Starring Edmond O’Brien, Brooke Mills, J.J. Barry, Kim Hunter, Laurel Barnett, Rosalie Cole
Directed by John Hayes, Martin Goldman, Robert Voskanian
Distributed By Arrow Video
Co-curated by musician and author Stephen Thrower, the American Horror Project series is dedicated to releasing special editions of lesser-known low budget horror movies from the ’70s in the highest quality scans possible, with three films included in each set. And because this is distributed by Arrow Video, each disc is packed with a ton of special features. A lofty goal, perhaps, but in this case, they’ve succeeded.
The first volume of three films was released in 2016, so fans had to wait three years for this second collection. Was it worth the wait? If you’re a fan of the golden age of exploitation then, yes, definitely. I had a lot of fun with these three films, each of which was new to me, though there was certainly one that I liked the least. But none of them failed to entertain.
The first film is Dream No Evil (1970), directed by prolific exploitation auteur John Hayes. You know, I’ve really got to admire any film that includes a character who is both an undertaker and a pimp. The pimp thing he seems to do on the side. You know, for a little extra scratch. But this isn’t even the beginning of the weirdo mindfuck that is Dream No Evil.
Well, pretty much everything about the film is weird — and why not? We’ll all be dead soon enough, so we might as well blow our minds a bit, eh? The story concerns itself with the nightmare psyche of one Grace MacDonald (Brooke Mills), a woman who, as a child, was adopted by a church that uses carny ballyhoo to attract people to their roadside revivals.
The whole thing is a tad incestuous since Grace is engaged to Patrick Bundy (Paul Prokop), who is technically, I guess, her adopted brother. I don’t know. The narration says she was adopted “by the church,” so who knows exactly what that means. Either way, they’re not related by blood, so everything is all good as far that goes.
Patrick is off finishing medical school, but Grace is still traveling with the church, which, after the death of the Bundy parents, consists only of herself and Patrick’s brother Paul (Michael Pataki). As they tour various rural towns with their revival show, Grace is always looking for her long-lost father, who she’s sure is still alive somewhere. Curiously, Grace never mentions her mother, possibly because she puts all of the blame on her for abandoning her to an orphanage.
Lucky for Grace, she does eventually find her father, though unluckily it’s in the undertaker/pimp’s morgue, lying on a table. Luckily, though, he’s still alive. Unluckily for the undertaker/pimp, though, Grace’s father gets off of the slab and kills him. Well, one can understand being pissed off when you’re presumed dead and waiting to be embalmed even though you’re a perfectly functioning human. Well, not perfectly, perhaps.
Beyond all the weirdness of undertakers who moonlight as pimps and a father who rises from the grave who enjoys playing a squeezebox while his daughter dances an Irish jig (yes, this actually happens), Dream No Evil has a heartbreaking sadness at its core. Grace is co-dependent. She needs a man in her life both for comfort and protection. She’s also trusting and sheltered. In short, she’s ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of her unconscious need to either find her father or find a father figure. Eventually, all of this psychic weight causes her to lose the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality and all sorts of havoc results.
Brooke Mills does an amazing job in crafting such a complex, sad, and sympathetic character. It’s quite a shame she appears to have quit acting just before the 1980s. Most of the other actors were quite good as well, though Paul Prokop just kind of glides around aimlessly, looking like a pornstar. That aside, there were two other standout performances.
Michael Pataki is an absolute joy to watch. Maybe he’s best known to mainstream audiences as Ivan Drago’s father-in-law in Rocky IV. I don’t know. That’s definitely where I first saw him when I was a kid. Anyway, he’s great here as a guy who only half (at most) believes in what he does for a living but completely believes that he needs to bed Grace.
The film’s big get as far as star power goes is Edmond O’Brien, a former leading man in Golden Age Hollywood who eventually became a character actor. He seems to really enjoy chewing the scenery, and occasionally looks confused as to how he wandered into this weird gig. Never before have I seen an actor give the “What has my life become?” look so perfectly as when his character is playing his squeezebox and Grace is doing her Irish jig. Pataki seems equally perplexed during that scene. It’s freaking marvelous.
Dream No Evil is probably my favorite film in the set, though not by a large margin.
This disc is absolutely packed with special features. There’s an excellent audio commentary by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan of Diabolique Magazine. As on all of the commentaries they do together, they are great storytellers, delivering a ton of well-researched information in a conversation between friends. What’s interesting about this particular commentary track is that Ellinger and Deighan spend a good bit of time talking about John Hayes in general, not just Dream No Evil. This makes sense because he was fairly prolific and his movies tend to be overlooked. About his movies, Ellinger says, “Families are not a place of comfort,” and that’s certainly the case with Dream No Evil.
Not a ton is known about Hayes’ personal life, so it was quite interesting to learn that a lot of the information comes from Rue McClanahan, of The Golden Girls fame, who wrote about Hayes in her autobiography. She dated him for a few tumultuous years while acting in some of his films.
The special features are rounded out by an “appreciation” featurette by Stephen Thrower, in which we learn a lot about Hayes’ career in a brief ten-minute talk. There’s a more formal documentary type featurette that’s also included, written and narrated by Thrower.
There’s also an audio interview with Rue McClanahan conducted by Stephen Thrower in 2005 as part of his research for his book Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents. I got pretty emotional listening to it. Mostly because everything I’ve heard about McClanahan has been super positive and she seemed so happy to finally be able to talk about someone who she once cared a great deal for. It didn’t hurt that she played my favorite character on The Golden Girls.
Dark August, the second film in the set, was my least favorite. I mean, it wasn’t terrible, and it starts out pretty strong and has a neat premise. I can see how a lot of people might like this one, but it just didn’t do a lot for me.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Sal Devito (J.J. Barry) is a transplant from New York City to a small artisan town in Vermont. One day early on in his living there, he accidentally runs over and kills a little girl who jumped into the road just as his car was passing by. He’s cleared of the charges, but this does not satisfy the child’s grandfather (William Robertson), so he puts a kind of folk magic curse on Sal, as one does in these kinds of situations. Paranoia, dread, panic attacks and general existential anxiety start to take over Sal’s life. Also, he sees a mysterious cloaked demon-type figure every now and then. Finally, urged on by his girlfriend Jackie (Carolyne Barry), Sal goes to a local white witch (every town has one) in an effort to get the curse reversed. Again, as one does in these situations.
The script is solid, and it’s too bad that J.J. and Carolyne Barry didn’t write anything else after this, or at least nothing that got produced. I think it was a mistake for them to also play the leads. Well, let me pull back on that a little. Carolyne is perfectly functional as Jackie, but J.J. can’t get into the emotional heft required of the role. His is the performance that the film hinges on, and so the thing becomes too emotionally distant to be very convincing.
The star of the movie, at least as far as name recognition goes, is Kim Hunter. She won an Oscar for her performance as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. Here she plays the local witch. Why is she even in this film? I don’t know — money, I suppose. And a nice vacation to Vermont? It really is some pretty scenery, so I can’t blame her. And God bless her, she really does her best.
I don’t much get into movies that hinge on archaic rituals to move the plot forward. As a writer, you can just make up the rules as you go on. It almost feels like a kind of cheat. This is really the script’s major flaw, though I suspect there’s plenty of people who won’t get as hung up on this detail as I did.
This time the audio commentary is from the director, Martin Goldman, moderated by Brandon Daniel. It’s very heavy on technique, so if you’re interested in how a movie like this is put together on this level, you’re going to really dig it.
Also included is another ten-minute featurette with Stephen Thrower. But for me, the most interesting special feature was a video lecture by Stephen Bissette, author of the Vermont Ghost Guide and Vermont Monster Guide. He begins his talk with a general history of filmmaking in Vermont and then gets a bit more detailed, going into the story behind Dark August, as well as the work of underground filmmaker Walter Ungerer, a transplant from New York City who made several films in the state throughout the ’70s. Interesting tidbit: Bissette says that the house where Ungerer shot his film The Animal might legitimately be haunted.
The final film in the set is called The Child and it’s another batshit weirdo film, and it’s freaking wonderful.
There’s a real kitchen sink approach to the plot, which involves a child who has psychokinetic powers and enjoys hanging out with her zombie friends in a cemetery late at night. Occasionally she brings them cats and, uh, other assorted creatures to eat. Yeah, if you’re thinking the plot isn’t going to make a lick of sense, you’re exactly right. The Child is weird and silly as hell, and it’s a lot of fun.
We begin with Rosalie (Rosalie Cole), a girl of ten or eleven who’s just lost her mom. Her father (Frank Janson) is busy being a grumpy farmer, so he hires Alicianne (Laurel Barnett), a woman in her early twenties, to take care of Rosalie while he does his manly farmer stuff.
There’s also Rosalie’s older brother Len (Richard Hanners), but he’s pretty insignificant. Best I could tell, his only purpose is to be Alicianne’s love interest.
The movie might be full of cliches, what with the old house in the woods, the spooky fog, the zombies and other such stuff, but it’s the way screenwriter Ralph Lucas and director Robert Voskanian mash all of these elements into a genre remix of sorts that makes the thing oddly original. The film could have simply been about zombies or a young girl with psychic powers, or a ghost story, or a zombie story. But squish it all together and you’ve got The Child.
Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian put a lot of effort into this little drive-in flick. This is most apparent in the makeup, which is pretty great, especially considering the small budget they had to work with. Naturally, budget dictates that we only see zombie hands and arms until the finale. And when we do finally see the creatures in full, yeah, they’re a bit goofy, but they get the job done. Most impressive, though, is the blood and gore makeup. There are some pretty cool spots where people have their faces halfway ripped off, and the blood and meat underneath looks phenomenal. This is makeup designer Jay Owens’ only film credit. I wonder what happened to the guy. He really had talent!
The Child has just about the perfect mix of camp and pretentiousness for a guy like me. This is a grainy, grimy low-budget 70’s horror flick that knows what it wants to be and goes out and gets the job done. It’s nicely paced, and the only place it really drags a bit is in the finale when the zombie attack goes on a little long. And as far as story, well, there are not a lot of questions posed that are answered by the end of the movie. And that somehow makes it more compelling. And loads of fun.
The Child is the disc with the least special features, but they’re all quite good. The commentary with director Robert Voskanian and Robert Dadashian, moderated, appropriately, by Stephen Thrower, is a lot of fun. The two have been friends since college, bonding over — what else — Night of the Living Dead. Like many others before and after, the movie inspired them to try their hands at a low budget horror film. Voskanian is quite reserved, while Daddashian is hyper-excited about almost everything. He’s loud and boisterous in a way that really makes this a fun commentary track. I would have loved to have been in the room when this track was being recorded.
There’s also another ten minute “appreciation” featurette with Stephen Thrower. He has the right attitude about the film, digging the surreal nature of the thing, embracing the movie for what it is. The saddest thing I learned is how much the director and producer got screwed over by the film’s distributor Harry Novak. They never got a dime for the movie, and neither man has worked much in the industry since. Well, according to IMDB, Voskanian never did anything after this film, while Daddashian worked sporadically as a film editor and dialogue editor until 1999, though he never produced a movie again.
The audience for these kinds of movies is relatively niche, but those who are really into this kind of stuff will like this collection a lot. For one thing, the movies look great while retaining their gritty aesthetic. I’d venture to say that this is almost an essential release for fans of grindhouse and low budget 70’s horror.
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
• Brand new 2K restorations from original film elements
• High Definition Blu-ray presentation
• Original uncompressed PCM mono audio
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• Reversible sleeves for each film featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil
• American Horror Project Journal Vol. II – limited edition 60-page booklet featuring new writing on the films by Stephen R. Bissette, Travis Crawford and Amanda Reyes
DREAM NO EVIL
• Filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower
• Brand new audio commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan
• Hollywood After Dark: The Early Films of John Hayes, 1959-1971 – brand new video essay by Stephen Thrower looking at Hayes’ filmography leading up to Dream No Evil
• Writer Chris Poggiali on the prodigious career of celebrated character actor Edmond O’Brien
• Excerpts from an audio interview with actress Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls) discussing her many cinematic collaborations with director John Hayes
• Filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower
• Brand new audio commentary with writer-director Martin Goldman
• Brand new on-camera interview with Martin Goldman
• Brand new on-camera interview with producer Marianne Kanter
• The Hills Are Alive: Dark August and Vermont Folk Horror – author and artist Stephen R. Bissette on Dark August and its context within the wider realm of genre filmmaking out of Vermont
• Original Press Book
• 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
Co-curator Stephen Thrower has put together a wonderful collection of hidden gems from the 1970s. The films have never looked better, and each disc is packed with special features. This is a great collection of gory underground obscurities.