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 but others might be up for a brisk seventy-odd minute fever dream. But most genre fans will be probably want to look up a film that features an expert in ‘psychoacoustics’ in the credits.
The new arrivals at a dilapidated fair ground find a few things about the place which are rather unsettling. Beyond stories about kids being killed there some years before the employees all seem to be a bit odd 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. But between his rather on the nose name, and the state of the 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’ the family hangs 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 another family due to start work with them vanishes in the tunnel of love. Even after an encounter with a strange janitor who loves his sharp litter-picking 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 some vague reasons to stay as he talks about some sort of revenge plot, but it never comes up again. Like many dialogue moments here it all feels a bit half finished.
It’s also rather unclear how the alleged ‘goldmine’ actually makes any money. Between the caretaker silently stroking his hook for a hand and the tarot reader getting a bit too physical with the customers things aren’t exactly welcoming. Maybe creepy people hanging out in an even creepier location has some kind of holiday appeal for a certain niche of tourists? They certainly seem to get occasional customers, and some of them really want to get in, at very odd times of the day. One of them 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, as 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 recite weird poetry and point air rifles at people. Ghouls with their faces painted grey stop to have a sing-along during a bit of bloody murder. Yes there are also resident ghouls… they come out of nowhere in both the film and this article. You see, the place is also being used by the eponymous Mr. Malatesta as his ‘family’ for various sinister activities. These under-dwellers look like rejects from a knock-off George A. Romero movie and live in a hellish structure beneath the fairground, writhing about as they stare at silent film projections.
This old fashioned 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 even 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 even a few bits of stained glass, it’s super cheap but it is claustrophobic. Nothing makes any real kind of sense once the chases and deaths begin, but a lot of of these visuals are arresting.
The strangeness and the low budget are both the crux of the problem here and also what makes it all 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, even if it was missing for a while. Some viewers will need far more solid storytelling and much neater editing. But for those who just want the rough edged weirdness of obscure 1970s efforts you might want to take a peek.
ARROW VIDEO SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:
- Brand new 2K restoration from original vault materials
- Standard Definition DVD presentation
- Original Mono Audio
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Introduction to the film by Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower
- Audio Commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith
- The Secrets of Malatesta – an interview with director Christopher Speeth
- Crimson Speak – an interview with writer Werner Liepolt
- Malatesta’s Underground – art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson discuss the weird, mysterious world of Malatesta’s underground
- Draft script (DVD-ROM content)
- Stills gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil