Monday, January 8, 2018

Retro Review: AMERICAN GOTHIC (1988)

(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.

Just released from a mental hospital following a breakdown after her infant son drowned in the bathtub while she was on the phone, Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) is looking to rebuild her life with sympathetic husband Jeff (Mark Erickson). To keep Cynthia occupied and to show support, Jeff has arranged a weekend getaway with two other couples, chartering a small plane for a camping and fishing trip in the northwest, off the coast of Washington state. Engine trouble forces the plane to land at what appears to be a deserted island. The three couples--Jeff and Cynthia; Rob (Mark Lindsay Chapman) and Lynn (Fiona Hutchison); and Paul (Stephen Shellen) and Terri (Carolyn Barclay)--find an old cottage with the door unlocked, the inside a luddite fantasy land with no TV, phone, or electricity, looking frozen in time 50 years earlier. They mock the decor and old-fashioned clothing and generally act like assholes until the homeowners return. Ma (Yvonne De Carlo) welcomes the obnoxious strangers but Pa (Rod Steiger, in a brief exploitation B-movie phase after 1987's THE KINDRED and CATCH THE HEAT) isn't pleased, though one can hardly blame him considering the condescending tone of his uninvited guests.

Pa insists a local mechanic can't look at the plane until morning, so the three couples reluctantly stay the night, though Pa refuses to let the couples share a bed under his roof. There's also Ma and Pa's three children, mentally-stunted adults who look 50 but still dress and behave like little kids: daughter Fanny (Janet Wright), who's endlessly chipper, wears a little girl's dress and is "mom" to a mummified infant. The two sons are snotty, bratty Woody (Michael J. Pollard) and oafish Teddy (William Hootkins), both of whom are jealous of the men, especially when horny 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.

Hough and screenwriters Burt Wetanson (a writer on the Saturday morning cartoon series THE SMURFS, of all things) and Michael Vines wisely keep things relatively restrained, considering the inherent parade of grotesqueries that make up the plot. A lot of it--the incest, the necrophilia--is implied rather than shown which, if done right, can make it even more disturbing and icky, and Hough is more concerned with suspense and dark humor than in-your-face gore and grossout. Pa, Ma, and the kids are perfectly cast, with a seething Steiger doing his Steiger thing, overacting even as he's saying grace. The kids are creepy as hell, though Pollard (an Oscar-nominee for 1967's BONNIE AND CLYDE) made a career out of playing weirdos and Hootkins (Porkins in STAR WARS) would explore further pervy depravity in his legendary performance doing the 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.

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