DVD Review: American Horror Project Vol. 1

★★★★☆
In the first volume of a new collection, Arrow Video remind us of the hidden gems of horror which are now all but forgotten. The first box set of this series comprises Malatesta's Carnival of Blood, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and The Premonition.

Christopher Speeth's Maltesta's Carnival of Blood, concerns a family surreptitiously searching for their missing son by taking jobs at a run-down carnival, managed by the ominously named Mr Blood (Jerome Dempsey), and owned by the ghoulish Malatesta. What Carnival of Blood lacks in strong acting and a coherent plot it more than makes up for in atmosphere and a creeping sense of dread, helped in no small part by the unsettling score and editing. The carnival setting is brilliantly deployed too, at once recalling many an episode of Scooby Doo as well as the disorienting sensation of being in the midst of a nightmare. Carnival of Blood's literacy with horror films is admirable, too: the ghouls that inhabit the lower levels of the cabinet are transfixed by screenings of Phantom of the Opera and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, locating Malatesta's carnival in a madly expressionistic space adjacent to that of Caligari's cabinet.

The strongest of the films is Matt Cimber's The Witch Who Came from the Sea, the study of a woman haunted by childhood abuse, tormented by the spectre of her father and an obsession with sea imagery that keeps her repressed memories at bay. At once victim and perpetrator, Witch presents a complex anti-heroine in Molly (Millie Perkins), only semi-conscious of her murderous behaviour while she battles her internal demons and twisted relationship with sexuality. Benefiting from naturalistic performances, Witch is let down by occasionally wonky editing and a script that could have done with another go-around. Despite that, it's a fascinating psycho-sexual horror whose somewhat daft title belies a complexity and sense of pathos that sits beneath its gaudy, grimy surface.

Finally, Robert Allen Schitzer's The Premonition exceeds both Carnival of Blood and Witch in terms of technical quality - the performances are roundly very good and there are no problems with editing here - but doesn't quite match the other two in terms of artistic experimentation or generic interest. Instead, it is a solid horror entry with some fitfully interesting pseudo-metaphysical concepts, a decent premise of supernatural baby abduction, and a satisfying narrative. As with Witch, The Premonition does a good job of making most of the characters sympathetic: keeping the motivations of Andrea and Jude (Ellen Barber and Richard Lynch) hidden for the film's first act is an effective move. Elsewhere, Dr. Kingsly's (Chitra Neogy) romantic attachment to her married colleague Miles (Edward Bell) is understated and quietly poignant, informing the film's emotional narrative without entangling it in unnecessary convolutions.

Individually, each of the films in this collection are solid three-star entries; each bringing something of value to the screen, but which are perhaps stronger in conception than in execution. Presented as a collection of a forgotten corner of horror, however, they represent something more than the sum of their parts. It is in this context that the true quality of these films becomes apparent, gifting audiences with the satisfying resurrection of three films that until now were never quite given their due.

Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp

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