DirectorChristopher Speeth/Matt Cimber/Robert Allen Schnitzer
Release Date(s)1973/1976/1976 (February 23, 2016)
Studio(s)Christopher Speeth/Cinema Epoch/Avco Embassy Pictures (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: A-
- Overall Grade: B+
The American Horror Project: Vol. 1 boxed set is a presentation of three extremely obscure horror movies from the 1970’s that have had little to no distribution. Those films are Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, The Witch Who Came From the Sea, and The Premonition. Sourced from the best elements available, it attempts to shed light on three movies that, while not altogether perfect, highlight the inventive imagination and creativity of the filmmakers behind them.
The product of one-time director Christopher Speeth and one-time screenwriter Werner Liepolt, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood was released in 1973 with no real fanfare, traveling the drive-in circuit, but quickly disappearing until many years later when it was released on a limited run DVD. It tells the story of a family who infiltrate a shady carnival with the belief that their son disappeared there, soon finding a chamber of horrors beneath the facade. If George Romero, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Herk Harvey all came together and made a movie, it would be this one. It’s the true definition of trash cinema, being poorly-shot on a low budget with only a semblance of a plot and no-name actors (outside of Hervé Villechaze). Like most movies in this set, it does have its strong points. It has a very nightmarish quality to it with a very disconcerting sound design. It also contains obvious nods to Night of the Living Dead with zombie-like ghouls, vampires, and other nonsensical plot devices. The best thing about the movie is its length, which is only 74 minutes. Perhaps it’s the ineptitude of it all, or perhaps it’s like discovering some lost artifact, but with its ridiculous, candy-red soaked gore and bizarre visuals, it warrants at least one viewing.
Released in 1976, The Witch Who Came From the Sea was directed by Matt Cimber and shot by Dean Cundey, who would later go on to shoot Halloween, Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park, amongst many other successful movies. It tells the story of a mentally-disturbed woman who, after suffering sexual abuse as a child at the hands of her father, slowly begins to lose her mind as an adult, killing men that she comes into contact with. It’s a movie that wants to address some very serious issues, including child abuse, sex abuse, and women’s mental health. And it covers those issues very well, to a squirm-inducing degree even, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t know when to cut. It feels like an art film at times with its fragmented style, weird dialogue exchanges, and superfluous characters that, ultimately, don’t really matter much to the film as a whole. It has some very effective scenes and (unsurprisingly) is shot quite well, but it needed a more satisfactory edit to make it more effective than ultimately really is.
The Premonition was also released in 1976. Directed by Robert Allen Schnitzer, it tells the story of an escaped mental patient who attempts to kidnap her biological daughter from her foster parents. As a result, the foster mother begins to see strange things happening around her, including visions of the young girl’s biological mother. The movie does everything that it really needs to do in order to execute its plot, and is one of the better movies in this set in that regard. The problem is, it’s just not sure which plot it wants to follow. For a while, it wants to be a kidnapping story, and then at some point it turns into a story about psychokinetic energy and telepathy, often switching back and forth between the two. It’s a bit like pouring oil into a glass of water. It doesn’t help that it moves very slowly either, with great gaps of nothing happening at all. It’s less of a horror film and more of a deep-seated psychological thriller really, and even that feels inaccurate. It plays upon parental horror primarily, but loses itself in its second half, going out with a bit of a whimper in its final moments. It has some good performances, particularly from Sharon Farrell and Richard Lynch, but it’s not a film I’d want to experience more than once.
Concerning the transfers for Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood and The Witch Who Came From the Sea, it would have been impossible to try and make them look like anything other than what they actually are. Although sourced from 35mm film prints with 2K transfers, they’re rough presentations given their low budget origins and you must keep that in mind while watching them. For each film, there’s a solid grain structure with excellent detail and some nice depth, as well as good colors and only decent skin tones - sometimes bordering on orange. Blacks are deep, but at a loss of shadow detail, and contrast and brightness are only decent. There’s been no attempt to improve the picture digitally, but there are LOTS of leftover film artifacts including constant scratches, black and white lines running through the frame, speckling, flicker, and unstable frames from time to time. The Premonition actually fares much better by comparison, being sourced from a color reversal intermediate via another 2K transfer. There’s much stronger detail and more refined grained levels, more accurate colors and skin tones, and more satisfactory contrast and brightness levels. Blacks aren’t as deep however, and there are also lesser amounts of film artifacts leftover. Each film’s audio track, which come in English 1.0 LPCM channels, are mostly just flat. Dialogue is mostly clear with score and sound effects sounding only decent, yet there’s some surprising bass from time to time (especially in the low-rumbling soundtrack of Carnival). There’s also plenty of crackles and hiss during most of the running times, aside from The Premonition, which is a little cleaner. All three films also come with subtitles in English SDH for those who might need them.
MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C-/B/B
THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): D/B/B
THE PREMONITION (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/B+/B+
As for extras, all three movies come with optional introductions by author Stephen Thrower. For Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, there’s an audio commentary with film historian Richard Harland Smith; The Secrets of Malatesta, an interview with director Christopher Speeth; Crimson Speak, an interview with writer Werner Liepolt; the Malatesta’s Underground featurette; a set of outtakes; an image gallery; and a draft of the screenplay, accessible via BD-ROM. For The Witch Who Came From the Sea, there’s an audio commentary with producer/director Matt Cimber, actress Millie Perkins, and cinematographer Dean Cundey; the Tides and Nightmares making-of documentary; A Maiden’s Voyage featurette; and Lost at Sea, an interview with Cimber. For The Premonition, there’s an isolated score track; an audio commentary with director Robert Allen Schnitzer; the Pictures from a Premonition documentary; an interview with Robert Allen Schnitzer; an interview with Richard Lynch; three short films from Schnitzer (Terminal Point, Vernal Equinox, A Rumbling in the Land); 4 “Peace” TV spots; the film’s theatrical trailer; and 3 TV spots. There are also DVD copies of each movie, as well as a 60-page booklet entitled “American Horror Project Journal Vol. 1” with detailed essays on each film.
The American Horror Project: Vol. 1 Blu-ray set is akin to a cheap container of Neapolitan ice cream - there’s a different flavor for everyone, but the flavors aren’t as rich as they could be. These movies are all far from being cinematic abominations, but it’s easy to understand why they’ve (so far) failed to capture much of a following. Still, for cinephiles and horror fans, they’re worth looking into. But is Arrow Video’s set worth the asking price? I would say yes if you’re a fan of unseen cinema at its worst. If you’re not, then you may want to think twice.
- Tim Salmons