The directive of this enticing new series from Arrow Films Video (with help from the likes of film writer Stephen Thrower) is to furnish lesser-known American horror films of yore with fully restored special edition releases. To give them the audience they've never found before, basically.
This first volume is a magnificent statement of intent, as it contains three wonderfully offbeat films: former video nasty THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA, low-key horror-thriller THE PREMONITION and the curiously endearing cheapie MALATESTA'S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD.
First up is Matt Cimber's 1976 beauty WITCH.
In it, Molly (Millie Perkins) lives in a sleepy coastal town where she works in the local seaman's bar and spends a lot of her free time with her spinster sister and her two kids. In an early scene, we see Molly on the beach with her nephews, and witness as she becomes distracted by the sight of three muscle-men working out nearby. Her mind produces images of the men in various states of injury and violent death. It's a very early indication that all is not well in Molly's mind.
Indeed, she's clearly hung-up on the absence of her sailor father. Though his disappearance is shrouded in mystery, she holds him in high regard - though her sister has a different memory of him, remember him as a violent drunken cad. Distressingly for Molly, her mental state begins to deteriorate quite rapidly as the television begins to speak directly to her, her sexual psychosis provokes images of orgies that end in castration and a legacy of childhood abuse leads her into acts of actual murder.
Written by Perkins' then-husband Robert Thom, WITCH is an intelligent psychological drama which hinges on the lead actress' fantastic nuanced performances. Populated further by idiosyncratic characters and graced with simply stunning widescreen cinematography courtesy of Dean Cundey, the film is a meticulously constructed, carefully paced affair with flourishes of PSYCHO-style unease and just the occasional instance of proto-slasher violence to keep gorehounds happy.
WITCH also contains a healthy amount of nudity (Perkins is unconventionally gorgeous); though to write such a fascinating, well-made and unique proposition off as simple exploitation would be doing the film a huge disservice.
MALATESTA'S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (1973) finds Mr and Mrs Norris (Paul Hostetler and Betsy Henn) setting up camp in their caravan near to the titular attraction, where they have reason to believe their missing son was last seen.
Dealing with shady manager Mr Blood (Jerome Dempsey), they pose as potential financiers in a bid to investigate the carnival further. Which, inevitably, is the wrong thing to do: cue lots of weird, atmospheric interludes which make up for a large percentage of this enjoyably offbeat, nightmarish flick.
At times reminiscent of CARNIVAL OF SOULS but also owing a fair debt to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, while drawing favourable comparisons to similarly otherworldly 70s efforts such as MESSIAH OF EVIL, this is an unexpectedly effective low-budget shocker. The plot makes less and less sense as events progress, but the creative visuals should be enough to keep you engrossed. Also, look out for Herve Villechaize (TV's "Fantasy Island", THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, etc) in a small but vital role.
Lastly we have Robert Allen Schnitzer's 1976 oddity THE PREMONITION.
A disturbing premise serves this film well: Andrea (Ellen Barber) has just been released from a mental institute after a 5-year stay there, and immediately hooks up with mime artist Jude (Richard Lynch) - whom she'd met while incarcerated.
He's managed to locate Andrea's daughter Janie (Danielle Brisebois), who has been adopted in her mother's absence. The plan is for the pair to abduct Janie and start a new life on the run as a family.
But Janie's foster mother Sheri (Sharon Farrell) has psychic abilities, which enable her to foresee the threat Andrea represents...
Restrained and melancholic, it makes perfect sense to pair THE PREMONITION with THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA. They both benefit from a similar bucolic setting, and address the thorny issue of mental illness with a fair degree of sensitivity.
THE PREMONITION is a well-shot, thought-provoking and quietly unnerving film. It's great to see a perennial villain such as the late Lynch playing such a complex, well-fleshed-out character for a change, while the female leads are simply excellent. The film will perhaps be a little too sedate for some tastes, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
These three curious beauties have been grouped together by Arrow in a stunning 6-disc boxset, which offers each film on blu-ray (with copious extras) and DVD. We were sent copies of the blu-ray discs for review purposes.
All films have been restored in full 1080p HD and are presented as healthily sized MPEG4-AVC files.
WITCH is presented in its original 2.35:1 anamorphic ratio and looks superb. In one of the disc's bonus features, Cimber explains how the original negatives are forever lost. But the print used here is a good find, scrubbing up really well in 1080p HD despite some unavoidable damage in the form of occasional onscreen scratches.
The picture is warm, colourful and bright while remaining true in look and texture to its filmic origins. Deep blacks remain solid and noise-free throughout; the fine detail in close-up scenes is often quite remarkable. It's a great presentation.
CARNIVAL looks good in 1.85:1, the primary enhancement in this transfer's case being the colours: they're significantly heightened over the earlier DVD presentation. The film's stunning art design can finally be appreciated in all its red-hued glory. The print used is largely clean, too.
THE PREMONITION looks the best of the three films on offer. We still get grain and the very odd speck, but for the most part this is an extremely impressive visual representation of the film. Images are smooth and appropriately textured; colours are strong and true. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 ratio.
English 2.0 DTS-HD audio on each film is equally reliable, proffering a clean and consistent playback throughout. Optional English subtitles are well-written in each case, and easy to read at all times.
Each film comes on its own blu-ray disc. The discs each open to animated main menu pages. From there, scene selection menus offer access to the individual films via 12 chapters apiece.
Bonus features for WITCH begin with an engaging, thorough commentary track from Cimber (pronounced Simber), Cundey and Perkins. They speak with fondness about the film, revealing how it was borne of screenwriter Robert Thom's imagination and written while he was seriously ill. He was also Perkins' husband at the time, which explains why the role was effectively written for her.
Much of the commentary's stories - from details about the supporting actors and Cimber's notions on how the film is a psychological thriller, to the troubles he had getting financial backing for the project and the camera techniques developed by Cundey for some wider shots - are repeated in a new 23-minute featurette entitled "Tides and Nightmares". Along with the aforementioned threesome, this also features onscreen contributions from co-star John Goff. It's a very slickly produced, well-edited and entertaining affair. Perkins is honest about her embarrassment over the amount of nudity involved in the picture, but overall seems proud of their combined achievements.
A 36-minute archive featurette entitled "A Maiden's Voyage" effectively features the same people going over the same stuff (though, weirdly, Perkins seems more vague in her recollections here, despite it being filmed several years before the new interviews). It's nice to have here, but by this point - if you've sat through the commentary and "Tides" - you will be noticing quite a bit of repetition.
"Lost at Sea" offers Cimber 4 more minutes of screen time, in which he reveals how Perkins brought new boyfriend Jack Nicholson to the film's eventual premiere - and that the Hollywood legend wasn't too enamoured with what he saw.
There's also an optional 5-minute introduction to the film from Thrower. This finds the author sat in a church and discussing how accomplished this production is, considering the reputation video nasties often have for being shambolically shallow affairs. It's a fine way to begin your viewing of the main feature.
Richard Harland-Smith of moviemorlocks.com provides an entertaining and fluid commentary track for MALATESTA'S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD. He speaks with good insight about the locations used, the inventive art decor, the interesting (and, at times, rather inept) cast, and much more.
We also get 3 minutes of outtakes which suggest the film could've been a much gorier proposition. These are well worth checking out, though owners of the previous Windmill DVD will have no doubt already enjoyed the benefits of these.
"The Secrets of Malatesta" is a new 14-minute featurette in which director Christopher Speeth looks well as he speaks with good memory about the shoot, the creative processes used to overcome such a small-scale production and the efforts of his cast.
"Crimson Speak" (see what they did there?) finds screenwriter Werner Liepolt revealing what influenced his script - and no, the answer isn't simply "hard drugs". This enlightening HD endeavour runs for 12 minutes.
Art directors Richard Stange and Alan Johnson are afforded 10 minutes in "Malatesta's Underground", where they successfully convince - with occasional storyboard sketches as assistance - that there was a considerable amount of thought that went into creating this frankly barmy film.
Thrower returns with another amiable, worthy 3-minute introduction.
A brief stills gallery and PDF version of the original screenplay round things off for CARNIVAL.
On to THE PREMONITION's extras.
These commence with an intriguing, candid commentary track from Schnitzer. From praising his cast to mulling over the troubling themes and speaking of the additional scenes added in post-production to make the film play more to the horror crowd, he's good at conveying the right information across.
It's also nice that we get the film's ambient, mournful score in isolation. It sounds great in its original 1.0 mix.
Thrower is back in church for another 3-minute introduction which is well worth selecting (these intros are optional but recommended).
"Pictures from a Premonition" is a 21-minute featurette in which Schnitzer, cinematographer Victor Milt and composer Henry Mollicone look back on the shoot. To this end, there are also archival interviews with Schnitzer (6 minutes) and the wonderful Lynch (16 minutes).
Three short films from Schnitzer's earlier canon are also present: TERMINAL POINT, VERNAL EQUINOX and A RUMBLING IN THE LAND. These will set you back another 82 minutes in total, and range from the experimental to the downright tedious - but it's quite startling that here regardless.
Four "peace spots" appear too, which are early protest shorts that the director filmed in response to the Vietnam war.
THE PREMONITION's original 2-minute theatrical trailer is cool, as are 6 vintage TV spots.
The set also comes with DVD versions of each film, plus a lavish 60-page colour booklet containing essays by Kim Newman, Kier-La Janisse and Brian Allbright. Oh, and inside the outer box you'll also find - apparently - that each film is housed in an individual keepcase, with Arrow's customary double-sided reversible cover artwork. Nice.
In short, this is marvellous set. I find it amazing that Arrow have invested so much time and effort into furnishing these lesser-known films into such a striking package. We're lucky to have this. I hope to God it sells well, as I can't wait to see what Volume 2 will bring.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Arrow Video|
|see main review|