So we come to the third and final part of Arrow’s American Horror Project Vol.1, a series of releases which aimed to bring lesser known or forgotten movies to a wider audience. It’s certainly the case here, with a release that was thought to have been lost to the ages until the late 2000s. As well as being the most obscure, it’s also probably the most interesting of the three. However this will probably depend on your own preferences, as it’s certainly an experience that puts weird sounds, lurid visuals and oddball characters ahead of any narrative sense. Some might call this a mess. Others might be up for a brisk 70 odd minute fever dream. But most viewers will be probably want to look at a film that features an expert in ‘psychoacoustics’ in the credits.
The new arrivals at a dilapidated fair ground find a few things rather unsettling about the place. There are stories about kids being killed there some years before, and the employees all seem to be a bit weird to say the least. Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey) assures the Norris family that there’s nothing to worry about, and that they’ll soon be working at a ‘goldmine’. Between his rather on the nose name and the state of the stalls and rides, it’s a bit obvious he’s got a few screws loose. However despite Mrs. Norris declaring out of the blue that the ‘place is evil’ they all hang around anyway – even after disturbing things start to occur. Plot logic isn’t something you’re going to find here I’m afraid.
Their daughter Vena (Janine Carazo) and clingy ride attendant Kit (Chris Thomas) certainly have a few reasons to get away, especially after the other family due to start work with them vanish in the tunnel of love. Even after an encounter with a litter picker who loves his sharp stick a bit too much, they still arrange to meet up to discuss things the next day instead of getting out while the going is good. Mr. Norris might have his reasons as they talk about some sort of revenge plot, but it never comes up again. Like many dialogue moments here it all feels a bit half finished.
How the place makes any money at all isn’t clear, between the caretaker silently stroking his hook for a hand and the tarot reader getting a bit too physical with the customers. Maybe creepy people hanging out in an even creepier setting has some kind of holiday appeal, I have no idea. They certainly seem to get customers, and some of them really want to get in – at very odd times of the day. One in particular shows what happens when you are over the height limit for the roller coaster. Most of the film is lacking in this sort of action and shock power but there are at least one or two grisly moments.
The setting has a very eerie atmosphere in general, and does the film itself. Kids start throwing tantrums when they can’t have terrible prizes from a shooting gallery, screaming ‘I want a chicken’ over and over. Mr. Blood rambles on about how wonderful the carnival business is. Hervé Villechaize from The Man with the Golden Gun shows up to spout weird poetry and point air rifles. Ghouls with their faces painted grey stop to have a sing along in the middle of a bit of bloody murder. I might have forgotten to mention the ghouls… let me back track here. You see the place is a front for the activities of the eponymous Mr. Malatesta as his ‘family’. These under-dwellers look like rejects from a George A. Romero movie and live in a hellish structure beneath the fair ground, writhing around as they stare at silent film projections.
This Gothic sense of style is what the makers seem to have been going for, but the end results are a lot more unusual looking. There are some interesting lighting setups, and one silhouette shot referencing Nosferatu. But elsewhere the whole thing is like a waking nightmare coated in polythene, a private inferno decorated by someone who really had a thing for red bubble-wrap. As the narrative structure falls away entirely we’re left to sit through a lot of sequences in this crimson soaked world, a DIY job that makes everything feel like it’s part Hades, part digestive system; all shoe-string student art project. There are a lot of mirrors and a few bits of stained glass, it’s claustrophobic but super cheap. Nothing makes any real kind of sense once the chases and deaths begin, but it has a lot of arresting visuals.
The crux of the problem here is also what makes it so interesting. I can see it being a big turn off for many viewers, and admittedly the story and its climax are very lacking. But as a weird nightmare full of droning sounds and sequences that look like the inside of a plastic bag there’s a lot I found engaging. It evokes more accomplished films and is by no means some kind of lost masterpiece. Some viewers will need far more solid storytelling and much neater editing. But for those who just want the rough edged weirdness of obscure ’70s efforts you might want to take a peek.
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