American Horror Project Vol. 2 (Dream No Evil, Dark August, The Child)
directed by John Hayes, Martin Goldman, Robert Voskanian
starring Kim Hunter, Brooke Mills, Edmond O’Brien
American Horror Project Volume 2 was curated by film critic, author, and historian Stephen Thrower (Nightmare USA). All three films have been restored for Blu-ray and come loaded with extras. Dream No Evil, Dark August and The Child may not be overly familiar to most audiences but this set is truly worth the money as a blind buy for the curious and as a serious upgrade to any previous video releases of any titles that already have fans.
Dream No Evil
Although trasping across very familiar territory dealing with a sexually repressed woman who retreats into her own fantasy world, director John Hayes gives Dream No Evil a uniquely creepy vibe that helps it stand out on its own and not feel like a retread. Grace MacDonald (Brooke Mills, The Student Teachers) is an orphan adopted by a family of faith healers. The clan is reduced to two brothers Reverend Jesse Bundy (Michael Pataki, Rocky IV) and and Dr. Patrick Bundy both of whom are in love with Grace. She has an unconsummated relationship with Patrick but travels with Jesse’s faith healing revival where she performs a high dive act that symbolizes a soul falling into hell. One evening she tells Patrick she knows about his other girlfriend Shirley (D.J. Anderson, Werewolves on Wheels) and that she has a lead on finally finding her long lost father. At this point the film makes a fatal, inexcusable error by having an omniscient narrator explain that Grace’s fantasy and reality as merged, stripping all the mystery out of the rest of the film. We witness her madness, but with the tacit understanding that we are seeing her fantasy life. She makes her way to a transient hotel where several old men sit silently in the lobby. She attempts to question them about her father, she is interrupted by a group of elderly prostitutes and their creepy pimp (Marc Lawrence, The Man with the Golden Gun) who first offers Grace work in his upscale whorehouse then asks if she is Timothy MacDonlad’s daughter, only to have to deliver the bad news that he has died. But luckily he is not only a pimp, he is also a funeral director and he is preparing Grace’s father (Edmond O’Brien, The Wild Bunch) for burial. She goes to see her father’s body and discovers he isn’t actually dead her father wakes up and murders the undertaker when he attempts to embalm him.
The film then cuts to Grace and the good Reverend arriving at her father’s ranch where he is riding a white stallion named Sultan and welcomes them home. There is some awkward small talk that eventually turns into Grace dancing a wild, spinning, Irish jig while Rev. Jesse tries to keep his composure. Later Grace and Jesse start to have sex in the barn where they are set upon by dead old dad who bludgeons Jesse with a log splitting wedge and beats Grace for being a slut. This is where the narrator really undermines the film as it has already been announced that Grace is living in a fantasy life, where after Rev. Jesse’s murder she wakes up in her bedroom that along with the rest of the ranch changes from a beautiful home into reality where she is alone and the property is derelict. She searches for her father and begins to emotionally break down when dad reappears and the ranch and her fantasy becomes whole again. Without the voice over this part of the film would be surreal and ambiguous, but instead the movie actual beats the audience over the head with the fact that Grace has gone insane. Grace disposes of Jesse’s body for her father and goes into town to tell her boyfriend, the good Dr. Patrick, the good news about her father. He is dealing with an emergency case at the hospital and can’t talk to her but she gives him the short version of the recent events. Confused by Grace’s story Patrick calls the Sheriff to check on her. The sheriff contradicts major points in her story including the fact the ranch is long abandoned. The sheriff also has to prove to himself that the hotel Grace described is indeed not there as all is next to the barber shop is a vacant lot. The Sheriff heads out to the ranch and gets a disappointingly bloodless scythe in the chest for is effort. Dr. Patrick and his med student girlfriend, Shirley soon investigate the ranch and Grace, now psychotically unhinged attack them and their car with and axe in an adrenaline pumping sequence. Patrick and Shirley manage to subdue Grace and the film ends with a psychiatrist again explaining that she’s living in her own mind and may never come back to reality.
The two head slapping decisions on this film are the use of the narrator and the apparent removal of gore and nudity giving Dream No Evil a family friendly PG rating. It is baffling as in 1970 gore and nudity were the selling points for drive-in movies- I mean it was the year of The Vampire Lovers, Mark of the Devil, and Bloodthirsty Butchers. Were director John Hayes and Clover Films hedging their bets for a sale to TV? It is also odd since Brooke Mills has on screen nudity to thank for what fame she has as she was in The Big Doll House, The Student Teachers and even a photo gallery in Penthouse magazine, so on screen skin seems obvious, but it is curious that all of her nudity occurred after this movie so perhaps she got cold feet on this film and changed her mind later or the director just chose to not shoot or not use any of her nude scenes. Of course it is low budget filmmaking, the footage could have just not come out and there wasn’t time, budget, or will to reshoot. The other issue is the narration that not only undermines twists of the plot, but also makes the movie feel like a made for TV movie, which again begs the question way Hayes or the producers trying to sell this to television? Apart from the hotel scene and the night scenes with the high dive revival the film feels very TV movie with flat lighting and very static camera work. The drab cheapness often works in the film’s favor as it tends to add to the wrongness of the whole affair. As far as its place in the genre Dream No Evil fits very well with any number of hysterical women films although in this case there isn’t any gaslighting and apart from the icky incest vibe the two brothers don’t actually treat her badly, they just tragically underestimate her level.of crazy. Dream No Evil has a lot of Psycho with a bit of Carnival of Souls mixed in for inspiration, but the film it kept reminding me of was Matt Climber’s classic The Witch Who Came from the Sea from 1976.
Lilting in the same sun-dappled haunted New England woods as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and much of the work of Stephen King, Dark August takes a break from the rat race of the city to the calmer roads and trails of Vermont but brings the urban witchcraft of Ira Levin and Dennis Wheatley along. The 1970s was a bull market for Satan and witchcraft. Demons, witches and the devil himself were everywhere following the massive success of Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby and the real life Manson family murders of Polanksi’s wife Sharon Tate and others. The world was ready for a return of the fantastic and then devil and his followers seemed like a perfect fit for troubled times. Movies, TV, comics, toys, even the evening news were filled with spells, possessions, cults, all manner of depravity was witnessed.
Martin Goldman’s regional folk horror tale of witchcraft, Dark August, is not only set in the Green Mountain state, but the town of Stowe Vermont is as much a character as any of the actors on screen. The film examines the mental and psychic deterioration of Manhattan artist Sal Devito (J.J. Barry, This is Spinal Tap) who is dealing with not only burn-out from the city, but is also racked with guilt and despair following his accidental killing of a young local girl. The girl’s grandfather summons a demon to avenge his granddaughter and soon the already depressed, possibly suicidal Sal is confronted by the uncanny. Is it a curse or a manifestation of Sal’s guilt and paranoia. DeVito’s girlfriend Jackie (Carolyne Barry, Star Trek) consults a white witch, Adrianna (Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire). She confirms that he is indeed cursed and tries to help him lift the curse. The women in the film – Jackie, Adrianna, and Lesley (Kate McKeown), the tarot reading friend of Sal and Jackie, are really the only likeable characters in the film. These three women work to lift the curse on Sal with tragic results. Kim Hunter was always a terrific and underrated actress and she really delivers in the final act of Dark August keeping the fantastic rooted in reality. She is just remarkable to watch here and the entire film is worthwhile if only for Kim Hunter. Every scene she’s in just crackles with energy even if all she’s doing is lighting another cigarette.
Dark August was not a success upon its release, despite the Satan fad. The slow, contemplative film that leave the actual mechanisms of witchcraft quite ambiguous is actually ahead of its time as it would fit in nicely with the current crop of horror films being released by A24. Both the practitioners of white and black magic truly believe in the face of much skepticism. The magic is presented is so woven into normal occurrence that its difficult to discern if black magic or carelessness is the cause of an accident or feeling faint. Director Goldman and the screenwriters J.J. and Carolyne Barry (yes they are also the lead actors) keep the mood meditative over sensational. Ironically had they gone for a more fantastic tale it may have done better in initial release but may have remained forgotten as just another hack cash grab. It is a lovely piece of filmmaking making great use of the town of Stowe and the woods, creeks, and covered bridges to their full creepy effect. Dark August in commercial terms is lacking as it is too odd for mainstream audiences, too cerebral for the drive in crowd, and too genre for the art house so is subsequently floundered on initial release and quickly fell into obscurity. The inclusion of Dark August on the American Horror Project gives this curious film a new chance to be seen.
My first introduction to The Child was late Saturday night watching Movie Macabre with Elvira. It wasn’t called The Child – rather Kill and Go Hide and in the pre-internet age my best friend and I would scour our video rental haunts hopelessly looking for this film until one fateful evening we picked a tape called The Child, probably out of desperation to be honest, and found much to our surprise and delight that this was the missing movie we had so wanted to revisit.
Since then I’ve owned the movie on VHS and later on DVD from Something Wild as part of double feature with Del Tenny’s Caribbean zombie tale I Eat Your Skin. Neither title seemed to resonate and the film never gained the cult notoriety of video rental and late night cable that is seemed perfect for. Especially given the need to fill the after hours of USA Network and TNT with Up All Night and Monstervision. The film has spent decades just on the fringe of being known, never being completely forgotten, just mostly ignored. The odd mix of folk horror, zombies, The Bad Seed, and The Turning of the Screw may not have gelled for most audiences.
The Child opens with a title sequence I’ve never seen before where the titular child prances through the woods with a wicker basket. She isn’t on her way to grandma’s house, nope she is headed to the cemetery in the woods to feed a kitten to a zombie hiding behind a mist enshrouded tombstone. Following the credits we are treated to an old 1930s-era car driven by the raven haired Alicianne Del Mar (Laurel Barnett, Goodbye, Norma Jean). She is run off the road and forced to continue her journey on foot. She soon meets up with elderly Mrs. Whitfield (Ruth Ballan) who invites Alicianne to her house for some tea and exposition. We learn that Alicianne lived in the area and has returned to work as a nanny for the Nordon family and their 11 year old daughter Rosalie. Mrs. Whitfield is cryptic but drops hints that all is not right with Rosalie and her family. Alicianne makes her way to the Nordon house and after a terse introduction to the patriarch, Mr. Nordon (Frank Janson) and a creepy meeting with her blonde pre-teen charge, she settles in for the night and for a fresh start. Alicianne does her best to settle in with her domineering boss while Rosalie quickly becomes possessive of her new “best friend” especially when Aliceanne begin spending time with Rosalie’s brother Len (Richard Hanners). Rosalie begins to exhibit the full spectrum of creepy kid behaviors including talking to invisible friends, making vague ominous threats, unsettling drawings, and making objects move on their own, and of course nocturnal visits to her mother’s grave in the cemetery in the middle of the woods. Early on Mr. Nordon expresses his hope that Aliceanne isn’t a nervous woman so you know that she’s going to be subjected to all manner of frights that no one else sees making her and everyone else question her sanity. But the reality of the situation is dear Rosalie has a small cadre of zombies to do her bidding and they start to work on her enemies list. Mrs. Whitfield and her dog, the family gardener, and predictably her domineering father all succumb to her undead minions. Aliceanne and Lon flee the house but the car stalls and they are attacked by zombies and have to take refuge in a slaughterhouse, which honestly, in the hands of George Romero, Lucio Fulci, or Jorge Grau, would have been much scarier. In the end Aliceanne dispatches Rosalie with an axe ending the nightmare.
Written by Ralph Lucas (who is better known as an actor) and directed and edited by first time (and only time) filmmaker Robert Voskanian, The Child is at best uneven, and at just over 80 minutes still feels padded. The melange of styles never quite comes together, but it is still a unique and intriguing bit of genre filmmaking. The movie is consistently odd. From the uncertainty to the era the film is set in, to head spinning camera angles, to curious acting choices, the film is anything but ordinary.
American horror was in an odd place in 1977. Major studios had co-opted the genre with big budget, all-star films like The Exorcist, Jaws, and The Omen and the drive-ins were still filled with European imports and John Carpenter’s Halloween and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead were still a year away. Low budget horror movies were without a clear path and were getting more experimental and weird. Regional movie makers thrived. 1976-1978 produced the likes of Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, Martin, Snuff, I Spit on Your Grave, and The Toolbox Murders. By the end of 1978 the path was clear: hyper-gore and slashers. The Child basically slipped through the cracks and the VHS love seemed to elude the film as well. It wasn’t gory enough for the gore hounds and wasn’t bad enough for the “so bad it’s good” crowd. Hopefully the inclusion in this set will improve the movies reputation.
American Horror Project is a gift to the lovers of the macabre crafted with more care and love than the films have ever enjoyed. All three films have been restored to the best possible presentations. Dream No Evil fares the worst as it looks like it was built from various sources and gets really grainy in some of the night scenes but nothing that is too distracting. The Child is curious as it is presented in two aspect ratios 1.37:1 and 1.78:1, so basically one that fits the old school VHS/TV formats and the other fitting the new widescreen cinematic screen. The 1.37:1 is not a pan & scan and is the most complete and visually pleasing frame. The widescreen frame has obvious cropping issues. All the films in the set have numerous extras including intros to all films by curator Stephen Thrower and feature commentaries. Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighn (Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin) team up to take on the hysterical nightmare that is Dream No Evil. The pair weave biographic and production notes with astute analysis that is as accessible as it is thought provoking. Dark August showcases a moderated director’s track with Martin Goldman and a curious featurette with author Stephen Bissette who provides an exhaustive history of film in Vermont. Finally on The Child, director Robert Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian join Stephen Thrower for a fun and in depth creator’s commentary track. They chronicle the difficulty and ingenuity involved in getting the film made, gush at how good the Blu-ray looks, and to throw shade at the notoriously shady producer/distributor Harry Novak who essentially stole the movie from the filmmakers, as they never saw any of the profits.