Sunday, March 2, 2014

American Gothic (1988)

Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) has just been released from hospital after a breakdown following the accidental death of her baby. The baby’s father, her boyfriend Jeff (Mark Erickson), thinks it’s a good idea to fly her camping on an island somewhere in the American North-West. Their friends Terri (Caroline Barclay), Rob (Mark Lindsay Chapman), Lynn (Fiona Hutchison), and Paul (Stephen Shellen) accompany the couple, but what was supposed to be a relaxing time ends up rather differently for everyone involved.

The private plane the friends are flying in has some sort of problems and has to go down on a different island than planned. At first, the friends assume the new island is uninhabited, the house they find on it empty, but eventually, they meet the island’s inhabitants, a rather eccentric older couple who only want to go by the handles of Ma (Yvonne De Carlo) and Pa (Rod Steiger). They’re somewhat welcoming, if you ignore that they seem to think it’s still the 1920s, Pa likes himself some fire and brimstone religion, as well as overlook an increasing series of other things that turn from eccentricity to outright craziness.

One by one, Ma’s and Pa’s physically grown-up children pop up, too. There’s Fanny (Janet Wright), a middle-aged woman who thinks she’s eleven years old and takes care of her very own mummified baby, as well as her brothers Woody (Michael J. Pollard) and Teddy (William Hootkins), both also not acting their age. Not surprisingly, the family will soon turn out not just to be outright crazy but also rather murderous in various unpleasant ways.

By 1988, the slasher genre was dead as a teenager having sex, with increasingly cheaper films that were at best trying to mask their increasing lack of any ideas of their own with ever increasing amounts of gore and/or nudity. Nobody seems to have told veteran British director John Hough about that, though, and so American Gothic turns out to be anything but lacking in ideas of its own.

Sure, the film’s basic structure is that of your classic slasher movie, but right from the start, the film prefers to use slasher clichés as a starting point from which to wander off in its own directions. These directions rather often tend to end up in the realm of the grotesque, as if every cliché about evil backwoods clans had grown into a thing as monstrous as it is comical – if you’ve got the appropriate sense of humour for it. In this context, I can’t say I’m surprised one of the film’s two writers, Burt Wetanson, only other writing credits beyond American Gothic are in the realm of children’s animation, because the feel of the violent parts of American Gothic is very often that of children’s animation gone bad, with the film’s crazy family and their brand of carnage (death by swing!) having something disturbingly and comically childlike.

The film does other clever things too, like making the film’s meat locker of characters not quite as young, and certainly not as vile, as typical of slasher movies, and providing the killer family with many an interesting character trait that again feeds the mood of the macabre and grotesque, instead of keeping them blank. American Gothic also sets up its final girl sequence in a very original manner, using its own (and still darkly funny) grotesqueness as the basis and effect of it. Saying more about this part of the film would go into unnecessary spoiler territory, I think, so let’s just say that it’s a very clever way to come to the final girl carnage that fits the film’s tone perfectly, and nicely plays with genre conventions.

American Gothic’s series of increasingly grotesque, funny, and hysterical set pieces does fit John Hough’s direction style nicely, too. Hough uses the same over-blown tone he also preferred in its much loved by others, much maligned by me Legend of Hell House. Only in American Gothic, the campy craziness/grotesqueness (depending on your interpretation of these terms) is actually the point of the film and not the director missing the point of how to make a haunted house movie.

The cast is clearly in on the joke too, with the veteran actors playing the insane family pumping up the scenery chewing to the proverbial eleven, and enjoying it (or so I can’t help but assume). The younger actors playing their victims aren’t quite as nuanced about their scenery chewing, but the film’s staunchly un-naturalist approach to everything but its locations (those look budget-consciously real, and appropriately moody) does wonders to make their performances work too.

Boy, they really don’t make movies like this anymore.

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