Wednesday 26 June 2019

Dark Eyes Retrovision #15, #16 and #17: American Horror Project Volume 2 - Reviews of Dark August (USA 1977), The Child (USA 1977) and Dream No Evil (USA 1970)

Arrow Video have at last released the second of their collections of rare and/or overlooked independent US horror films in their ongoing 'American Horror Project' series curated by Stephen Thrower. DEoL checked out Volume 2.

Dark August (USA 1976: Dir Martin Goldman) Goldman's film seems almost tailor made for the AHP series. It's cheap, downbeat but weird fare, with solid production values and a decent cast.

Essentially a study of guilt, it's the story of illustrator Sal (JJ Barry), recently moved to Vermont following a divorce, who accidentally knocks over and kills a girl while driving his truck. Naturally he's full of grief and remorse, but his mental fragility is pushed further by constant glimpses of both a hooded stranger and an old man outside his house. While the former may be a phantasm, the latter is the very real grandfather of the dead girl. Encouraged by his art gallery worker girlfriend Jackie (Carole Shelyne, Barry's wife in real life) to visit a local witch, Adrianna (Kim Hunter), he discovers that a curse has been placed on him by the aggrieved grandfather, and must employ his own magic to fight the spell.

Dark August is a brooding, slow but never boring study of a man in crisis. The almost prosaic use of magic is unusual - Goldman makes you feel that every small town in Vermont must have its own practitioners of secret arts. It was clearly quite a coup casting Kim (Planet of the Apes, A Streetcar Named Desire) Hunter in the role of white witch Adrianna, but JJ Barry - who went on to a role as a caveman in Mel Brooks' 1981 movie History of the World: Part 1 - is equally convincing as the tortured artist Sal. A word too for the atmospheric David Axelrod like soundtrack burblings from jazz session musician William Fischer.

The Child (USA 1977: Dir Robert Voskanian) More sensational soundtrack music courtesy of Rob Wallace (his first feature score) awaits in a movie which, if memory serves, has been circulating in a dodgy public domain format for a while now: it's good to finally see a cleaned up copy of Voskanian's only film.

Alicianne (Laurel Barnett, who strangely played roles with the same character name in two films about Marilyn Monroe, thirteen years apart) is returning to the area where she grew up, to be the paid companion of little Rosalie (Rosalie Cole in her only screen credit). On the way she meets kindly but nosy Mrs Whitfield (Ruth Ballan) who brings her up to speed on the oddness of Rosalie's family. And indeed they are an unusual bunch, but no more so than Rosalie herself, who seems to have telekinetic abilities and an unhealthy obsession with visiting her late mother's grave in the middle of the night. She also has a number of zombie 'friends' who help her out in times of trouble. And Rosalie's trouble is that she wants the people she thinks caused the death of her mother to suffer. Which they do.

As is to be expected by virtue of its inclusion in the AHP box, The Child is one strange movie, clearly the work of a first time director, and produced by sexploitationer Harry Novak. The zombies, and the film's odd sense of time and location, anticipates the rash of Italian horror movies a few years later with titles like 1981's The House by the Cemetery and The Beyond (it was also the cinematographer Mori Alvi's only screen credit, a shame as he creates great mood in this). For a film of this budget, the gore, when it arrives, is pretty impressive (I'm guessing someone learned how to do 'gouged eye sockets' because the effect is used repeatedly - still effective though). The whole thing moves rather sluggishly but is such an interesting mish mash of styles that it remains fascinating.

Dream No Evil (USA 1970: Dir John Hayes) The box set's oldest feature, and for my money its weakest, was directed by the guy who went on to make 1973's Grave of the Vampire, also a film of which I'm not a big fan. Hayes oscillated between making low budget horrors and adult movies, and Dream No Evil has some of the feel of both.

The heavily narrated story (apparently the voice over was inserted after filming at the insistence of the producers) revolves around Grace, brought up in an orphanage, who grows up to be a high diving assistant to her foster brother, a travelling preacher. Grace is on a constant quest to find her father, and finally locates him in a local mortuary. Presumed dead, dad rises from the slab, celebrating with a quick turn on the squeezebox while his daughter dances exuberantly. A rash of murders occurs. Is her father responsible, or is it Grace?

From its odd, TV movie-esque opening credits to its Psycho style ending, Dream No Evil is a fascinating curio which holds back from being too over the top, which is a great shame. Its murder scenes are decidedly PG and some brief nudity has been masked on screen so as not to offend. There's still a lot to like, particularly Brooke Mills' spirited performance as the decidedly cuckoo Grace. There are some very odd touches - Grace's slo mo dancing, for example, or the scene where she carves a bird at the dining table which may well have been an inspiration for David Lynch (a similar scene occurs in Eraserhead) - but on the whole, despite this being another excellent set, Dream No Evil didn't grab me.

American Horror Project 2 Special Features include:

American Horror Project Journal Vol. II – limited edition 60-page booklet featuring new writing on the films by Stephen R. Bissette, Travis Crawford and Amanda Reyes

Dark August
  • Filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower
  • Brand new audio commentary with writer-director Martin Goldman
  • Brand new on-camera interview with Martin Goldman
  • Brand new on-camera interview with producer Marianne Kanter
  • The Hills Are Alive: Dark August and Vermont Folk Horror – author and artist Stephen R. Bissette on Dark August and its context within the wider realm of genre filmmaking out of Vermont
  • Original Press Book
The Child
  • 1.37:1 and 1.85:1 presentations of the feature
  • Filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower
  • Brand new audio commentary with director Robert Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian, moderated by Stephen Thrower
  • Brand new on-camera interviews with Robert Voskanian and Robert Dadashian
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Original Press Book
Dream No Evil
  • Filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower
  • Brand new audio commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan
  • Hollywood After Dark: The Early Films of John Hayes, 1959-1971 – brand new video essay by Stephen Thrower looking at Hayes’ filmography leading up to Dream No Evil
  • Writer Chris Poggiali on the prodigious career of celebrated character actor Edmond O’Brien
  • Excerpts from an audio interview with actress Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls) discussing her many cinematic collaborations with director John Hayes


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