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Attention Horror Fans! American Horror Project: Vol.1 Belongs on Your Shelf

By  · Published on February 23rd, 2016

Arrow Films/Video has been in the home video business for years, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the UK-based label set up shop here in North America. The months since have already seen some must-own releases for genre fans including Brian Yuzna’s terrifically icky Society, Takashi Miike’s delightful The Happiness of the Katakuris, and near-forgotten slashers like Blood Rage and The Mutilator.

It’s their love for the near-forgotten that has led to their latest endeavor ‐ the ambitious and important American Horror Project. The goal is to dig deep into American horror films with a focus on titles from the ’70s and ’80s that never quite caught on despite their merit. These are movies that saw limited, if any, theatrical release and met a similar fate on home video. Arrow’s plan is to treat them with the same love and respect they give to their higher-profile titles including the best possible restorations and the inclusion of numerous special features.

Vol. 1, in what I hope is going to be a long-running series, hits shelves today, and it is a thing of beauty. The three films ‐ Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, The Witch Who Came From the Sea, The Premonition ‐ each have their individual strengths and weaknesses, but the box-set is a gorgeous ode to the many faces of horror. The smartly-designed slipcase holds all three films, each in their own case with reversible artwork, and a limited edition 60-page booklet collects stills and new writings on the films as well.

Keep reading for a look at the individual titles. (American Horror Project: Vol. 1 is available from Amazon.com)

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Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)

Vena and her parents have taken a job at a somewhat creepy carnival, but it’s not the carny lifestyle they’re after. No, they’re looking for Vena’s brother who they believe disappeared here a short time before. They’re not wrong, but they’ll wish they were. The mysterious man behind the carnival is also hosting a secret underground party populated with people who’ve dropped out of society and discovered an appreciation for avoiding the sun and eating human flesh.

Director Christopher Speeth’s only film is an odd and arty little chiller that succeeds despite its budgetary limitations and lack of narrative focus. It’s very dream-like (or nightmarish, take your pick) in its structure and appearance, and while the movie takes place in the real world it constantly feels like it exists on the edge of consciousness. There’s a Night of the Living Dead-vibe to the shambling horde beneath the carnival and the occasional member who goes trolling for flesh above ground, and it adds to the various moments of pure horror that punctuate the atmosphere.

That atmosphere is the film’s greatest strength, and while it’s due in part to the pacing and script much of the credit goes to the production design. The carnival grounds come to surreal life with sets designed to leave both characters and viewers unnerved and uncertain as to their surroundings. Vibrant colors, oddly-crafted props, and a menacing Hervé Villechaize just add to the mix.

Stephen Thrower, author of the brilliantly exhaustive Nightmare USA and co-curator of this collection, provides informative introductions to each film, but his one here is overflowing with caveats. He repeatedly warns viewers to check their expectations at the door in regard to narrative and plot, and while he’s not wrong it does feel a bit excessive. The film’s inclusion here is enough to indicate it’s lacking the elements required for mass appeal. Still, Thrower pairs those reservations with a clear affection for the movie ‐ and it’s an affection I now share.

The 2k restoration has resulted in an impressive appearance for a film of this age and budget, but it’s still a film of this age and budget. Arrow’s disc includes the special features below, and the interviews offer plenty of background information on the film’s production. The highlight though is Richard Harland Smith’s commentary track which includes both anecdotes and trivia elements, both presented with a healthy sense of humor.

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The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)

Molly works at a dive bar and spends time with her two young nephews, but her mind is often elsewhere. She speaks fondly of her seafaring father and his honorable demise, and she even goes so far as to defend him against her sister’s accusations, but Molly’s memories betray her words. Flashbacks reveal him as her abuser, and presumably years of that treatment has informed the woman Molly has become ‐ a woman who fantasizes about killing “perfect” men only to realize that she’s executing them in real life.

This mid ’70s (filmed in 1971, not released until 1976) entry is the least traditionally horrific of the set’s three films, but it’s easily the most affectingly visceral. Molly is a serial killer whose back story and childhood trauma effectively adds an empathetic layer to her character. It’s an unusual move, but unlike something like Ms. 45 that turns personal motivation into an exploitative revenge-style experience, director Matt Cimber and writer Robert Thom craft a dramatic and affecting tale that just happens to also include murder, sex, and castration.

The violence and dark themes are plenty horrific, but it’s the nightmare of reality that gives the film its weight. Molly is a damaged woman and beyond repair, and that leads to a downbeat ending far removed from genre expectations. Pacing issues and some odd script diversions don’t make it the easiest of watches, and it’s probably the set’s entry I’m least likely to watch again anytime soon, but there’s an undeniable power to its visuals and central drama.

Arrow’s restoration has cleaned the film up from previous incarnations, but the materials they had to work with were clearly in bad shape as damage remains visible at times. The special features are a mix of older extras (including a poorly-recorded commentary) and a new interview featurette. Millie Perkins’ thoughts on her lead performance are entertaining and insightful, but the highlight is time spent with cinematographer Dean Cundey (The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing).

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The Premonition (1976)

Andrea is newly-released from the mental institution she’s called home, and the only thing on her mind is reuniting with the daughter she lost to the state. Together with her carny clown boyfriend she searches the heartland for the little girl. The child’s adoptive mother meanwhile is having visions of trouble on the horizon, trouble in the form of Andrea, and those visions soon come terribly true.

For lack of a better word, this is the set’s most “normal” horror film and the one that received the widest releases both in theaters and home video. It’s an abduction thriller with a supernatural twist, and it’s a competently-produced feature across the board. The performances are strong and effective including a fine turn by professional bad guy Richard Lynch and a harrowing portrayal of madness and loss by Ellen Barber as Andrea.

Time is spent developing the characters and building the conflict, but director Robert Allen Schnitzer nails the sequences of horror including a chilling confrontation in the child’s bedroom. Even when he aims the camera away from the carnage, as with a late, deadly clash between two main characters, the sequence retains it power through audio and collateral visuals.

Andrea is clearly mad, but the film allows her the courtesy of being a character whose motivations are built on an honest desire to love her daughter. A woman scorned has nothing on a mother denied her child, and the emotion that fuels her can’t help but magnify the intensity of all that follows. It’s far from an action-packed thriller, but the character work and moments of terror and suspense make for a compelling watch.

This film looks the best of the three, by far, and Arrow pairs its sharp picture with a healthy helping of special features. Best among them is an interview with Lynch who discusses his career, his typecasting as a heavy, and the joy of doing what you love.

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American Horror Project: Vol. 1 is available from Amazon.com

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.