By Rod Lott.
One could find irony in the United States’ collective history of regional horror films being written by a Brit. Instead, I choose to thank him for it.
Stephen Thrower literally wrote the book on the subject in 2007’s seminal Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents. A natural outgrowth of that book arrived two years ago when Thrower curated three of the book’s featured movies for release in Arrow Video’s American Horror Project: Volume One box set.
Luckily, he has returned with the overdue (by my timetable, anyway) Volume Two. No sophomore slump, this second helping contains, in decreasing order of accessibility, The Child, Dark August and Dream No Evil, each discovery loaded with the level of technical care and supplementary enthusiasm Arrow affords its A-list titles, beginning with interviews and audio commentaries as a mere baseline.
From 1977, The Child of the title is Rosalie Nordon (Rosalie Cole in her first and last role). With her mentally unhinged mother dead, Rosalie’s frowny farmer father (Frank Janson) hires Alicianne (Laurel Barnett, fresh off Larry Buchanan’s Goodbye, Norma Jean) to return to town to care for the girl, who is one bad seed — not entirely her fault.
Like Frederick R. Friedel’s Axe, another Thrower-championed film, The Child is of a higher standard than the typical Harry Novak production, with a genuinely unsettling soundtrack and atmospheric touches that nearly qualify as folk horror. While the movie popularly plays in the era’s evil-kid sandbox built by the likes of The Exorcist, The Omen and The Other, one-time director Robert Voskanian takes the story to another genre entirely in the back half. In its effective-enough execution of practical effects, The Child exhibits the can-do, work-with-whatcha-got spookhouse spirit of S.F. Brownrigg (Don’t Look in the Basement), yet let us not overstate its value; the most consistent actor may be Rosalie’s jack in the box.
Death too soon also haunts 1976’s Dark August, from The Legend of Nigger Charley director Martin Goldman, who co-wrote the script with its then-married, now-deceased stars, J.J. Barry and Carole Shelyne. While driving, would-be artist Sal (Barry, History of the World: Part I) accidentally — but fatally — hits a little girl. Soon after being cleared by the court, he begins experiencing nightmarish visions of a figure standing silently and cloaked in black — the result of the dead child’s grandfather (William Robertson, Christmas Evil) placing a curse on him.
Running with the decade’s curiosity regarding the occult, the supernatural picture makes the most of a meager budget, assumedly spending a good chunk on securing Kim Hunter (Zira of the first three Planet of the Apes films) for a small but pivotal role as a spiritualist Sal taps for assistance in the third act. Money well spent, the Oscar winner does not treat the material as beneath her talents.
What Goldman gets for free adds considerable production value: shooting in rural Vermont, where isolation practically becomes a supporting character. The setting gives us the disc’s standout extra as Swamp Thing artist Stephen R. Bissette spends 34 minutes discussing Dark August and similar independent horror films of the state (which, incidentally, makes me want to read his 2004 book, Green Mountain Cinema).
Finally, from 1970, writer/director John Hayes’ Dream No Evil is something else — what exactly, I’m uncertain, even after a pair of viewings. That air of mystery constitutes half of the pic’s charm; the other is the luminous Brooke Mills (Jack Hill’s women-in-prison classic The Big Doll House) front and center as the appropriately named Grace. Adopted/rescued by faith healers as a child, the fragile-minded Grace is obsessed with finding her father — a mission that refuses to wane with the passage of time.
Her family’s traveling church now wraps its sermons in circus acts, requiring her to don a skimpy costume for a high-diving act under the barking orders of the reverend (frequent Hayes player Michael Pataki, Grave of the Vampire); meanwhile, she’s engaged to his brother (Paul Prokop, The Velvet Vampire), who has chosen the profession of medicine over brimstone-flavored salvation.
All that suggests more plot than Dream No Evil is willing to give. As Grace plunges into madness, Hayes seems interested in taking the viewer down with her. If the swirling opening credits hinted at a surrealism to come, subsequent scenes lather it on thick and bewildering, leaving one to wonder if the cast’s old-pro members (namely, Edmond O’Brien and Marc Lawrence) questioned what they had gotten themselves into. Befitting of John Hayes’ filmography of noncommittal — one dotted with every genre from action and comedy and sci-fi to hardcore porn — it’s hard to pin down, but its big-top backdrop and daddy issues make it a natural first cousin to 1976’s The Premonition, featured on Volume One.
Even for all its failings, Dream No Evil is never not interesting. To view it in the proper frame of mind, watching Thrower’s introduction will help, but steer yourself elsewhere among the extras, to his “Hollywood After Dark: The Early Films of John Hayes, 1959-1971.” That half-hour featurette provides even better context in mapping Hayes’ willingness to try anything once — an American Horror Project core value as good as any, really. Volume Three can’t arrive fast enough.
Rod Lott runs the genre film website FlickAttack.com. A former professional journalist, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video and numerous books.