The Bad Dreams America Forgot

by Arthur B

Arrow Video's American Horror Project sheds light on dark corners of the genre's history.
Arrow Video have become one of the better labels for high-quality releases of classic and obscure genre movies in recent years. In an age of Netflix and Amazon Prime, where a tremendous amount of material is available for streaming, Arrow manage to make a compelling case for the continued relevance of physical media by providing releases of movies which often haven't enjoyed a streaming release, and also by doing excellent jobs of restoring the films they release from the best available sources.

Their new American Horror Project series seems set to continue this tradition. The idea is to provide high-quality releases of horror films from the US which have fallen between the cracks commercially and critically speaking. At least one movie in the first set - Malatesta's Carnival of Blood - had only one run on the drive-in circuit before it disappeared for good, eventually re-emerging on a bare-bones DVD release decades later.

It sounds good - but are the movies they've selected for the first three-film set in the project really worth preserving? Let's take a look...

Malatesta's Carnival of Blood

Mr and Mrs Norris (Paul Hostetler and Betsy Hinn) and their daughter Vena (Janine Carazo) arrive at Malatesta's Carnival, where the aptly-named manager Mr Blood (Jerome Dempsey) welcomes them into the fold. Despite their innocent demeanour, they are actually here on a mission: their prodigal son disappeared after visiting the theme park, and they are here to find out what happened to him - and take revenge if the worst has happened. Vena soon stumbles across a lead when Kit (Chris Thomas) takes her into his confidence, after he witnesses a young family enter the Tunnel of Love ride but not leave.

The disappearances are only one aspect of the great mystery of the park. What's behind the strange behaviour of Sonja (Lenny Baker), the fortune teller? Why are the janitors and maintenance crews who tend to the park at night so grey-skinned and sinister? Who exactly is the sinister Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich), and what goes on in the extensive maintenance tunnels underneath the park - the tunnels decorated so strangely, like people are living there? Perhaps the answers lie in the strange warnings of Bobo the dwarf (Hervé Villechaize): "Beware of evil who stalks in the shadow of the dream! Beware of the mystery of the cannibal who shall remain nameless!"

Though credited with a few contributions to other projects, so far as I can tell this was Christopher Speeth's only stint as a director. He brings to the table a style which at first sight can look amateurish, but actually ends up quite compelling - for instance, the sequence where Mr and Mrs Norris are being taken around the park by Mr Blood has shaky camerawork and sometimes tree branches get in the way of the actors, which far from making this look like an Ed Wood-esque wreck creates an impression of voyeurism - that we and the camera operator are somehow spying on real events - which is reinforced by such features as intruding background noise, a comparative lack of incidental music, and the occasional bit of shaky sound mixing which comes across more as the result of recording under difficult ambient conditions than any incompetence on the part of the sound crew.

Speeth also reveals a deft eye for powerful images, exploiting the eerie atmosphere of the run-down theme park to great advantage. The shot of a night-time trespasser riding the rollercoaster through utter darkness is especially effective (even before he meets his grisly end), and the dream sequence in which Vera witnesses people riding in carnival ride booths wrapped in plastic and other such curiosities is a nicely proto-Lynchian touch. The direction, along with Werner Liepolt's script also shows a keen appreciation of the history of the horror genre, with Malatesta and his ghouls watching silent horror films in their lair and Vena's boyfriend Johnny (Paul Townsend) wandering into a conversation focusing on an old book of engravings depicting cannibalism which seems to be a little tribute to The Picture In the House.

The film is also notable for its use of gore of the Herschell Gordon Lewis school popular in 1960s Z-list horror movies, where garish, brightly-coloured blood and over-the-top, unrealistic injuries are the order of the day. It is rarely gore for gore's sake, however, but instead a tool used to put together some of the film's strangest imagery, like the ghouls singing beautiful songs as they much on a twitching victim in their strangely-decorated chambers, with Malatesta presiding over them all. The budget may be low, the makeup may be unconvincing, but - despite a rather meandering final act - the power of the story and images presented transcends the film's humble origins, to the extent where it almost justifies the American Horror Project by itself.

As usual with Arrow releases, they've done their best to restore the material to a high standard without robbing the film of its character; the occasional bit of wear and tear to the print used can be seen, as can only be expected from a film which fell into near-total obscurity until it was rediscovered in the 1990s.

The Witch Who Came From the Sea

Molly (Millie Perkins) works as a waitress at the Boathouse in Santa Monica, a beachfront bar run by her occasional lover Long John (Lonny Chapman) and a venue beloved by the counter-culture set and a few celebrities, and also puts in her time babysitting Tadd (Jean Pierre Camps) and Tripoli (Mark Livingston), the sons of her sister Cathy (Vanessa Brown). Molly and Cathy's Papa (played in flashbacks by John F. Goff) is dead, but when he was alive he repeatedly and ruthlessly sexually abused Molly. For her part, Cathy has never forgiven him and refuses to pretend he was anything other than the drunken abuser he was; Molly, however, insists - at least in front of Tadd and Tripoli - that Papa was not only a good man, a great man, but he also isn't even dead - he's just lost at sea on one of his voyages.

Molly thinks she's doing what is right for Tadd and Tripoli, because young men "need heroes". Then again, Molly doesn't entirely understand what she wants these days. Whenever she sees big, muscular men - physically idealised men, in stark contrast to Papa - she ends up having these sexualised fantasies of them dying in gruesome, bloody ways. There's those bodybuilders at the beach who she imagines getting killed in nasty training accidents, or those two NFL stars that she thinks about luring to their hotel room room, tying them up, and hacking them to bits with a razor (funny how she ends up a whole three hours late to work after having that vision…), or that hunky guy on the razor advert on television who she likes to imagine talking to her through the TV and sometimes even cutting his own throat with the razors advertised. With the amount she drinks, it's not long before Molly is bringing her fantasies into reality.

The movie would be substantially more problematic were it not for the character of Cathy. It's directly stated that Papa was violent towards Cathy, and whilst it is not stated whether or not Cathy was sexually abused by Papa, Cathy at the very least knows full well what Molly suffered and doesn't excuse or idolise Papa at all. As a result, the movie saves itself from falling into the trap of suggesting that victims will inevitably become abusers. Molly's response to what happened to her is not presented as normative or inevitable, because we have Cathy, who grew up in the same environment and was aware of the same things and was just as much of a victim and may or may not have been victimised in the same way as Molly was, and yet she hasn't gone down the dark road that Molly has.

Cathy's more troubled, in fact, by Molly's own suspicious behaviour; she has a worse and worse time of it as the police keep coming by with their questions (prompted at first by the discovery of some of Molly's clothes at one of the murder scenes - they bring it to Cathy because Cathy runs a clothing repair business from her home). Watching Cathy becoming increasingly miserable as she simultaneously struggles to protect Molly like she couldn't in the past, whilst at the same time being shocked by how Tadd and Tripoli have internalised Molly's stories about Papa being alive and benign as opposed to cruel and dead, makes her one of the more sympathetic and well-realised characters in the movie.

At the same time, the first major flashback we see of Molly's abuse is also juxtaposed with a happy moment with Molly and Papa working on one of Papa's gorgeous model ships, so Molly's take isn't without basis; it's built around thinking about the good times and flat-out ignoring and suppressing the bad times. And largely, the movie is a character study of Molly herself, trying to resolutely provide an understandable basis for her behaviour rather than simply giving her the sort of pat explanation that Psycho and slasher movies apply to their killers.

The result of this is that the movie is not a pat horror film, but more a psychological exploration of a child abuse victim who has been unable to process what happened to her. And indeed, it doesn't really have a traditional horror movie ending - instead of having some sort of climactic act of violence on Molly's part to round things off with, she performs her final murder some twenty or so minutes before the movie ends, and it resolves when she discloses both what happened to her and what she has been doing to Long John and Doris (Peggy Feury), one of her waitress friends at the bar and taking an overdose of pills.

It is ambiguous as to whether she flat-out dies or whether Doris and Long John change their mind about letting her kill herself (Doris outright objects, Long John seems to see it as kinder than allowing her to be caught and prosecuted) or whether they are able to rush her to hospital and save her, but the closing image of her drifting away at sea on a raft has a sense of finality about it. There's a nautical theme to some of Molly's visions - she has flashes of being lashed to the mast of a raft full of corpses - inspired in part by the way Papa referred to his attacks on her as going "out to sea" with her - and seeing her drifting on the raft alone and free and on control of it but floating to nowhere suggests that she has found some sort of final peace with herself.

Another aspect of the movie that sets it apart from the rest of the horror genre is the way it begins with the fantastic and shifts gear towards greater realism, rather than the other way around; Molly's initial fantasy, which she doesn't act on, is downright cartoonish, but as the movie progresses things become more and more rooted in reality, perhaps to parallel how Molly increasingly acknowledges both what her father has done to her and what she has done to others.

The movie was written by Robert Thom (best known, perhaps, for writing Death Race 2000) for Millie Perkins whilst he was sick with pneumonia, director and producer Matt Cimber having worked with Perkins previously and indicated that he'd be willing to helm a project written by Thom. Together, the creative team also including cinematographer Dean Cundey whose contributions really helped make the movie visually work evidently realise that the subject matter they are dealing with is volatile stuff, and they try to walk a fine line where they are simultaneously treating it with sensitivity on the one hand whilst not sugarcoating it or presenting it so obliquely that the audience can overlook or be insulated from the nastiness of what has happened. I think they just about succeed, but naturally the movie comes with a hefty trigger warning for sexualised violence, violent sexuality, abuse, rape, and all sorts of terrible things.

They are sufficiently successful that this isn't really much of a horror film, but it's good that Arrow have reclaimed it anyway, and if putting it in the American Horror Project was what they had to do to make it commercially viable then so be it. Arrow are excellent at restoration, which is a good thing here because, based on what's onscreen here, the surviving prints must be pretty lousy. As well as the picture quality being variable - with some parts being especially badly damaged, the soundtrack is also patchy - in particular, long sections of the movie have this ongoing background crackle, like we're hearing it on a badly-maintained vinyl record.

Still, I'm glad they did the work necessary to preserve this. In the 1980s this ended up on the Department of Public Prosecution's list of video nasties which they believed would be prosecutable under obscenity laws. However, this was something of an empty threat, since it's one of the 33 films on the list which was never the subject of a successful prosecution. Apparently the movie had trouble with the MPAA too; Cimber claims that some members of the board directly told him that the subject matter of child sexual abuse was never appropriate for depiction in a movie, because movies were for entertainment and nobody could be entertained by this.

I would certainly categorise this as a work of art rather than a work of entertainment - it tells a good story with artistic merit which is worth seeing provided you are aware of the content and can make a reasoned decision as to whether you'll be triggered by it (or whether you are interested enough to accept the risk of being triggered anyway), but at the same time you would never consider it fun or a barrel of laughs. Part of the reason it has been overlooked over the years may be down to the way it was mismarketed originally (and is still kind of misrepresented by Arrow) as a horror movie - including that wildly, ridiculously inappropriate poster - but even if it doesn't follow the rules of the horror genre, the subject matter involved is still horrifying in the dictionary sense of the word.

The Premonition

Andrea Fletcher (Ellen Barber) arrives at a carnival to meet up with Jude (Richard Lynch), who works as a photographer clown and whose manages to be quite handsome without his makeup despite a mass of scars covering his throat, jaw and lower face. Andrea has spent five years trying to track down her daughter, who was taken away from her reasons not enunciated early on in the movie; Jude thinks he has found her in the form of Janie Bennett (Danielle Brisebros), adopted daughter of Sheri (Sharon Farrell) and Miles (Edward Bell), an astrophysics professor; Sheri and Janie came to the fairground, where Jude took their photograph, and after tracking Janie down to her school Andrea becomes convinced she's found her daughter.

Meanwhile, Miles has been hanging out with Dr Jeena Kingsly (Chitra Neogy), a new member of the faculty at his university who specialises in parapsychology. Jeena's skills may be needed before long; after witnessing from a distance Andrea trying to get Janie's attention, Sheri has a strange vision of both Andrea (in a different set of clothing from the one Sheri saw Andrea wearing) and Jude (who Sheri may have seen at the fairground where he took the photo of her and Jude, but in her vision he isn't wearing his clown makeup…), and Janie starts having bad dreams. Then, after a terrifying home invasion in which Andrea nearly succeeds in kidnapping Janie, Sheri's visions become more prolonged and powerful, and strange phenomena begin happening in conjunction with them, like panes of glass becoming spontaneously frosted over.

Things aren't going so hot with Andrea and Jude either. Andrea's behaviour ranges from eccentric to outright cruel, and Jude has a foul temper and a violent streak to match. Physically speaking, Andrea might have more to fear from Jude than the police - but spiritually, it could be that Andrea is a danger to everyone involved - especially once Janie disappears.

Produced and directed by Robert Schnitzer from a script penned by him and Anthony Mahon, The Premonition tells an unusual psychic story which at points strikes me as being almost proto-Lynchian. A large part of this comes down to the visions, in which the use of distorted speed, lighting, and incoherent laughing and screaming calls to mind nothing less than the more nightmarish visions in the final episode of Twin Peaks. Moreover, the juxtaposition of an exploding lightbulb with a sudden vision is particularly Lynchian, considering Lynch's use of electricity and electric light in particular as a component of his nightmares. Lastly, both The Premonition and Twin Peaks have their central crises wrapped up through interpretation of dream elements and a re-enactment of crucial moments in a dream.

Schnitzer has a masterful way of introducing little details that add depth to the story without upstaging or derailing it. For instance, we aren't given much of an in-depth backstory for Jude, but we are introduced to him as he practices some ballet moves in proper slippers, hinting at a more glamorous past before he got his scars, and Andrea's cruel jibe that he'll never sire kids and isn't really a man (and his furiously violent reaction to that) suggests something about the extent of those scars too. A subtle dose of guilt is added by the fact that when initial unsuccessful home invasion happens, Miles is off at the fairground with Jeena (who for her part seems perturbed to notice that he has a wedding ring on, suggesting that Miles wasn't exactly being forthcoming with her about his marital status and this wasn't just intended as professional colleagues' funtime).

On top of that, there's a hint of class warfare to the story, with the Bennetts living an archetypal middle class lifestyle whilst Jude and Andrea have their interactions in carnival trailers, run-down farmhouses, gloomy boarding houses and Jude's rusty pickup truck, but again once presented this isn't leaned on too heavily. For the most part the script stays tightly focused on keeping the main plot on track and letting the audience pick up on the subtle side-stories that are lurking on the margins for themselves.

Of all the movies in the set, this is the one which has by far been preserved the best, allowing Arrow to present an essentially blemish-free release of it. It's also a good pick to round off the set, given the prominence of dream sequences and familial relationships in the other two movies in the set.

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