April 13, 2011
American Gothic (1988)
"A group of yuppies charter a plane for a camping getaway, only to find themselves making an emergency landing on an isolated island. They are taken in for the night by the only inhabitants, the rapidly-religious 'Ma & Pa', who seem trapped in a Rockwellian time-warp. This proves to be every bit as unpleasant as it seems."
Having only recently watched "Girly" (1970), I was in the mood for yet another half-remembered film about nutters from my teenage years. "American Gothic" (no relation to the TV series of the same name) has been sitting unwatched in The Vault for so many years now that I only remembered it as being a fairly average slasher movie. Obviously, I must have thought highly of this Canadian film once upon a time so, without further ado, I gave it a reappraisal.
The DVD of "American Gothic" which replaced my ex-rental VHS copy is such a good transfer that you would honestly think that the film was made last week not 23 years ago. Although the opening scenes looked a little bit cheap and improvised, the production values and camerawork once the "yuppies" arrived on the island was very good indeed. Having said that, the acting still didn't noticeably improve until they encountered Rod Steiger, Yvonne De Carlo and, the instantly recognisable, Michael J. Pollard as their son.
It's funny how one film can trigger another in your memory especially when it comes to films about adults behaving like little kids who are isolated from the outside world. There appears to be a long tradition of this in horror films dating right back to "Spider Baby" (1968), and, in some ways, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962). Recently we've also had an Oscar nominee using a similar format with the Greek "Dogtooth" (2009) which, in turn, was influenced by the Spanish "Castle of Purity" (1973). As I always say, there's nothing ever that original about the basic plots of horror movies. How the subject matter is presented is what really counts.
Combining religious mania with other psychoses is another overly abused theme in horror films too. You only have to look at Carrie White's mother for the ultimate depiction of how that works. In "American Gothic", it's more subtle as the emphasis is about maintaining Ma and Pa's obviously mentally retarded offspring and making sure that none of the family are corrupted by the outside world. The film throws up a lot of questions about how the family sustains itself, what forced them to move to an isolated island, and what exactly is wrong with them all but, even more so, what were the events that made it all go so very wrong? Pa has a very warped view of religion which, evidently, has not worked quite the way he wanted it to as a method to control his family. Throw in a smörgåsbord of broken taboos including murder, incest, necrophilia and all that other sexy stuff, and you can see where this story is going.
Of course, most of this is just a clever backstory to set the stage for all the kills which follow. Since the kills have no way of being very original, "American Gothic" relies more on the weirdness of the whole drama coupled with the element of surprise. Only one scene, on the swing, is predictable in a "this is going to end badly" way but it doesn't make it any less effective. Most of the events are so random that you wouldn't guess what was going to happen next in a million years.
The problem with reviewing something like "American Gothic" is that it's a borderline cult movie which you can either really get into or which will have entirely the opposite effect if you aren't in the right frame of mind. On one hand, "American Gothic" absolutely defines a world of craziness which you can barely understand but, on the other, it can still be argued to be a pretty basic slasher film dressed up to seem cleverer than it really is. You either have to pay a lot of attention to what's going on to overthink the film into cult status or pay hardly any at all to write it off.
Where "American Gothic" is severely lacking is characterisation. Whereas the nutters are all very well worked out, there's nothing all that likeable about the yuppies to make you even care about what happens to them. Sarah Torgov, as recovering mental patient Cynthia, actually gives a pretty good performance throughout but her peers are little more than two-dimensional and disposable. It's tempting to say that Janet Wright, as Fanny, is the only one of the nutters who really stands out but even her brothers have a little more depth to them if you watch closely. Every actor in "American Gothic" is still noticeably underused though.
So, I'm left with a conundrum. Does "American Gothic" have enough sex, gore and rock and roll to remain in The Vault? Well, in spite of not being overly gory, having only one really hot chick who unfortunately wears a very '80s jumpsuit throughout, and for not really living up to its potential, I'm going to let it stay. "American Gothic" is not a scary film but there is a demented creepiness about it all that entertained me enormously.