• American Horror Project Volume 2 (Arrow Video) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Arrow Video
    Released on: July 30th, 2019.
    Director: John Hayes, Martin Goldman, Robert Voskanian
    Cast: Edmund O'Brien, Michael Pataki, Kim Hunter, J.J. Barry, Laurel Barnett
    Year: 1970/1976/1977
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    American Horror Project Volume 2 – Movie Review:

    It's been over three years since the first volume of Arrow Video's American Horror Project was released… a long wait, but one that's finally over now that volume two has been unleashed. Here's a look…

    Dream No Evil:

    The film begins at a girls' orphanage where a well to do woman adopts cute little Grace McDonald. While this subplot seems important, it's really not, we never hear about her adopted parents again. Instead we fast forward a good ten years and find that Grace is doing the Lord's work. The Reverend Jesse Bundy (Michael Pataki) drives around the mid-west with his shirt unbuttoned towing a trailer and at night, he and Grace set up revival tent meetings. Jesse does the fire and brimstone act while Grace dons a swimsuit and leaps off of a thirty-foot-tall ladder into a fill of cushions as some sort of strange proof God's existence. Complicating matters is the fact that Jesse has obviously got a holy hard on for Grace, but alas, their love is not to be for she is promised to another… Jesse's brother, a medical student named Patrick Bundy (Paul Prokop).

    Patrick cares for Grace, but her stoic religious beliefs won't allow her to give Patrick the good loving he so desperately craves. When Grace decides to go off and continue her ongoing quest to find her real father, Patrick decides to get a little closer to his foxy female study buddy after getting a peek at her goods. You see, she overslept so he and the landlady decided to toss her in the shower. Yoink!

    At any rate, Grace eventually finds her father (played by none other than Academy Award winning actor Edmund O'Brien, who may very well be drunk the entire time he's onscreen) somehow. At first, he's dead, or so we're led to believe, as we see him on the slab in a local funeral home run by a man (Marc Lawrence) who pimps elderly whores in his spare time. Grace thinks nothing of it when dear old dad rises from the grave and kills the undertaker right in front of her. In fact, she moves in with him and together they care for a horse named Sultan. Reverend Jesse comes by for a visit and he and dad drink whiskey together while Grace does a retarded version of an Irish jig for their amusement, kicking up her heels and flashing her underwear at the camera. Later, however, Grace gives in to Jesse's lust and the two cavort in the barn only to be discovered by dad who, once again, commits the ultimate sin.

    Meanwhile, Patrick is slipping it to his roommate and decides that since he's had a taste of her forbidden fruit, he should give Grace the old heave-ho. After all, what good is having a hot piece like her on your arm if all you get is cuddle time? He decides he's going to do this when Grace shows up at the hospital where he's working alongside the other woman. Obviously distraught by what she sees, she nevertheless requests that Patrick come to the ranch where she and her father are living so that she can meet him. He's hesitant but finally agrees, not knowing that everyone who seems to come into contact with her dad winds up on the receiving end of nasty, burly murder!

    This movie is goofy beyond belief, but enjoyable enough as a drive-in oddity. If it weren't for the periodic interruptions from a nameless narrator it would be impossible to tell what was happening and even with his help, the film is still a big ol' mess. O'Brien, who was in the twilight of his career when this was shot, looks unhappy to be there while Pataki overacts and chews the scenery (which is, let's admit it, exactly what you want Pataki to do). Female lead Brooke Mills (probably best known for her work in The Big Doll House or maybe The Student Teachers) is absolutely beautiful and very easy on the eyes but it's really no wonder she didn't ever amount to much more than a bit part player. Her performance here pretty much redefines the term ‘wooden acting' and while much of the responsibility lies with the script, or lack thereof, her non-performance really doesn't help things outside of the eye-candy department.

    Sub-plots go completely undeveloped, characters act completely illogically and the film jumps around enough to make you dizzy. But it's fun if you're in the right mood for it.

    Dark August:

    The second film revolves around Sal Devito (J.J. Barry), an artist who has recently moved away from his wife and kids out of the city to rural Vermont to enjoy the peace and quiet and live a calmer life. He quickly hits it off with Jackie (Carole Shelyne), a pretty art gallery owner, and takes a romantic interest in her. He also befriends a potter named Theo (Frank Bongiorno). Things are going alright for Sal, and he soon starts work on an art space to call his own.

    He does, however, have a problem. See, Sal gets involved in a car accident that kills the granddaughter of Ned McDermott (William Robertson), a strange and reclusive man who lives in the area. The courts found him not guilty, but Ned sees things differently. Soon, Sal starts seeing Ned and… someone or something else, creeping around his yard and appearing at times and places where he shouldn't be appearing. Theo thinks that Frank's mind is playing tricks on him, it's surely nothing more than a coincidence, but when his wife, Lesley (Kate McKeown), reads her Tarot Cards and gets a witch named Adrianna Putnam (Kim Hunter from The Planet Of The Apes!) involved, it starts to look more and more like Frank is being stalked by a demonic entity of some kind.

    Shot on location in Vermont, Dark August is an interesting slice of supernatural horror that moves at a deliberate but effective pace and that makes great use of its rural locations. It's an atmospheric slow burn that never feels stronger than its PG rating implies it should be, but which still offers up some decent, chilling moments to keep genre fans happy. It loses things a bit at the end, but otherwise, it works quite well so long as you know what you're getting into.

    Robertson makes for a good lead in the film. He is well cast in the part, flawed as we all are but likeable enough in his own way. He has good chemistry with both Shelyne and Bongiorno and we have no trouble buying that these characters all like one another and get along as well as they do. William Robertson plays the quirky old man stereotype that he's cast as perfectly while supporting work from McKeown and Hunter is quite good as well.

    The movie isn't super stylish but production values are good. The cinematography might not be exceptionally flash but it is more than competent, it's a nicely shot picture. Sound design is decent too, and the score in the picture is quite good. Martin Goldman, who also directed The Legend Of Nigger Charley, keeps control of the picture and winds up not only coaxing solid acting out of his cast but delivering a film worthy of your attention.

    The Child:

    The best of the three films in the set is Robert Voskanian's 1977 picture, The Child, which opens with the ominous scene wherein a young blonde girl hands a kitten over to the ghouls hiding on the other side of a gravestone in the dark of a foggy cemetery. It's a fantastic opening that really does a great job of setting the stage for things to come.

    From here, we meet the lovely Alicianne Del Mar (Laurel Barnett) as she travels by car into the sticks. When an oil barrel pummels towards her and runs her off the road, she has to make the rest of her journey by foot. She huffs it into the woods where she meets a kindly old woman named Mrs. Whitfield (Ruth Ballen), who invites her in for a rest. They get to talking and we learn that Alicianne is to start working for the Nordon family, looking after their daughter Rosalie (Rosalie Cole). They've needed some help since her mother passed some time ago. Whitfield sends her on her way, urging her to hurry through the cemetery that separates their home before it gets dark.

    Alicianne arrives later that night and makes the acquaintance of Rosalie's grouchy father (Frank Janson) and dreamy older brother Len (Richard Hanners). Since it's late, everyone goes to bed but Alicianne does make a point of introducing herself to Rosalie before hitting the sack. From there, Alicianne and Rosalie initially seem to hit it off, Alicianne and Len even more so. Before too long, however, strange things start to happen. First, Mrs. Whitfield's loyal dog disappears, then Rosalie starts disappearing from her room late at night to run out to the cemetery to see her ‘friends.' By the time Alicianne realizes what her new friend Rosalie is really up to, it might already be too late!

    Distributed by legendary exploitation maestro Harry Novak, The Child is a delightfully weird movie which had a neat advertising campaign highlighted by a one-sheet with an eerily gothic image on it featuring a girl peeking out from behind the cemetery gates with the test "Let's play hide and go kill' plastered around it. The one sheet proved a reasonably accurate representation of the movie it was promoting, at least by horror/exploitation standards, as The Child is an eerily gothic film. A remote setting, a creepy old cemetery and some genuinely wild camera work ensure that this is a move not lacking in atmosphere. While there are some logic gaps and a few missteps here and there with some of the performances, the film works surprisingly well, conjuring up the better films of someone like S.F. Brownrigg and throwing in elements of Night Of The Living Dead and Texas Chain Saw Massacre as well. The fact that the whole thing was noticeably dubbed in post-production adds to the movie's decidedly strange tone.

    Roselie Cole is pretty decent as the titular child. She plays her part with enough distance that we know immediately that something is up with her. A few lines are delivered a bit woodenly but overall, she's fun here. Ruth Ballen's role is a smaller one but she's likeable enough, which would seem to be how her character is supposed to come across. Richard Hanners is pretty flat as Len, but we can look past that, while Frank Janson plays the surly old farmer type well enough. Leading lady Laurel Barnett is tasked with doing most of the heavy lifting here and while at first she seems a little hokey, when things get scary she's pretty convincing in her depiction of, well, being scared.

    Nicely paced and featuring some genuinely creepy makeup effects and even a bit of mild gore, The Child holds up really well.

    American Horror Project Volume 2 – Blu-ray Review:

    Each film is presented on its own 50GB Blu-ray disc and taken from a ‘brand new 2K restorations from original film elements.' Each film is also presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and framed at 1.85.1 widescreen (though The Child is also given a fullframe presentation).

    The picture quality for Dream No Evil offers up a substantial upgrade over the old DVD release from VCI/Kit Parker Films. Detail is vastly improved and there's a lot more depth and texture here as well. Colors look spot on and there's only sporadic, minor print damage to note. We get ncie black levels and good skin tones and the transfer looks like film, devoid of edge enhancement or obvious DNR.

    Dark August looks very nice here, frequently it looks excellent. It's properly framed and the elements were clearly in really good shape. There's a bit of minor print damage here and there but nothing really distracting at all, just the odd white speck now and again. Detail is quite strong for the duration of the picture, color reproduction looks very nice and black levels are fine. It retains a filmic look throughout, no digital trickery is noticed here. This looks very nice.

    The transfer for The Child is taken from elements that have seen better days but it is definitely a noticeable step up from the DVD release. The darker scenes, and there are a LOT of them, are still a bit on the murky side at times but far, far better than they have looked in the past. Expect mild to moderate print damage to appear throughout and some occasional color fading. As to the two aspect ratios, some scenes do look a little tight at 1.85.1, while others looks just fine. Regardless, this makes the 1.33.1 option a nice one to have, as viewers can obviously choose which framing choice they prefer.

    Arrow provides uncompressed PCM mono audio for each film in the set with optional English SDH subtitles available. The first two films sound just fine, with clean and clear audio, nicely reproduced scores and good sound effects. There aren't any problems with any hiss or distortion to note. Again, however, The Child is a bit worse for wear. Some hiss is present here and there and some occasional pops.

    Dream No Evil:

    The first feature's extras kick off with a new audio commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan who get into the nitty-gritty of the film's themes and ideas and note some gothic horror influences that work their way into the movie. They also talk up the career of the film's director and offer up plenty of trivia about the cast, crew and locations as well as their own thoughts on the film and its merits.

    The disc also includes a filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower entitled Melancholy Dreamer which is a nine-minute exploration of the author's thoughts on the film and what makes it interesting. Thrower also appearas in Hollywood After Dark: The Early Films of John Hayes, 1959-1971,a piece that runs thirty-four-minutes. In this piece, Thrower examines John Hayes' films leading up to Dream No Evil, including the director's tendency to feature similar views on the family unit throughout his early career and the different pictures that he would wind up making with future Golden Girls star Rue McClanahan. In the twenty-two-minute Edmond O'Brien: An Actor For All Seasons writer Chris Poggiali gives us some insight and plenty of background detail on the career of the film's star, from the film noir pictures he is best known for to a few westerns he made to genre pictures such as this one. The disc also includes thirty-minutes of audio interview excerpts with the late McClanahan where she shares some interesting stories about the pictures she and Hayes made together and their relationship on and off screen.

    Dark August:

    Extras for the second feature begin with a new audio commentary with writer-director Martin Goldman moderated by Brandon Daniel and Joe Luke. Goldman is a little reserved here but the moderators do a decent job of getting him involved when they can. He talks about the film scene of the time, how he came to work on the project, his thoughts on the story, shooting in Vermont, his cast and crew and more. It isn't the most boisterous track but it does have some interesting information and anecdotes in it.

    The video extras start off with another filmed appreciation by Thrower in the eleven-minute Revisiting Dark August segment. He speaks here about the film's unique properties, its place as a regional horror offering and its legacy in American horror of its day. We get a new on-camera interview with Martin Goldman entitled Mad Ave To Mad Dogs where he speaks about his career for fifteen-minutes, sharing stories about how he got his start doing commercials before then getting involved in features. There are some clips from some of his commercials included in here which are interesting to see. Don't Mess With The Psychic interviews producer Marianne Kanter for nine-minutes about how she came to work on this production, her thoughts on Goldman and how she feels about the film these many years later. From there, check out The Hills Are Alive: Dark August And Vermont Folk Horror where author and artist Stephen R. Bissette (whose work on Swamp Thing remains a high point in eighties comics) talks about Dark August and horror films and stories based in Vermont in generally for just over thirty-four-minutes. Bissette is always interesting to listen to and in this piece it's clear that he's talking about something that he is quite enthusiastic and passionate about.

    The Child:

    The third films gets a new audio commentary with director Robert Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian, moderated by Stephen Thrower, that proves to be quite worthwhile. They talk about how they met, how they had a common interest in horror pictures and how they then decided to collaborate on one. They discuss casting the film, the locations, the performances, the score and lots, lots more. They also reveal why the film had to be dubbed in post. Lots of great information in here. Thrower keeps them talking and they come across as very likable.

    After that, check out the filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower, The Zombie Child, where he speaks for thirteen-minutes about the film's inherent weirdness and what sets it apart. He also gives us some background on Voskanian and Dadashian, talking about how they met and started working together before then going on to exalt the merits of the film and share some interesting anecdotes about its history.

    In Fathers Of The Child we get a thirteen-minute on-camera interviews with Voskanian and Dadashian where they further discuss how they became friends before becoming business partners, their shared love of horror films and how this particular film wound up taking a few years to finally get finished and out to theaters.

    Rounding out the extras on the disc are the film's original theatrical trailer and a still gallery containing its original press book. Menus and chapter selection are also provided.

    American Horror Project Volume 2 – The Final Word:

    Arrow's American Horror Project Volume 2 boxed set is a good one, once again bringing three cinematic obscurities to Blu-ray in nice shape and with loads of extras documenting their respective histories and cultural significance. There's a lot of fun to be had here from the movies and a whole lot of knowledge to be gained from the extras. Highly recommended.
    Click on the images below for full sized American Horror Project Volume 2 Blu-ray screen caps!