic doesn’t need to exist… but it’s a really effective, bizarre, unsettling film that straddles the line between an what looks like an art installation and a cheap exploitation picture in beautiful ways.

    The Witch Who Came From The Sea:

    Up next is Matt Cimber’s 1976 film, The Witch Who Came From The Sea, a fairly notorious seventies shocker that was given a DVD release through Subversive Cinema years back.

    The film follows Molly (Millie Perkins), a woman who makes a humble living as a barmaid at a dive bar owned by the surly Long John (Lonny Chapman). When she’s not at work, she’s wasting her nights throwing back the booze while during the day she spends much of her time watching over her two nephews for her sister Cathy (Vanessa Brown). We know early on that something isn’t quite right with Molly when we see her on the beach with those nephews ogling some men working out. This is normal enough, until we see through her eyes the murder fantasy she harbors!

    Working as a character study to a certain extent, we then see Molly get involved with two local football players. As things start to heat up, once again her murderous passions are aroused as she gets naked and then castrates them. Is this another fantasy? It’s hard to tell but it doesn’t look that way when the two corpses are found the morning after.

    Is Molly losing it? Why does she seem to want to be with men and want to kill them all at the same time?

    According to the extras on the disc, Perkins’ ex-husband, Robert Thom, originally wrote this as a starring vehicle for the woman he was formerly married to with Cimber brought on board to direct based on his experience in the sex film and drive-in circuits. This is, however, a much artsier film than you might expect given Cimber’s background in Blaxploitation and porno movies. This is a very deliberately paced picture ripe with symbolism, all of which is beautifully shot by the great Dean Cundey, who would of course go on to become quite famous for his cinematography for John Carpenter on Halloween a few short years later.

    Perkins does a great job in the lead role and she really does keep the audience guessing as to what’s happening in the real world versus what is happening in her increasingly fractured psyche. She plays the part well, looking quite fragile when she needs to but also bringing menace to the scenes where she gets busy with her blade. The script is smart enough to, by the end, provide a reason for Molly behaving the way that she does and thinking about the things that she thinks about. There’s more to this than just random penis removal and artsy nudity, the movie really gets us in Molly’s head and makes us feel for her.

    This is more of an artsy psychological thriller than an out and out horror movie but it never lacks intensity. If it was made on a low budget, Cimber and his team are savvy enough to not try and reach beyond their means. Location shooting and the atmosphere that it provides to a long way towards making this one look as eerie as it sometimes does, but the real reason to check it out is Perkins’ performance, even if the supporting players are an interesting assortment. Thom was onto something when he wrote this for her, she nails it.

    The Premonition:

    Also from 1976 is Robert Allen Schnitzer’s film, The Premonition, previously released on DVD by Media Blasters. When the movie begins, Andrea Fletcher (Ellen Barber) is released from the mental hospital where she was under observation for some time. Now free once again, she wants to reconnect with her friend Jude (Richard Lynch), a man who makes a living as a carnival clown. Andrea is hoping that Jude will know what happened to the baby girl that she gave up for adoption a half a decade earlier – she’d like to reconnect with the daughter she never knew.

    Amazingly enough, Jude has a photo of a girl named Janie Bennett (Danielle Brisebois) who lives in town with Professor Miles Bennett (Edward Bell) and his wife Sheri (Sharon Farrell). Andrea is certain that this is her daughter and is going to do everything that she can to get the girl back, even if that means breaking into the Bennett’s home. There’s more to this than that, however, because as Andrea gets ever closer to the girl, sinister omens seem to arise near Janie indicating that, even if this seems like a simple kidnapping scheme, something supernatural might be at play here.

    Directed by Schnitzer a few years after helping to launch Sylvester Stallone’s career with 1970’s No Place To Hide, The Premonition mixes up quirky carnival visuals with paranormal themed horror and some overwrought family drama to create a movie that isn’t always successful but which is at least always interesting. Schnitzer takes a less is more approach to storytelling here, not really bombarding us with over the top gore but instead going for a more restrained, atmospheric approach that works both for and against the movie. It helps the film in that it allows us to take the concept seriously but it hurts things in that maybe a little more sleaze would have helped with the pace of a fairly slow moving film.

    Thankfully, the acting is top notch. Sharon Farrell really shines here, doing great work as the concerned parent who has an interesting connection to what’s happening. She comes across as very determined but so too is she rightfully cautious, concerned and at times even frightened by what her family is being put through. Bell and Brisebois are fine as husband and child respectively but Farrell is more memorable here. Ellen Barber as the film’s requisite lunatic does fine work here, never taking things so over the top as to chew the scenery, while Richard Lynch is unforgettably creepy (if completely underused) strutting about in clown makeup.

    Unfortunately the deliberate pacing is tossed out the window in the last twenty minutes when it seems like Schnitzer decided it was time to wrap things up, at which point the movie goes from slow to rushed and not to its benefit. The end result is an uneven film that is interesting for the cast and for the trippy, almost psychedelic sequences in which it depicts the paranormal aspects of the story, rather than for the story itself.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Each film is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition presented in its proper aspect ratio restored from the best available elements in new 2k restorations. Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood, transferred from the director's own print, looks much better than the old DVD ever could, you can make out what is happening in the darker scenes now and while sometimes colors are a little flat, they’re still quite a bit improved over what we’ve seen previously. The Witch Who Came From The Sea doesn’t look quite as nice, the colors are faded and there’s a fair bit of print damage but we get a much nicer, more detailed and more stable presentation of the film than we’ve had in the past. The negatives for this one are long gone and there were only various prints to work off of, the one used for this transfer having come from the UCLA archives. That makes whatever source material flaws that are visible easy to look past. The Premonition looks quite good, showing very little print damage, great color reproduction, strong detail and nice depth. Given the origins of the three films represented here, things shape up just fine. This transfer was sourced from the CRI and it was clearly in better shape then the first two movies but really, all three look great here.

    English language LPCM Mono tracks are provided for each of the three movies in the set. Optional subtitles are presented in English only. There's the occasional crackle and pop now and again but by and large each film sounds just fine. Dialogue is always easy to understand and there's about as much depth as you could realistically expect. No problems here, and again, we get a reasonable upgrade over past DVD releases.

    Thrower provides an optional introduction to each of the three movies in the set, presenting some context for the picture and giving his two cents on what makes each of the selections in this first volume worthwhile. The rest of the extras are spread across the set as follows:

    Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood:

    The first movie features an audio commentary from Richard Harland Smith from Movie Morlocks that he introduces as his Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood party! He approaches this with a sense of humor, but so too does he prove he’s done his research. He makes some interesting comparisons to other films, talks about the film’s locations, offers some comments on the cast and makes some observations about the park itself and how it was shot ‘as is’ back in 1972. He also gives a quick history of the park itself, lends some critical insight into the film (don’t look at it as logic but rather chaos), makes some notes about the score and really just covers pretty much everything you’d want him to cover. It’s a good track, don’t let it pass you by.

    The Secrets Of Malatesta is a fourteen minute long interview with director Christopher Speeth who talks about how he met the film’s two producers, why they opted to make a horror movie, how the interiors were filmed in an empty machine shop where they could do what they wanted to do, while the exteriors were shot at a rundown old amusement park called Willow Grove Park in Philadelphia. From there he shares some stories about shooting the film, dealing with the actors (they were all paid scale!), working with Villechaize specifically and a fair bit more.

    Crimson Speak is an interview with writer Werner Liepolt that clocks in at just short of twelve minutes. He talks about how he got into writing, his background in playwriting, hooking up with Speeth, his thoughts on the feature and specifically the script and what he was paid for writing it. He also discusses helping to get some of the cast members involved into the picture through his live theater connections and how much of the production was really a group effort with some of the cast members contributing ideas to the production as it was being shot.

    Malatesta’s Underground gets art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson in front of the camera to speak for ten minutes about the bizarre but ridiculously effective look of the film. Here they cover how, as architects, they were asked to do an installation for an art event at the University Of Pennsylvania, how they met Speeth at the event and how that connection led to the two of them working on the feature. From there they talk about their thoughts on the script, the importance of using anything you can find properly to get what you can on screen, the materials that they found and wound up using to build the weird sets seen in the movie, how they worked with a local artist to create the papier-mâché characters seen in the movie and how they collaborated with a pair of actual witches named the Kiefer Sisters to make the stained glass pieces used in the movie. Great stuff, really interesting.

    Rounding out the extras for the first movie are three minutes of outtakes (including some extra gory bits), a still gallery, animated menus and chapter selection.

    The Witch Who Came From The Sea:

    A cast and crew commentary gets Dean Cundey, Millie Perkins and Matt Cimber behind the microphone to talk about the history of this particular film. Cimber does a bit more talking than the other two, talking about how he came to direct this picture, his relationships with the different cast members and who he recruited quite a few of them to work in the picture and his thoughts on the script. Cundy shares some memories of working with Buck Flower (who had passed away shortly before this was recorded), what went into getting some of the film’s more memorable shots right, and what he thinks of the movie while Perkins offers her two cents on her work in front of the camera, some insight into the character she played, some of her favorite moments in the film and her thoughts on some of the stronger scenes in the picture and more. This is the same commentary that was included on the previous DVD release from Subversive Cinema and the sound quality isn’t so hot but it’s a very worth inclusion here regardless of that issue.

    Tides And Nightmares is an all-new making of documentary that features interviews with Cimber, Cundey and Perkins as well as actor John Goff. It runs just under twenty-four minutes and it’s a well put together piece. It does cover some of the same ground as the commentary track but it’s a bit more succinct. Cimber starts off by talking about his thoughts on Thom’s script, trying to help get it made and the reaction he got for doing so, and the film’s darker, twisted content. Perkins gives her thoughts on the film’s ‘secret’ and how he was annoyed with Thom for writing it the way he did. Cundey says that working with Perkins was a great experience and how he appreciated what she brought to the picture and how he wound up working with Cimber on this movie in the first place. Goff, who wasn’t on the commentary, talks about playing Molly’s father in the film, his thoughts on the character and how he really enjoyed working with Matt Cimber on this and a few other films.

    A Maiden’s Voyage is an archival featurettes that is made up of interviews with Cimber, Cundey and Perkins that runs thirty-six minutes. This, like the commentary, originally appeared on the Subversive Cinema DVD release from 2004. Lost At Sea sees Cimber flying solo for just under four minutes talking about making the picture, the point of the storyline, the attraction that the film continues to hold, reception to the film, Jack Nicholson showing up at the film’s premiere (he was dating Perkins after she and Thom broke up), and personal things that happened to Cimber while he was making the movie including how he was going through a divorce which led to the negatives for the film disappearing and his thoughts on Arrow’s restoration using ‘a print that worked.’

    No trailer this time but we get some nice animated menus and chapter selection options.

    The Premonition:

    Again, we can an audio commentary with the film’s director/producer/co-author, one Robert Allen Schnitzer. This scene specific track talks about what it was like shooting the movie in Mississippi (and why it was shot there), his thoughts on the contributions that the various cast members bring to the feature, the difficulty of shooting on location inside an actual carnival trailer as opposed to a sound stage, some of the themes that run through the movie and more. He also talks about what Richard Lynch brings to the movie, the different receptions that the film has received over the years, how he let the ‘actors unfold’ in certain sequences, why the scene with the doll is his favorite scene in the film, how and why the film looks the way it does and how chicken entrails can be used to a filmmaker’s benefit when working with a modest budget. There are times when Schnitzer is content to simply tell us about what’s happening on screen but the good definitely outweighs the bad here, when he’s engaged this is quite an interesting look back at the making of this movie.

    From there we move on to the first featurettes, the twenty-one minute Pictures From A Premonition, which is a making of documentary that features Schnitzer, composer Henry Mollicone and cinematographer Victor Milt. Schnitzer talks about how the film started as a script called Turtle Heaven, how it was revised to add metaphysical elements to it, incorporating elements that were interesting to him into a screenplay and how his own personal vision quest altered his outlook on life. Milt talks about going to Europe in the sixties to go do the hippie thing, how he got into film when he returned, working with Schnitzer and how they get along after working together on various projects over the years. Mollicone (who sits behind a piano for his interview) shares some stories about how he came on to score the film after talking to Schnitzer, his thoughts on the movie, writing the music based on some baroque pieces that Schnitzer played for him and more.

    The disc also includes an older interview with Robert Allen Schnitzer that clocks in at six minutes where he talks about how his own interest in spirituality got him into making this particular film. He covers a lot of the same ground here as he does in the commentary and featurette. More interesting is an interview with actor Richard Lynch that runs just over sixteen minutes. It’s an archival piece but it’s great – here Lynch talks about what success really means in the acting business, how he’s stuck it out over the years because it is ‘my way of life, it is who I am.’ He then goes on to talk about his work on The Premonition, his character, the co-stars he appeared alongside in the feature, working with Schnitzer and more.

    If that weren’t enough, we also get three Robert Allen Schnitzer short films, all presented in high definition albeit with lossy Dolby Digital audio. The first short is the forty minute black and white Terminal Point where we see a couple interacting, going about their business before the man in the couple wakes up, gets ready and then heads out into the world. He meets the woman, they walk around a well attended party and then things get… odd what with the kid and the gun, the wax figure and the funeral and all of that. This has some great black and white footage of Manhattan in it as well as some nice footage shot on a rocky shoreline. The second short, Vernal Equinox, runs a half an hour in length and it was made when Schnitzer was seventeen years old in 1968. It’s set in New York City and it takes a look at the different cultures that exited in the city at that time while making some sort of statement about the powers of the subconscious. This was shot in color and it’s visually a nice time capsule of late sixties New York City, showing off Washington Square Park and the Lower East Side quite nicely before heading out into the sticks for the weirder moments and then to the coast for some time on the boardwalk and some body-painting . Also, Batman! Definitely a product of its time. The third and final short is A Rumbling in the Land, a quick piece at just over eleven minutes in length. He made this at eighteen while in college and he not only directed it but he photographed it as well. It’s a politically oriented piece that starts with stills of a college sit-in and shots of cops taking on unarmed students from different demonstrations staged around the United States. This segues into atrocity footage from Vietnam, footage of different protestors taking a stand against the war, and, well, it’s a protest film. Again, a product of its time but no less powerful for it.

    Rounding out the extras on the disc are four Peace Spots (quick little anti-war spots shot in black and white and also in color running just under four minutes in total), a theatrical trailer, three and a half minutes of TV spots, and the film’s isolated score in LPCM format. Of course, we also get animated menus and chapter selection on this disc as well.

    Aside from the Blu-ray discs, we also get DVD versions of the movies containing extra features identical to those found on the Blu-ray discs. Each movie’s Blu-ray and DVD discs are housed inside clear flipper cases with newly created artwork on one side of the cover insert and the original one-sheets on the reverse side.

    These all fit nicely inside an impressively sturdy cardboard sleeve that also contains a full color fifty-eight page insert booklet. In this book you’ll find an essay entitled American Horror Project: The Return Of Independent Exploitation by Stephen Thrower, All The Fun At The Fair: Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood by Kim Newman, “A Goddamn American Saint”: Perversion Of Perfection In The Witch Who Came From The Sea by Kier-La Janisse and Motherhood, Metaphysics, Mississippie, And The Premonition by Brian Albright. The book also includes credits for each of the three features in the set and some notes on the restorations that were performed to bring them to Blu-ray.

    The Final Word:

    Arrow’s Blu-ray release of American Horror Project Volume One is pretty amazing stuff. The fact that any of these movies have been given a Blu-ray release is reason enough for cult film fans to jump for joy but the attention paid not only to the quality of the presentation but to the accompanying supplements is outstanding. On top of that, the set itself is beautifully packaged and the accompanying booklet a fantastic addition that complements the extras on the individual discs perfectly. Highly recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!