Dir:- John Hough
Starr:- Rod Steiger, Sarah Torgov, Yvonne de Carlo, Michael J. Pollard, Janet Wright, Fiona Hutchison, William Hootkins
This late 80’s British-Canadian horror, shot on location on, and around, Bowen Island, British Columbia, left as indelible an impression on my adolescent horror-movie imagination as similarly bizarre movies like Bob Balaban’s superb Parents, Bernard Rose’s haunting Paperhouse and Wes Craven’s ferocious The People Under the Stairs. On first viewing American Gothic I remember being almost unable to watch the films grim dénouement, due to the extraordinarily ‘weird’ atmosphere that British director John Hough (the man behind one of the best Richard Matheson adaptations The Legend of Hell House) had managed to conjure up. It was never that the movie was particularly gruesome, gory, or shocking, but rather that it evocatively examined parenting, guilt and alienation. Despite the script being really nothing more than a The Hills Have Eyes derivative (both Burt Wetanson and Michael Vines have less than glowing CV’s), Hough’s horrorcraft manages to create subtle emotional depth, where there should have only been hillbilly hokum. He is aided by the sterling work of Sarah Torgov and the ‘family’ cast members, with Rod Steiger (as Pa) and Janet Wright (as Fanny), in particular giving far more than other actors might have.
The movie begins with Torgov’s Cynthia being released from a Seattle institution where she has clearly been receiving some kind of counselling for depression, or PTS. Her boyfriend Jeff, has decided to take her away to the islands of British Columbia, alongside some of their friends. Within the opening exchange between Jeff, Cynthia and her Doctor, it is suggested that Cynthia may have lost her child, a fact that is confirmed by a tragic flashback in which we see Cynthia, distracted by the phone and her cooking, allowing her baby to drown in the bathtub (a particularly hot issue of the time, I seem to remember). Cynthia is clearly still haunted by the grief of this loss, and when Jeff’s private plane starts acting up and the group of friends have to touchdown on an unknown island, there is a real dread in Torgov’s visage, that allows the viewer to anticipate a nasty confrontation with her emotional demons.
Director Hough manages to keep the action taught and restrained for the opening forty minutes, or so. The group first of all explore the island individually, with the feisty Terri (Caroline Barclay) almost becoming the victim of a silly accident. Then after a first, unsettled, night upon the island, the group leave the rather annoying Paul (Stephen Shellen) to look after camp, while they go to find help. When the group come across an old New England-style property with pronounced Gothic gabling, they find the place seemingly deserted, with most of the furniture and household items belonging to the pre-WWII period. However, just like in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the friends’ presumption that the house they have entered is in fact empty has serious consequences.
Being a late-80’s movie it is a prerequisite that the film should have a touch of the ridiculous fashion of the times (mullet haircuts, pastel-coloured jumpsuits, extreme shoulder-padding). As much as I love a lot of great 80’s cinema, with its overabundance of synth music scores and poor-quality computer graphics obsessions, it is the decade, more than any other since the 60’s, that has dated particularly poorly. American Gothic initially looks very much of its time, with Cynthia, Jeff and their friends clearly stuck in the trends of the period (not to mention the truly awful opening credits sequence). Yet by the time the group stumble upon the house in the woods the movie has begun to strike out in a very different direction.
Even though the film has some grisly, and often rather daft, death scenes, it isn’t this aspect of the film that is horrifying. In fact it is an unusual horror feature as so much of what is actually frightening in the movie occurs in broad daylight. The family who own the house on the island are more than just a little eccentric. They at first appear to be an elderly couple, who refer to themselves as Ma (played by Lily Munster herself, Yvonne de Carlo) and Pa (an inscrutable Steiger). Being far older than Cynthia, Jeff and their friends, the couple are seen to be prudish and, in Steiger’s case more than a little religiose. However, the unsettling element of the film begins to creep in with little clues, such as the way both Ma and Pa patronisingly address the group as if they were children, or the children’s toys and games that are littered around a downstairs bedroom and in the backyard. This elderly couple aren’t revealing all to their unwanted guests, which makes their offer of help seem more than a little dubious.
Out of all the members of the group it is Cynthia who seems to delve into the strange world of the house and its occupants most completely. In the child’s bedroom she finds some sense of purpose that has obviously been lacking since that traumatic night in the past. When the superb Janet Wright finally makes her belated appearance (followed by the always amusingly menacing Pollard and the physically imposing Hootkins) the film transcends it’s all too obvious script limitations and begins to sketch out one of the more disturbing final acts of any horror movie I’ve seen. Wright plays a girlish forty-something woman, called Fanny, who is dressed up to look like Shirley Temple, and whom Ma and Pa do not seem to have allowed to grow up (or possibly they have brainwashed her into believing she is a child in much the same way they eventually do with Cynthia). Pollard and Hootkins play her siblings, Woody and Teddy. Together these adults mimic childish behaviour and engage in kids games, subtly inverting the innocence of such ‘carrying-on’ and investing it with a perverse undercurrent, that is made all the more disturbing by the seeming normality with which the ‘parents’ treat their children. Before any of the murders begin there is already such an all-pervasive sense of weirdness about the island, that the family’s behaviour, particularly that of Steiger’s laconic, preacher-like patriarch, takes on the appearance of some bizarre cult or sect. Steiger clearly relishes lines like “I don’t believe in those kinds of contraptions” (when talking about television and telephones) and his final brief soliloquy is an oddly despairing Job-like rant, as he berates God for having taken his family. The strength of Steiger’s performance is matched by that of Torgov (in her last film role before a career-switch into publishing) who in the final moments of the movie, and with the help of some superb make-up, looks every inch a damaged and demented individual. Hough has to take heavy plaudits for the way in which he elicits such strong and increasingly unhinged performances from his cast. It is with the strength of these performances that the movie proves deserving of a certain cult cache and warrants rediscovery by a new generation of horror fan.