(UK/Canada - 1988)
Directed by John Hough. Written by Burt Wetanson and Michael Vines. Cast: Rod Steiger, Yvonne De Carlo, Michael J. Pollard, Fiona Hutchison, Sarah Torgov, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Janet Wright, William Hootkins, Mark Erickson, Carolyn Barclay, Stephen Shellen. (R, 89 mins)
Recently released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory, 1988's AMERICAN GOTHIC is a demented gem of a horror movie with a small cult following of fans who have largely kept it to themselves. The film has fallen off the radar somewhat even though the Vidmark VHS was a ubiquitous presence in every video store in America back in the day. Made at a time when horror was defined mostly by special effects and Freddy Krueger, it's something that probably would've gotten more attention a decade earlier during the post-TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE era or a couple of decades later circa THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, a time when its deranged family of homicidal, inbred religious zealots could've allowed for more sociopolitical satire. AMERICAN GOTHIC was directed by veteran journeyman John Hough, whose hired-gun filmography ran the gamut from British horror (1971's TWINS OF EVIL, 1973's THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) to American car chase actioners (1974's DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY) to Disney (1975's ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, 1978's RETURN TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, 1980's THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS) to drive-in horror sleaze (1982's THE INCUBUS) and terrible DTV sequels (1988's HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE). Retired since the 2002 DTV Patsy Kensit thriller BAD KARMA, Hough was always a director who took whatever gigs came his way, but with THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY, he's got a couple of legitimately great films to his credit. AMERICAN GOTHIC is one of the better works from the inconsistent, clock-punching latter half of his career, sandwiched between the time-travel misfire BIGGLES and the dull HOWLING IV.
Fanny sets her sights on Jeff because she's tired of having sex with her brothers. It isn't long before Ma and Pa (probably brother and sister), and the kids start killing off the guests, with final girl Cynthia, already in a fragile state of mind, ultimately submitting to their will and becoming an adopted member of the family and someone to join lonely Fanny when she wants to play with her "big dolls," skeletons of past victims kept hanging in the basement.
Wibberly-Wobberly Walk in Richard Stanley's 1990 classic HARDWARE. The standout is De Carlo--in a great late-career role for Lily Munster herself--giving her dialogue a folksy, homespun delivery (exclaiming things like "Land sakes, child!" and "You're not so growed up you don't need your 40 winks!") that's as unsettling as it is funny. Canadian actress Torgov, best known for 1979's MEATBALLS and as the wife of blind musician Tom Sullivan (Marc Singer) in 1982's IF YOU COULD SEE WHAT I HEAR, more or less gets lost in the shuffle given the five batshit performances going on around her, but she's quite effective as a shattered woman trying to cling to some shred of sanity. She does have one great moment, brainwashed and in a matching dress given to her by Fanny, where she flashes a maniacal grin after finishing her dinner, beaming with pride as she asks "Am I a clean-plate clubber now, Ma?" As good as she is here, Torgov nevertheless retired from acting after AMERICAN GOTHIC, married TV producer/writer Douglas Steinberg (PSYCH, BOSTON PUBLIC), and became a painter and children's book illustrator. Now that it's out on Blu-ray, perhaps AMERICAN GOTHIC's day has finally arrived. It's a forgotten late '80s treasure deserving of a bigger cult than it has, and it's held up very nicely over the last 30 years.