Arrow Video delves into the world of low budget American horror for the first of a hoped for series of boxed sets bringing some rare examples of Stateside exploitation to the fore so these cinematic curios can be reassessed and reappraised by a wider audience. The first slice of anguished Americana on offer is the following trilogy of terror, namely: The Premonition, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood.
Director: Robert Schnitzer
Script: Anthony Mahon & Robert Allen Schnitzer
Cast: Sharon Farrell, Richard Lynch, Jeff Corey, Edward Bell, Christian Neogy, Ellen Barber, Roy White
Running time: 93 minutes
Richard Lynch plays Jude, a travelling circus performer, who is looking for his missing adopted five-year-old daughter as he wants to re-join with his ex-wife, Andrea, and he thinks by finding the girl he will reunite their dysfunctional family. Working as a mime, who also takes family photographs, he trawls around looking for possible girls who resemble their own once daughter. Finally, he gets lucky and the odd couple go and pay a visit on the girl they suspect is their daughter. Rather than kidnap the girl Andrea just steals her doll much to Jude’s annoyance; although he probably isn’t as annoyed as the poor Terrapin that she crushes on her way out when she’s discovered by the new mother and has to make a sharp exit!
In the argument that follows it becomes apparent that Jude is impotent, hence their need to adopt, but because of Andrea’s psychological problems they lost custody of the girl who was subsequently taken in by another family; the one she is currently with. When Andrea accuses Jude of not being a real man he turns on her and stabs her.
In the meantime the mother of the little girl is starting to experience strange visions and suspects that the person who broke into the house will come back. The police get involved and investigate the attempted kidnapping which leads them to the cottage that Jude and Andrea escaped to, and to them finding Andrea’s body in the nearby pond. A murder investigation then ensues. As Jude goes after the girl and the police close in on him it’s only a matter of time before their paths will cross.
Robert Schnitzer’s second film, The Premonition is a peculiar beast that takes a serious look into the topic of mental illness, but also touches on dream therapy and communication with the dead, amongst other things. And while the story sometimes stumbles, and the pacing is quite turgid, the performances are excellent, in particular Richard Lynch’s as a man psychologically damaged by his partner’s own psychosis and the subsequent loss of their adopted daughter.
The film is full of interesting imagery and quite a few scenes are bathed in an ethereal golden glow. The music score and general soundscape are quite mournful and unsettling and add to the film’s general peculiar tone.
The script was based on an original screenplay called ‘The Adoption’, but they added supernatural elements after the writer experienced his own vision quest. The result is a film of mixed qualities, which is definitely worth at least one visit.
As per usual Arrow has done a good job with the extras which include:
An introduction by Stephen Thrower, author of the excellent ‘Nightmare USA’ book and a regular film historian and musician. The tone is very reminiscent of Alex Cox’s introductions to the old BBC2 TV series Moviedrome. Each of the three films here features an intro with Stephen, sitting in a church, and he adds to your appreciation of what you’re about to watch.
Pictures from a premonition (21 mins), which is a making of documentary and features interviews with the rather sweaty director, the DoP, and the film’s composer. Apparently the shoot went smoothly and the budget was less than a million dollars. The DoP did lots of handheld filming since he wanted more immediacy in the movie’s look. Apparently the director sees the film as being about ‘the elevation of the human spirit’.
Rob Schnitzer interview (6 mins) – here he talks about it being a six week shoot, for six days a week, and it was filmed primarily in Jackson, Mississippi. Rob was only 24/25 years old when he directed it, after previously having directed Rebel with Sylvester Stallone. Interestingly they hired a hearse for the promotion tour as they couldn’t afford a limo!
Some short films by Rob Schnitzer. These include:
Terminal Point (41 mins), which is a, mainly, silent short from 1969, with the occasional voiceover from principal cast members. Kind of arty bollocks!
Vernal Equinox (30 mins) – Rob’s first film, made when he was just 17 years old. The soundtrack is badly damaged, but it looks like pretentious nonsense.
A Rumbling in the Land (11 mins) – Rob’s second film – a black and white documentary about some student pacifist demos, which features lots of stills of protests going on at Stony Brook University and some interesting news footage.
Peace spots (3.5 mins) – a short war discussion about Vietnam made in 1970.
Theatrical Trailer (2.5 mins)
TV Spots (3.5 mins)
Audio Commentary with Rob Schnitzer
The Witch Who Came from the Sea
Director: Matt Cimber
Script: Robert Thom
Cast: Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Vanessa Brown, Peggy Feury
Running time: 88 minutes
Molly (Millie Perkins) fantasises about the guys on muscle beach being murdered while taking a walk with her nephews there. Talk about their grandpa getting lost at sea is cut short when she returns the kids to her older sister, Kathy, who happens to think that granddad was a drunken bum!
This brief introduction to Molly and her family sets up a few of the key strands that makes The Witch Who Came from the Sea quite distinctive, namely a young woman’s wish to visit violence on the male of the species, her absolute love of her young (male) nephews and the fact that much of Molly’s life seems to have a nautical theme. For example, she works at ‘The Boathouse’ bar and has a distinctive mermaid tattoo on her back.
Not long into the film Molly is chilling out with two guys who she later ties to a bed as they get increasingly stoned and then proceeds to cut one of them with a straight razor, whilst muttering that ‘this will take forever’… However, Molly doesn’t seem to remember what she’s done and thinks that she slept over with her friend Long John, the manager of the bar that she works at. The only other male she gets on with.
While the police investigate and interview her sister, Molly flirts with an actor, Billy-Bad, who she goes on to bite on the face before moving rapidly onto his genitals, much to his horror.
Molly come across as being very flirtatious, but remains a lonely woman, seemingly unable to form close relationships with the male of the species except, perhaps, for her young nephews who adore their fun, eccentric Aunt Molly.
As the film progresses it becomes clear that Molly is both mentally ill and dangerous. When she isn’t taking a razor to herself (in one scene she tries to remove her tattoo) she’s slicing up men she’s seduced with a razor. In a series of flashbacks we see that she was abused as a child by her drunken father, who eventually collapses of a heart attack while still on top of her!
The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a hard film to categorise. On the one hand one could say that it is a drama about mental illness and sexually induced trauma, and on the other you could describe it as art-house horror. Back in the early eighties it was labelled as pure horror and shunted onto the Director of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP) list of so called ‘video nasties’ here in the UK, probably due to the sexual violence on display, particularly the sight of blood on breasts, a certain no-no for the film censors (BBFC) back then. Apparently, the American censor, (the MPAA) wanted to give it a XXX rating, but finally relented and gave it an R.
The pacing of the film is slow and measured, all underlain by some experimental electronic music, which was quite unusual at the time. The performances are all pretty good, in particular Millie Perkins, who plays a woman having a breakdown very well. The actors are helped by some very naturalistic dialogue, which also enables the audience to believe in the characters to a greater degree.
The film feels fairly low budget and the print hasn’t cleaned up as well as some of Arrow’s other releases, since it displays quite a few scratches on the print. However, for a film of this age, one that never really got the credit it deserves, it’s not too bad. The director admitted that most of the film prints were left to crumble, which might explain why finding a good working print was so difficult.
While it’s a bit too art-house for most tastes The Witch Who Came from the Sea is certainly worth checking out, if only for the performances and sheer unusualness.
Special features include:
Audio commentary with the director, DoP and actress Millie Perkins
Tides and Nightmares documentary (23.5 mins) – this includes an interview with the director, where he recalls the screenwriter sending him the script back in 1971. Thom had written it for his wife, Millie, while in hospital. Perkins is also interviewed and says that she didn’t intend to be an actress, and at 79 she still looks amazing. The DoP is also interviewed and he discusses shooting the film on anamorphic lenses on Ariflex cameras. Millie tells the story about the scene where she’s standing on a raft and the rope snapped and she floated out to sea! Director Matt Cimber doesn’t see it as being a horror film, although when it played drive-in theatres it was advertised as a horror.
A Maiden’s Voyage (36 mins) – an archive featurette featuring interviews with the director Cimber and the DoP, Dean Cundey, along with actress Millie Perkins, who describes Witch as an ‘interesting monstrosity of a film’. The director admits to being attracted to offbeat film projects and agrees with his DoP about the film being lit very adroitly. He must have done something right since he later worked with John Carpenter on Halloween.
Lost at Sea (4 mins) – the director reflects on the film; he believes that some of the fans of the film have themselves been abused. He also reveals that Millie broke up with writer Thom after filming finished and started dating a certain Jack Nicholson!
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood
Director: Chris Speeth
Script: Werner Liepott
Cast: Jannine Caraze, Lenny Barke, Herve Villechaize, William Preston, Chris Thomas, Paul Townsend
Running time: 74 minutes
Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood is a strange film with very little plot, but much psychedelic imagery that some will lap up, while others will just find confusing and irritating.
Kit runs one of the attractions at Malatesta’s carnival, as does his new female friend Vena. Vena is a newcomer to the carnival as she and her parents only moved onto the park a couple of weeks before. At first things seem relatively normal – well for a creepy carnival – but soon Kit finds a family’s bodies on one of the rides and other people start to go missing too. It would appear that the carnival’s chief financier, Mr Blood, might well be living up to his name as he seems to be running some sort of extracurricular activity behind the scenes which involves mucho blood-letting…
If the above description makes it sound like Carnival of Blood has a coherent storyline it really doesn’t! A bit like movies such as Eraserhead, Carnival is a film you experience rather than watch! In fact, one can see why director Speeth never made another movie as this comes across more like a strange experimental student film project than as a proper feature film. That’s not to say it’s all bad since it does have its moments, but these are frustratingly sporadic and, for a relatively short film, Carnival certainly seems to outstay its welcome.
On the plus side there’s some memorable imagery to behold and some of the sets, although clearly very cheap, work exceptionally well, and the fact that the filmmakers were able to shoot in a proper carnival adds much to the overall production value. The soundtrack, which is annoying at times adds to the dreamlike feeling that I think the director was ultimately going for. At times the soundtrack is slowed down with jarring results.
Acting-wise most of the cast were just local people or friends and it shows, but the main leads aren’t too bad and it was nice to see Herve Villechaize (The Man with the Golden Gun) again playing another freaky dwarf, this time Bobo, who seems to pop up when you least expect him. It was also good to see clips of 1920’s versions of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame playing out in a few scenes.
Sadly, much of the film comes over as being very amateurish with continuity being all over the place – one minute it’s daytime, the next it’s night, although maybe that was intentional so the viewer becomes disorientated. In fact some of the choices of camera shots are bizarre and add to the overall disorientating feeling.
Sadly, there’s quite a bit of damage to the print but considering the film’s lineage I think Arrow did very well to find a half watchable print at all! One does wonder why such a film has had so much love and care directed at it when so many other, more deserving films have been relegated to the wastelands of obscurity.
I have to admit I found Carnival of Blood a bit of a chore to sit through and I probably won’t do so again, unless I have an audio commentary to accompany it.
The Secrets of Malatesta – an interview with director Chris Speth (14 mins)
This is an interesting interview where the director reveals many revealing facts about the film’s production and its origins. The film was shot at an actual working carnival park which closed down a year after filming was completed. Sadly, the dwarf actor committed suicide a couple of years later due to an on-going illness. Apparently the MPAA made them cut out all the cannibalism, but the outtakes were used in the trailers! The film wasn’t widely distributed and the director didn’t see any money.
Crimson speak – an interview with writer Werner Liepott (12 mins). We learn that Werner learned to write at the Edinburgh School of Arts and based Carnival’s story on the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean. We also learn that the film was shot in north Philadelphia on 35mm. Werner charged about $1,500 for the script, which he says was a lot tighter than the version that was eventually shot. The director was more interested in ‘shadow play’, with images being more important than an actual story. Apparently Malatesta means ‘Bad Head’. 500 people went to the film’s premiere and, although not many people walked out, not many people ‘got it’ either.
Malatesta’s underground – an interview with art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson who discuss the weird world of Malatesta (10 mins). Although neither of the designers were bowled over by the script they were both architects and enjoyed the challenge of converting a warehouse into the interiors of the carnival. Much of the look of the film was created using orange bubble wrap that had been rejected by the army! Richard and Alan say that the script was abandoned half way through the shoot, probably due to lack of budget – allegedly less than $100K.
Outtakes (3 mins) – mainly cannibal shots
Gallery – 39 stills and images, some from behind the scenes
Audio commentary with film historian, Richard Harmond Smith who goes into a lot of detail; for example, he talks about the carnival park first opening in 1896, and about the fact that the lead actress wasn’t an actress, but was in fact a local student.