The Films (4.5/5 Malatesta's Carnival of Blood, 3.5/5 The Witch Who Came from the Sea, 4/5 The Premonition)
Arrow Video is currently one of my favorite labels. They release a blend of horror and cult titles like no other label running today. All the while they take some risks that other labels might not try their hand at, offering up top notch audio/video quality, and excellent extras putting their releases into historical context. No release on the label might better exemplify the overall aesthetic of Arrow Video than the February 2016 release of American Horror Project Vol. 1.
In the cult film underground we are certainly privileged to see many of our favorite obscurities released to DVD and Blu-ray on a regular basis, however, outside of Severin Films recent stateside release of Frederick Friedel's Axe and Kidnapped Coed no packaged film release effectively blends the sense of curation of content, elaborate extra features giving a historical sense to the films, and excellent restoration than this 3 film set.
The set is compromised of 3 films, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood, The Witch Who Came from The Sea, and the Premonition. There is no thematic or visual element connecting the 3 films. The films are American films of the 1970's vintage, and share a low budget filmmaking aesthetic. Aside from that each film attempts to do something different within the confines of the horror genre. A genre that proves just within this box set that regardless of how it is suppressed within the Hollywood mainstream is one of the film medium's most expressive.
Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is probably my favorite of the sets 3 offerings and kicks off the set in a fashion that I would like to describe as feeling as like the American offspring of Jean Rollin minus the abundance of sex and nudity. The film follows a family who join the ranks of a carnival to find their missing son, who got lost at said carnival. This carnival it turns out is run by a man named Mr. Blood, who true to his name is a vampire. The other denizens of the carnival are no bargain either including the monstrous cannibal ghouls who occupy the lower regions of the carnival and spend their time watching silent cinema when they are not searching for, and devouring, human flesh.
Malatesta's Carnival of Blood has a certain rawness to it that I quite liked. It tended to eschew a straightforward plot for a foreboding and bizarre atmosphere. The performances were solid for what they were, but the visuals sparse as they were truly kept me hooked for this one.
The second film in the set might be the most immediately and outwardly disturbing of the 3, and the only one I had seen prior to viewing the set, The Witch Who Came from the Sea. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is about a woman named Molly played by Millie Perkins, who suffered sexual abuse and trauma as a child, and is now taking revenge, of sorts, by killing and castrating athletes who engage in relationships with her through her job as a waitress in the seaside community where she lives.
The film has a odd dreamlike atmosphere that adds to the overall eerieness of the film. Though it should be said out of the gate that while The Witch Who Came from The Sea can firmly find itself within the horror genre, it is also a deeply psychological film, and engages the viewer on multiple levels with themes that strike far deeper than most films in the genre choose to. The underlying subject matter of the film is disturbing alone, but combined with the performances and the immediacy of the visuals by director Matt Cimber and cinematographer Dean Cundey it pushes the Witch Who Came from the Sea into a whole other realm of psychological horror filmmaking.
The third film in the set the Premonition is a striking film about how the loss of a child effects a parent, and it does so on multiple levels. The film is about a young girl named Janie Bennett, who lives in fear that her birth mother will one day come to take her away from the foster parents she knows and loves. It turns out her fears were not unfounded, and her Mother Andrea, recently released from a mental hospital has spent the last 6 months with her carny boyfriend, Jude trying to track down the girl and take her away. She does succeed in the act of kidnapping Janie, but cannot commit herself to keeping the young girl. Andrea ends up dying, and Janie ends up wandering the small town, ending up at the carnival and in the hands of Jude. Who rather then return her kidnaps her for his own.
The foster parents of Janie then hire a parapsychologist to interpret, Cathy, the foster mothers disturbed and prescient dreams regarding Janie, and help them to track her down with the help of the local police. Out of the 3 films this is the one I found most compelling. There was not one bad film in the box set, but each hit me from a different direction, which pleased me greatly. The film used the supernatural in a very minor way that ended up accenting the suspense of the overall film. The performances were almost uniformly excellent, and the film was compelling almost from the minute it started. In a way, it reminded me of the later Park Chan-Wook film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as though Andrea had no legal rights to her daughter, her loss of the child could be felt as deeply as Cathy's after the kidnapping had occurred. It put both of Janie’s mothers on an oddly equal ground with their sense of loss, and made Andrea less villainous as she might originally seem.
Each film is presented with a 1080p AVC encoded transfer. Malatesta's Carnival of Blood and The Premonition are in their original 1:85:1 aspect ratio, while The Witch Who Came from The Sea is presented in a 2:35:1 aspect ratio. All the transfers are incredibly solid for the most part. There is damage from the sources used in all 3 films, but they share excellent detail, natural colors (and some nice bright lurid ones in the case of Malatesta's), and deep blacks. They are also naturally grainy as they should be.
The audio for all 3 are presented with LPCM 1.0 mono tracks in English with optional subtitles. Dialogue, score, and ambient effects for all 3 films come through nicely.
The true high point of the set is the incredible depth of the extra features. Each film in the set contains an introduction by Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower, alongside commentaries, making of documentaries, interviews, trailers, isolated scores, a 60 page booklet of liner notes and so much more.
Arrow Video's American Horror Project Vol. 1 is more than just another Blu-ray release, it is basically a horror history lesson. This one taking viewers into the world of American horror obscurities of the 1970's. The A/V work here by Arrow is up to their usual high standard, and the extras are elaborate, informative, and always interesting. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.