Saturday, July 5, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Happy Fearth of July!

Year: 1988
Director: John Hough
Cast: Yvonne DeCarlo, Rod Steiger, Sarah Torgov
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Again we wade into that strange holiday netherworld in which I watch a festivity-appropriate movie on the day of, but don't get a chance to review it until a day later. So I apologize for not reviewing my Fourth of July pick, 1988's American Gothic, until today, but believe me it's worth the wait.

Since we haven't really talked about the climate of 1988 in detail yet, let me paint you a picture. By the end of the decade, the slasher genre was a grotesque and decadent monstrosity lumbering across the plains of cinema. After the advent of home video, DTV slashers had inundated the market, overwatering the already twisted root that was the subgenre.

If you picked any slasher film from the year at random, you would likely find a bloated franchise picture (Friday the 13th Part VII, Halloween 4, Sleepaway Camp II, etc.), a post-Nightmare supernatural twist on the tropes (Bad Dreams, Deadly Dreams, Ghosthouse), or one of a few DTV stragglers that held on to the traditional slice and dice ways with an iron grip (Death Nurse 2, The Last Slumber Party, Amsterdamned).

At this point, it was a genre set in stone with an increasingly bloodthirsty MPAA slashing out gory scenes left and right. Without the appeal of being a shiny new genre or shocking the audience with bloody kills, desperate slashers were grabbing at straws, eager to find anything twisted and exciting to make a quick buck. Usually these films crashed and burned, but American Gothic is a special little monster that almost certainly deserves more attention than it gets.

OK, maybe not that much attention.

The story goes as such. A group of friends traveling to an island in the Pacific Northwest has their propellor plane break down halfway there. They make an emergency landing on nearby shore and decide that an island is an island, so they can camp here until they repair their plane.

The Meat in this film is an exceptionally uninteresting crop, save for one standout, but when something stands out in this movie, it stands the hell out. First there's your usual crop of clich├ęs like Paul (Stephen Shellen, also in The Stepfather), the cute man with glasses who is offscreen for a good two thirds of the film; Lynn (Fiona Hutchison), this film's nomination for Most Slappable Douchebag;  Terri (Caroline Barclay), a terrible actress and scuba diving enthusiast; Rob (Mark Lindsay Chapman), a handsome and playful young man unfortunately saddled with the worst mullet in human history; Jeff (Mark Erickson) an annoying blonde with a Jew Fro and a pilot's license; and Cynthia (Sarah Torgov), his wife and purveyor of that interest I was referring to earlier.

You see, Cynthia has agreed to go on this trip in order to get over the accidental drowning of her child, the trauma of which led her to be institutionalized. The movie begins with her release, opening on a shot of her trapped behind bars.

It's a metaphor, see?

When the group goes exploring, they discover a large home full of 50-year-old toys and furniture. Instead of running away immediately, they play dress-up with clothes from a wardrobe and dance the Charleston because trespassing is OK as long as it's on an island. Needless to say, when the elderly homeowners return, they're none too pleased, although they do invite the youngsters to stay for the night.

At first Ma (Yvonne DeCarlo, also of Silent Scream) and Pa (Rod Steiger), as they prefer to be called, seem just a wee bit eccentric (their religious fervor shows just a tad too strongly and they won't let anybody near the basement door), but once their three children begin to appear from out of the woodwork (it takes literally several days for all three of them to make their presence known), the travelers grow suspicious.

You see, these kids are actually middle aged men and women who act and dress like they're 12 years old. Fanny (Janet Wright), Woody (Michael J. Pollard, also of Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland), and Teddy (William Hootkins) seem to believe wholeheartedly not only that they're young and hearty, but that it is the 1920's and the era of President Woodrow Wilson.

This is mighty unsettling, but the best of the three actors is Wright, who captures a sort of Umbridge-esque menace while at the same time 100% accurately portraying the simple emotions and responses that an 11-year-old girl would have to her environment.

Needless to say, the family begins to bump off the group one by one because they perceive them to be sinners. This idea isn't helped by many of the members' utterly oblivious smoking, swearing, and sexing. I know this is the way of the slasher world - you drink, you screw, you die - but never has the way to avoid meeting a grisly end seemed so obvious from the get-go.

Maybe don't willingly piss off people insane enough to wear these outfits.

Before we go on, let's get one thing straight. American Gothic is a poorly made film, but not as bereft of artistry as the typical genre entries this late into the decade tended to be. Sure, maybe the boom mike totally eclipses a quarter of the frame in an early shot. Sure, maybe the ancient house looks freshly painted and underpopulated like the production designer constructed it that day and bought whatever he could find for fifty bucks at a thrift shop.

There's little to no gore in the film thanks to the dictatorial rule of the MPAA but somehow, miraculously, the filmmakers took what they had and turned it into a near masterpiece of bonkers B-cinema. The kills are clever and compensate with humor and tension instead of gore (Rob is swung over a cliff via swingset, a long-forgotten Paul turns up dead at the worst possible moment). And despite the limitations of the budget, American Gothic manages to ramp up the creep factor more than any other slasher in the tail end of the decade.

Sure, it's in a campy register. But if you combine the fun of the kills and the totally bizarre characterizations of the killers along with the surprisingly resonant thematic through line provided by Cynthia as she navigates this world of long-preserved children while coping with the loss of her own, the movie transcends everything and becomes startlingly capable. One memorable scene with a mummified infant corpse still manages to be utterly chilling despite the fact that it looks like an alien sculpture made of raisins. 

And if you show me a person who says they don't find this even slightly unsettling, I'll show you a liar.

This goes on for about an hour, at which point the film just gives up and launches into an entirely new storyline. It feels like the sequel to this film was tacked onto its final thirty minutes. It constantly goes places you never expected it to go and defies any and all expectations, all while maintaining its status as a tacky and silly slasher film.

I won't spoil this half, so lunacy-filled as it is, because I'd rather have everybody experience it on their own terms. But let me just say the final shot actually proves that there was at least a smidgen of talent behind the camera and reminds one of The Descent in a mystifyingly positive way.

This film is a terrific story of a family trapped in time wrapped with a slasher bow and I thought it was great fun. It's not truly scary and it won't be getting on anybody's top ten lists unless you pare it down to the most specific of subsets, but American Gothic will certainly become a new classic in the Brennan household.

Killer: Ma (Yvonne DeCarlo), Pa (Rod Steiger), and their Brood (Janet Wright, Michael J. Pollard, William Hootkins)
Final Girl: Cynthia (Sarah Torgov)
Best Kill: They're all lovely, but I'm rather partial to Rob getting swung over a cliff, to which nobody really has any reaction.
Sign of the Times: Aside from Rob's mullet, he listens to that instrumental (copyright-free) 80's rock that all slasher kids seem to be so into.
Scariest Moment: Fanny asks Cynthia to kiss her baby good night.
Weirdest Moment: Take your pick, this is a deeply weird movie. But I'm personally in favor of when Rob tries to get everybody to dance by shouting "C'mon, gang!" at them repeatedly like he's in a 60's sitcom.
Champion Dialogue: "Don't you wanna be in the clean plate club?"
Body Count: 10; 5 vacationers and 5 killers
  1. Rob is tossed over a cliff via swingset.
  2. Lynn is hung with a jumprope.
  3. Jeff is stabbed in the eye with a toy soldier's bayonet.
  4. Paul is axed in the face offscreen.
  5. Terri has her neck snapped.
  6. Fanny is beaten to death with a tin bathtub.
  7. Woody is stabbed with a toy soldier's bayonet.
  8. Ma is stabbed with knitting needles.
  9. Teddy is stabbed in the neck with a scythe.
  10. Pa is shot in the chest with a shotgun. 
TL;DR: American Gothic is a fascinating curio and worth more attention than it gets.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1544

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