Arrow Films has been the first word in genre home releasing for a long while, and deservedly so. If you have a good DVD or Blu-ray collection, their logo is on your shelf right now. Their collection runs the gamut from classic essentials like Withnail and I, The Manchurian Candidate, Battle Royale and Network, to movies regarded in salacious infamy such as Nekromantik, Tokyo Decadence, and the films of Tinto Brass, including Caligula. It is in horror releasing, however, that Arrow really shines, and obsessive physical media fans could do much worse than their Hellraiser boxset, their Mario Bava collection, and their 4K remasters of Dario Argento. Arrow are particularly diligent at rescuing films from the edge of obscurity, which has been their raison d’être in putting together the American Horror Project, released on Blu-ray and DVD today.
American Horror Project claims to offer an alternative history of horror cinema, “a story of the unsung heroes of American terror”, bringing together Christopher Speeth’s Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973), Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976) and Robert Allen Schnitzer’s The Premonition (1976). On paper the films don’t go together. Carnival is a barely-narrative psychedelic dream vision, Witch is a substantial psychosexual video nasty, and The Premonition is a maternal thriller, but Arrow’s meticulous contextualisation lends the collection a fascinating coherence. Each film is accompanied by commentary, interviews, and documentaries, most enjoyably with actor Millie Perkins, cinematographer Dean Cundey, and composer Henry Mollicone. As with all Arrow releases, it looks beautiful, and features characteristic reversible cover sleeves as well as a collectible booklet.
Now to the films: the first one I watched was Maltesta’s Carnival of Blood because it was the film about which I knew the least. Because the release was framing these films as an alternative history, it was hard not to wonder how the landscape of cinema might have changed if this had been the icon of visual hallucinogenia that shaped 1970s counterculture rather than, say, The Holy Mountain. Maybe that’s not exactly the right way to watch these films, but I couldn’t help it. My mind was tugged into an alternative reality in which Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Freakshow didn’t receive the derision it deserved. I began to feel that the process of canonisation might be an organic one, that the cream rises to the top for a reason. It was an odd, sloppy film about cannibals who lived under a fairground and watched silent movies, with a couple of very distinguished performances by Hervé Villechaize as Bobo the rhyming dwarf (I never said it was dignified) and William Preston as the mute caretaker. I kind of liked the feeling of not being able to grasp the timeline of the film – it was disorientingly anarchic – but honestly, I think that’s a charitable reading of the film’s pacing problems. There are some things to be pleasantly surprised by here, but I think you really have to like weirdness and wine to get on with it.
Next, I watched The Premonition. If Arrow’s painstaking research doesn’t lead to a remake starring Mindy Kaling and Archie Panjabi, I’ll eat my Blu-ray player. This psychological thriller about a woman whose adoptive daughter is kidnapped by her witch birth mother is an absolute treat. Again my mind drew automatic parallels – Dennis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, perhaps, or a far less accomplished Don’t Look Now – but this time at least I found myself enjoying the tense, TV-movie style buildup of how Sharon Farrell’s tightly wound psychic episodes developed to save her daughter. I particularly liked the dated but delightful parapsychologist (Chitra Neogy) studying dreams as a means of harnessing psychic potential. Incidentally, Danielle Brisbois, who plays the film’s kidnapped child, is best known today for writing songs for Natasha Bedingfield. So there; it’s her fault. You’ll enjoy this movie, though; it’s a charming time capsule of a time when horror films could be written for actual adults as opposed to jumpy teenagers with their STIs and their MP3s.
Finally, the film I was most excited to see appearing in this collection: The Witch Who Came from the Sea. This was originally censored by the BBFC and declared prosecutable for obscenity, but was eventually released uncut in 2006. I think its reputation as a video nasty might give people the wrong impression; this is by far the most accomplished of American Horror Project’s three releases, and certainly the one with the most coherent and developed theme. Millie Perkins plays the titular witch, an adult survivor of childhood incest called Molly, who spends her time retconning the reputation of her rapist father to her sister and nephews, and enacting surreal, violent, psychosexual revenge on men who go to bed with her as an adult. It’s a deeply uncomfortable film, shot to perfection by John Carpenter’s right-hand man Dean Cundey. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is far from exploitative enough to clutch pearls at – though there is more castration in it than you might expect from a film that, from its title, sounds like a Julia Donaldson picture book – instead being a pretty convincing portrayal of trauma, expressed through a fear of televisions and a voracious and terrifying female gaze. Though it’s the best film of the three, it’s also probably the most challenging to watch, but it’s worth it to get a glimpse of how complex and daring the rape/revenge genre can be without prurient titillation.
In hindsight, you probably get the most out of this collection with some sort of base point enjoyment of horror movies to which you can compare it. That’s why the good people at Arrow Video selected them. Pick it up if you’re already a fan of the genre; you won’t regret the fascinating architecture of these discs. The special features alone will entertain you for hours. However, I’d suggest that people with more of a casual enjoyment of horror cinema explore some more of Arrow’s distribution catalogue.