Monday, March 23, 2015

Slashback: Family Matters in 'American Gothic' (1988)

With poster art that parodies Grant Wood’s famous painting of the same name, this late entry in the 1980’s slasher boom was more likely to be first discovered amongst the cluttered VHS rental shelves of a video store than in a proper cinema despite being given a modest theatrical release in the spring of 1988.

Rod Steiger and Yvonne DeCarlo topline this slice of Canadian schlock as the psychotic scripture-spouting parents of a backwoods Bible-fearing family of three middle-aged adults with childlike minds and decidedly adult homicidal tendencies. Grown daughter Fanny (Janet Wright) wears her hair in pig tails and totes around a mummified baby in a veiled bassinet; pudgy son Teddy (William Hootkins) has a childish temper matched only by his adult libido; and giggling son Woody (Michael J. Pollard) is a taunting tattletale.  
When three irritating yuppie couples charter a plane for a weekend camping getaway, you know it’s only a matter of seconds after the synthesizer-heavy opening credits before their prop plane’s engine sputters out and the requisite emergency landing strands them on a generic forest-shrouded island of dubious derivation. After establishing that the plane won’t start and the radio won’t work, the hapless slasher fodder set out in search of help, instead stumbling upon the Rockwellian farmhouse of Ma and Pa (the actual character names!).

Although the six ill-fated travelers of AMERICAN GOTHIC are chronologically older than their high school and college-age slasher film predecessors, advanced age does little to aid in the development of internal alarms even after they step into the timeworn time warp of Ma and Pa’s parlor and break bread with the family.
What follows is a by-the-numbers slasher, with dashes of incest, necrophilia, and infanticide thrown in to sweeten the carnage casserole. Like all good slashers, AMERICAN GOTHIC is requisitely cliché-ridden and fans will find much comfort in the film’s essentially intact formula, right down to its killer tagline: The family that slays together stays together. The inventive kills here mimic childhood games – murder by swing and jump rope, eye gouging with a toy soldier's bayonet.

Then – after the largely forgettable cast is systematically slaughtered by the murderous trio of siblings – AMERICAN GOTHIC does something interesting with its final girl, veering from the obligatory chase scene and into the decidedly more grindhouse-gothic territory of early 70’s films like TERROR AT RED WOLF INN. Lone survivor Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) – who we know from flashbacks is of questionable sanity herself following the bathtub drowning death of her baby and a stint in a “clinic” of indiscernible origin – seemingly snaps and is adopted as Ma and Pa’s fourth “child”. Now dressed as Fanny’s clone in shiny black Mary Janes, pink-gingham dress, and pigtails, Cynthia seems right at home with her new wackadoodle family – at least until it’s bath time for Fanny’s baby mummy. Flashing back to her own baby’s death, Cynthia re-snaps and struggles with Fanny for the baby, whose mummified head is ripped from its body in the ensuing scuffle. Baby mummy’s beheading earns Fanny a bloody bludgeoning with a galvanized steel tub and each remaining member of the family their own Cynthia-style comeuppance. Like many a final girl before and after her, poor Cynthia is left abandoned – both physically on the island and mentally in her own mind – to stew in her own insanity, cradling and cooing to her (dead and decapitated) baby mummy.
Although Director John Hough was no stranger to genre fare, having directed THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980), and THE INCUBUS (1982), he never manages to balance the dark humor with the requisite chills necessary to ground the slasher mayhem – and the result is an uneven film that never quite gains a firm footing in either comedy or horror. Still, AMERICAN GOTHIC does manage to achieve the camp factor of the earlier MOTEL HELL in spots when it isn’t dipping its toes into the completely absurd.  Steiger and DeCarlo – questionably slumming it here – chew the scenery with particularly gleeful abandon, later incarnations of Farmer Vincent and his sausage-making sister, Ida. Wright, who bears a passing resemblance to MOTEL’s late Nancy Parsons, is chillingly good as Fanny – putting to rest the question of what would have happened if John Waters ever decided to remake WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BAY JANE? with an adult Shirley Temple in the lead.

Interestingly, Hough may have actually been ahead of his time with AMERICAN GOTHIC and its twisted take on religion and family values years before the evangelical political galvanization here in this country. Although remake-weary audiences are loathe to endure yet another slasher film reboot, reimagining, or recalibration, the timeliness of Hough’s – and screenwriters Burt Wetanson’s and Michael Vines’ – source material may be ripe for some restyling.
By 1988, the golden era of the slasher film had begun its inevitable pop culture fade, retiring for its eight-year nap before SCREAM would re-awaken it, refreshed for at least awhile. Even diehard fans of the popular sub-genre knew it was time to give the slasher a rest when the imitators were being imitated, when films like AMERICAN GOTHIC ripped off earlier HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH rip-offs like JUST BEFORE DAWN and HUMONGOUS.

On the surface, AMERICAN GOTHIC is equal parts corny and well-worn, but – at least on repeated viewings over time – the film washes over like a hallucinogenic fever dream.

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