Over three years ago, Arrow Video unleashed the first volume of American Horror Project. Three films were selected as representations of obscure or seemingly lost slices of American horror history and they were given the same red-carpet treatment that the label gives all of their cult cinema releases. New restorations, a slew of new features, and a package that put the films on the pedestal they never received. Although the quality of the films could be argued, the love and intriguing choices for the titles were enough to perk the interest of any horror fan looking to expand their collection and dig into the deep cuts.
Now it’s 2019 and Arrow Video is finally releasing the next volume. American Horror Project Vol. 2 once again features three deep cut horror films from the wild wild west of America’s cinematic past. Titles included within this box set are Dream No Evil, Dark August, and The Child. This review will do a brief overview of each title and list the expansive features at the bottom for fans to look over. Rest assured, Arrow has once again unleashed the bells and whistles for this set with brand new 2K restorations, tons of features like film appreciations by author Stephen Thrower and interviews, and brilliant packaging that matches the first set.
DREAM NO EVIL (1970)
Director: John Hayes
Notable Cast: Brooke Mills, Michael Pataki, Paul Prokop, Edmond O’Brien, Marc Lawrence, Donna Anders, William Guhl, Arthur Franz
As the first film for this second volume of Arrow’s American Horror Project, Dream No Evil sets the tone nicely as one of those forgotten horror films that cult cinema fans adore. The rather unique and diverse set of films that were featured in the first set of American Horror Project set the expectations for this one and Dream No Evil snuggles right in with those expectations delivering an intriguing cinematic experience. Despite the promises of an early slasher-esque exploitative time promised by the poster, complete with promises of ‘nightmares’ and ‘evil in every way’ through its taglines, this film firmly resides along the more psychological lines of horror from the period. It employs its fair share of exploitative kills and director Hayes sets up one with a brilliant shot of a scythe being slowly pulled from a barn, but do not go into Dream No Evil expecting bold horror elements. The focus on a sense of permeating sadness and the manner that it portrays its protagonist and her faltering mental stability is meant to be tragic which is one that often defies its horror trope laden elements in the second half. However, it’s a bold choice that adds a melodramatic and impactful layering that cinephiles will appreciate.
The execution of its nuanced and oft slow burn pace is overly hit and miss and it can deter the themes and concepts of Dream No Evil. Hayes has a knack for teasing out fantastic performances from its cast, a particular note has to be paid to Brooke Mills who nimbly navigates the depth of her character from scene to scene, and many of the secondary roles are delivered with the gusto that compliments Mills’ anchor worthy act. However, Hayes does have some issues with the pacing as the film plods along for the first half and the choice to have a voice-over narration feels like a compromise to the dramatic heft and subtlety of the narrative as it tries to pander to a more casual audience. When the film doubles down on its dreamlike qualities, the nightmarish brothel/mortuary where Mills’ Grace discovers her father or the strange Irish jig sequence, that is when it truly shines and showcases the artfulness of its content.
As the first film of the set, Dream No Evil ably sets a strong bar. The film is flawed, particularly in the pacing and in some of its budgetary restraints, but the captivating layers of its characters, key performances, a melancholic sense of sadness, and the dreamlike atmosphere make it a pleasantly surprising gem.
DARK AUGUST (1974)
Director: Martin Goldman
Notable Cast: J.J. Barry, Carolyne Barry, Kate McKeown, Frank Bongiorno, Kim Hunter, William Robertson
For the second film in this set, Dark August takes an even more dramatic touch than its predecessor. Once again, the original poster for the film tends to oversell the entertaining aspects of the content. Although the poster does grab a few of the keystones that Dark August is aiming for, this film is hardly one that fringes into the more graphic or intense territories that horror films were exploring in the mid-1970s. Instead, it digs its heels heavily into the melodramatic and atmospheric territory. It is far more subtle than expected for a small-town black magic film and it doubles down on being a character study driven psychological horror film.
On one hand, Dark August has a lot of great elements to it that are worthy of its inclusion in the American Horror Project boxset. The performances are subtle and intimate with J.J. Barry carrying a hefty load with his swirling outsider performance. It bleeds into full-blown paranoia, personified by hooded figures in the woods and a sense that he no longer has control on his life. There is a lot to love in the idea of the film and how a small town can be more suffocating than the city he left and the cast amiably embraces the small budget flair of its concept. A small role for the always effective Kim Hunter is just icing on the cake. The piece of Dark August that may split audiences is how the narrative takes its time with everything it does. The film has bursts of tension that will remind the audience that, yes, they are watching a horror film, but it’s brief and not particularly impactful. It’s not until the final 15 minutes or so that things truly start to pick up and move further into genre territory, but even then, it’s meant to be more vague than powerful. It ends up leaving its audience on one strange final sequence that leaves more questions than anything.
As for this set, Dark August is the weakest of the films as its atmospheric and character-driven approach pushes it too far from its core story. Fans of more artistic horror and those that love regional cinema will highly appreciate what it has to offer in terms of location shooting and strong performances, but the more casual horror fan may struggle with its slow burn narrative and emotional explorations of a man falling into paranoia.
THE CHILD (1977)
Director: Robert Voskanian
Notable Cast: Laurel Barnett, Rosalie Cole, Frank Janson, Richard Hanners, Ruth Ballan
Well isn’t that always the case? They saved the best for last. The third and final 70s horror film to be featured in the American Horror Project Vol. 2 set is easily the highlight of the three. The Child is a romping low budget horror feature that seems to weirdly wrap many of the great elements of 70s horror into one wickedly efficient and entertaining film. Although the set hits a somewhat slow paced doldrum with the previous entry, Dark August, it finds its second wind with the insanity that unfolds in this atmospheric and occasionally gory flick.
Following the trek of a young woman hired to be the caretaker of a girl in a rather secluded house from a rural area, The Child doesn’t take long to start establishing the oddities it has to share. The film never hesitates to utilize its setting effectively, whether it’s the decaying houses, dense forest, or – surprise, surprise - backyard graveyard. Director Robert Voskanian slathers it all in a borderline nightmarish sense of reality. It’s a reality where once our heroine must abandon her car and walk through the woods to find her way in the opening sequence, she passes through to a place where the boundaries of dream-like moments seep into existence. Every character seems like a broad representation of what a real person would be and the film dishes out some tension-filled low budget scares that pop with some surprising gore. It’s not that the film has the best acting or best sense of cohesion of the set in terms of execution. In fact, I might be tempted to say on a more traditional level it might be weaker than the other two in those regards, but The Child takes some bold swings and the combination of effort, style, and key momentary success make it the most memorable film of the set. Just the intense choice to take the third act the way it does, essentially switching genres completely to deliver a solid 20 minutes of thrills and kills, makes it the film that has the most replay value.
It’s a film like The Child that encapsulates the reason why a label like Arrow Video or a niche set like American Horror Project deserves to exist. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. The three films included here may not appeal to every person, but these oft-overlooked slices of 70s horror Americana are fascinating to watch. For me, some are better than others, but the care and heart that goes into uncovering these films, restoring them, and putting them out on a larger island in the vast sea of cinema for people to enjoy is a worthy endeavor. This set comes highly recommended for that alone.
ARROW VIDEO FEATURES:
- 1.37:1 and 1.85:1 presentations of the feature
- Filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower
- Brand new audio commentary with director Robert Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian, moderated by Stephen Thrower
- Brand new on-camera interviews with Robert Voskanian and Robert Dadashian
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Original Press Book
Written By Matt Reifschneider