American Horror Project: Volume Two (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Jul 04, 2019
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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American Horror Project: Volume Two (Blu-ray Review)

Director

John Hayes/Martin Goldman/Robert Voskanian

Release Date(s)

1973/1976/1977 (June 25, 2019)

Studio(s)

Kit Parker Films/Howard Mahler Films/Boxoffice International Pictures (Arrow Video)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: B+
  • Overall Grade: B+

American Horror Project: Volume Two (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

The American Horror Project: Volume Two boxed set continues where the previous set left off, presenting three extremely obscure horror films from the 1970s that have had little to no distribution. Those films are Dream No Evil, Dark August, and The Child. Sourced from the best elements available, this set attempts to shed light on three films that, while not altogether perfect, highlight the inventive imagination and creativity of the filmmakers behind them.

Released in 1973, Dream No Evil is the first of three horror-related films made by low budget filmmaker John Hayes. It stars Brooke Mills as Grace MacDonald, a woman who has grown up in an orphanage and is obsessed with finding her father, who she is convinced is also looking for her. Falling in with a traveling preacher (Michael Pataki, Grave of the Vampire) and his brother the doctor (Paul Prokop), she eventually tracks down her extremely protective father (Edmond O’Brien), who vows to do anything to protect his newly-found daughter from outside harm.

While one would be hard-pressed to classify Dream No Evil as a good film, it’s certainly effective in several areas. The performances are mostly believable and the film is shot with craft behind it, but what makes it memorable are its many twists and turns along the way. In a Psycho kind of way, there are revelations about several of the characters that make this not just your average, surface-level horror film that’s simply trying to cash in on the drive-in crowd with little to no substance put into it. There are plenty of interesting things worth digging into, though pace and structure are sometimes an issue, the latter leading to mild confusion along the way. It’s impossible to discuss the story without major spoilers, but be rest-assured that Dream No Evil is more than its exterior. It’s more of a melodramatic nightmare, or even a character study, one that delves deep into the mind of an individual and how tragedy can affect them when they’re young.

Next up is Dark August, which was shot in 1974 but struggled for a release, finally finding one in 1976. Sal (J.J. Barry) is haunted by the memory of accidentally running over a little girl. Her occultist grandfather (William Robertson) later puts a hex on Sal, which causes him to convulse and hallucinate. A practical man at the end of his rope, Sal’s wife Jackie (Carolyne Barry) encourages him to visit a local psychic (Kim Hunter) in order to rid himself of this hex.

Clearly the Alpha in this boxed set of little seen oddities, Dark August is a bit of a revelation. While locally-produced horror is the flavor here, this film looks and feels like a well-assured mainstream film, complete with Altman-esque dialogue, a deliberate dread-inducing pace, and memorable camera work with plenty of movement and precise angles. Unfortunately, the director, Martin Goldman, has only made a handful of films over the course of several decades, meaning that there’s little to discover of his work. Credit also goes to the husband and wife writing team behind it (J.J. and Carolyne Barry, both leads in the film). One of the few places that the film falters is in its score. It feels highly out of place in certain spots, particularly the ending. However, the soundtrack is also made up of other sounds, including forest ambience, ringing bells, and ticking clocks. The climax doesn’t feel all that necessary either. It is set up to a certain degree, but for a film with such a strong narrative flow, it could easily have been adjusted.

Last, but not least, is The Child from 1977, which was released by Harry Novak, a filmmaker who helmed the genre peculiarity Axe). A woman named Alicianne (Laurel Barnett) travels to a remote farm to become the new housekeeper and caretaker of the young Rosalie (Rosalie Cole), whose mother recently died and whose father (Frank Janson) needs someone to look after her while he tends to chores. Rosalie’s older brother Len (Richard Hanners) also lends a hand to help, but a nearby neighbor, Mrs. Whitfield (Ruth Ballan), warns Alicianne that Rosalie is a bit of a handful. It isn’t long before Alicianne learns just how much when Rosalie begins summoning zombies from the nearby cemetery to do her bidding.

First and foremost, The Child is awful in nearly every way. None of the characters are particularly likable, the soundtrack borders upon aural torture, scenes take place in murky environments, and the incredibly poor performances make it difficult to care. That all said, there’s something oddly out of place about the film. Because of its low budget and poorly-made nature, it almost feels like a nightmare come to life. The use of overdubbing in certain scenes, particularly those in which the dialogue doesn’t feel natural at all, enhance this idea. There are sporadically creepy visuals to be found, including a Jack-O-Lantern that looks like it was made in the pits of Hell, as well as couple of impressive gore effects, but The Child may come as an acquired taste for deep-seated horror fans. Fans of the unintentionally funny may dig it, but others who feel the need to get up and shut it off before its conclusion would be totally justified in doing so.

Arrow Video presents these films on three separate Blu-ray discs. Dream No Evil features, what’s touted to be, a 2K transfer of the original 35mm camera negative – though changeover cues are present. It’s a grainy presentation, but detail is mostly high. Color reproduction is strong as well, with bold reds, blues, and greens, but blacks tend to be almost gray due to the heavy grain. Minor damage is leftover, including mild instability, but it’s an otherwise organic transfer.

Dark August also features a 2K transfer of the original 35mm camera negative, but appears more natural than its predecessor. Grain management is more apparent, but the two transfers are matched in their color reproduction. Everything appears stable and clean with almost no imperfections other than occasional faint scratches and several shots late in the film that contain heavy discoloration, brief though they are.

The Child features a 2K transfer of a 35mm color reversal intermediate and is presented with two viewing options: 1.33:1 and 1.78:1. It’s easily the least of the three transfers, but still natural in appearance. Grain is less obvious, but fine detail manages to poke through without too much of a struggle. Blacks are deep, though mildly crushed, while the color palette is given the same amount of attention as the other films. On the other hand, the film element that was used is loaded with scratches, color instability, speckling, and lines running through the frame.

All three films feature an English mono LPCM soundtrack with optional subtitles in English SDH. The audio for Dream No Evil is fairly flat. Dialogue exchanges can be a bit muddled at times, depending on how loud or soft they are. Sound effects and score offer decent support, the latter having the biggest boost in clarity overall. The audio for Dark August is a bit more robust, but only marginally so. Sound effects and score have much more presence, while dialogue is more discernable. For The Child, the post-dubbing is obvious, but everything sounds as it should, though flat. Each audio track is also clean, lacking in hiss, crackle, distortion, and dropouts.

DREAM NO EVIL (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/B/B-
DARK AUGUST (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B/B+/B
THE CHILD (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): D+/C/B-

This set also features a great extras package. For Dream No Evil, there’s an audio commentary with writers Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, which is a screen-specific discussion about director John Hayes, his work, and his collaborators in rich detail; Melancholy Dreamer, a 9-minute video appreciation of the film by author and American Horror Project co-curator Stephen Thrower; Hollywood After Dark: The Early Films of John Hayes, a 34-minute video essay by Stephen Thrower who takes us through John Hayes’ filmography from 1959 to 1971; Edmond O’Brien: From Leading Man to Character Actor, a 22-minute interview with film historian Chris Poggiali; and a 30-minute audio interview from 2005 with actress Rue McClanahan, conducted by Steven Thrower, who discusses her early work with John Hayes.

For Dark August, there’s an audio commentary with director Martin Goldman, moderated by Brandon Daniel and Joe Luke, which is quite introspective into how the film was made; Revisiting Dark August, an 11-minute video appreciation of the film by Stephen Thrower; Mad Ave to Mad Dogs, a 15-minute interview with Martin Goldman who speaks about his transition from making commercials to making movies; Don’t Mess with the Psychic, a 9-minute interview with producer Marianne Kanter who speaks about her experiences making the film; and The Hills Are Alive: Dark August & Vermont Folk Horror, a 35-minute interview with author and artist Stephen R. Bissette, a native of Vermont who speaks at length about the many films made in that particular part of the country.

For The Child, there’s an audio commentary with director Robert Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian, moderated by Stephen Thrower, which goes into each filmmaker’s backgrounds, how they met, and the film’s production; The Zombie Child, a 13-minute video appreciation of the film by Stephen Thrower; Fathers of The Child, a 13-minute featurette on the making of the film with Robert Voskanian and Robert Dadashian; and the original theatrical trailer in either 1.33:1 and 1.78:1, both of which are presented in HD.

In addition, there’s a 60-page booklet with credits for each film, the essay “I’m Thinking That You’re Not Even Here at Hall”: Exploring Loss, Grief, and the American Gothic in Dream No Evil by Amanda Reyes, The Gods of the Hills: Dark August and Vermont Folk Horror by Stephen R. Bissette, “I Don’t Have to Tell You Anything”: Exploring the Enigmas of The Child by Travis Crawford, and restoration details. Each disc comes in a single case, and in addition to the booklet, everything is housed within sturdy cardboard packaging.

Arrow Video continues to highlight locally-produced filmmaking with the American Horror Project: Volume Two Blu-ray boxed set, offering a variety of narrative styles and intriguing stories in a handsome release. For cinephiles and horror fans, this is certainly worth looking into.

– Tim Salmons

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