Written by: Burt Wetanson, Michael Vines
Directed by: John Hough
Starring: Yvonne De Carlo, Rod Steiger, and Sarah Torgov
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"There will be no devil's play in this house..."
By 1988, Canada’s genre output was in its waning phases, thanks in large part to the CFDC’s shift in focus and a slash to the Capital Cost Allowance that had propped up the glorious tax shelter days for over a decade. However, some schlock still persisted in the form of various co-productions, a tactic that had long been a bloodline for Canuxploitation. Here’s one such production, a curious little effort that allowed Canada to share its Vancouver filming locations with a British production team and a Can-Am cast for a film titled American Gothic. It goes without saying that this one isn’t pure, uncut Canuxploitation, but is rather something of a weird, late-to-the-game mutt still looking to capitalize on a slasher trend that was also in its waning phases.
To be fair, it is quite a spirited attempt to recapture those splatter glory days. Its setup is unusually busy for one of these things, as it opens in a sanitarium housing not the villain, but the protagonist. Poor Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) has recently done a stint after suffering a breakdown following the death of her baby, which drowned in the tub when left unattended. Fucking bummer, right? Anyway, it’s apparently nothing a camping trip can’t solve, as her husband suggests they join a group of friends for a weekend retreat into the wilderness. When their plane breaks down (of course it does), they’re left stranded on what appears to be an uninhabited island. However, as the group prowls through the woods, they happen across an old house that looks to be a perfectly preserved remnant from the 1920s: Saturday Night Post issues litter the living room where an old phonograph is a centerpiece, and the two owners—referred to only as “Ma” and “Pa” (Yvonne De Carlo & Rod Steiger)—are a couple of quaint, old-fashioned bumpkins.
Soon, however, that quaint façade become menacing because these two are insane, of course. There’s a reason their home seems so ancient, as they’ve decided to preserve their rigid moral standards by any means necessary. Mostly, it involves cutting off all contact from the outside world; however, when the outside world does decide to intrude…well, you can figure it out since this is pretty standard slasher fare. Admittedly, director John Hough and the screenwriters inject these familiar proceedings with a wry verve. They’re aware that audiences already know where this is headed, so they fun in revealing the extent to just how fucked-up this family is. Yes, it’s an entire family, and that’s where the fun begins: first, Fanny (Janet Wright) appears out of nowhere talking about her upcoming 12th birthday party (despite the fact she’s a grown-ass woman) and her baby dolls, a revelation that gives the group of campers their first unsettling indication that something is definitely wrong here.
From there, the family grows to include a pair of brothers, Teddy (William Hootkins) and Woody (Michael J. Pollard), with each proving to be weirder than the last. There’s something hilarious about how these kids (well, “kids”—they’re all in their 40s or 50s) just keep casually appearing like it’s no big deal. At a certain point, you begin to wonder just how many people are lurking about the place and if anyone is going to approach being normal. Thankfully, they decidedly do not—this is an unhinged bunch of nutcases brought to life by infectious, over-the-top performances from actors leaning way into it. Once these psychotic yokels assert themselves, American Gothic drops any pretense of being anything other than pure schlock. It’s a freakshow headlined by these outrageous personalities, with Wright and Pollard proving to be the highlights during a scenery-chewing competition that eventually invites De Carlo and Steiger to get in on the action. American Gothic is a hoot before the first drop of blood is even spilled.
It’s a good thing, too, because it takes damn near 40 minutes to arrive at that point. To its credit, just as the lack of homicide starts to become disconcerting, American Gothic whips out an all-time kill involving a child’s swing and a precarious cliff. Talk about removing all doubt in one fell swoop: from this moment, I felt that this one would be worthwhile. My optimism was well-founded, as American Gothic just continues to unspool absurdity and murder in equal measure, with jump ropes, axes, and knitting needles being implemented at various points. Even though the camera only reveals aftermath gore in most cases, it’s all so wickedly, gleefully violent that it doesn’t really matter. American Gothic has that fabled slasher spunk, that wild sense of gusto that helps it to overcome technical deficiencies. One might even argue that it has a bit too much of it when one of the clan decides to engage in necrophilia, a turn of events that doesn’t sit well with religious fanatic Pa.
Remarkably, it gets even weirder (and better, of course) as it approaches its climax. You might recall that protagonist Cynthia is still reeling from a psychotic breakdown after losing her child, and rest assured that is very much pertinent to the outlandish third act here. While a lot of American Gothic feels like an especially goofy riff on a familiar theme, its climax represents a clever deviation, one that makes maximum use out of the fact that this unhinged hillbilly clan has five members that are ready to be added to the body count. Everything is turned on its head once Cynthia turns the tables and begins dispatching these lunatics in her own creative fashion, making this one a splattery blast until the very end. For a movie that takes nearly half its runtime to roar to life, American Gothic more than makes up for it on the back end, where the expected blood and guts are accented by unexpected gonzo flourishes to ensure its place among the pantheon of askew, weirdo slashers.
In fact, American Gothic grows to be so weirdly endearing that it almost feels like a challenge. How could a movie that features a mother grieving the loss of her baby possibly be entertaining? Well, you’d be surprised—and perhaps even more surprised that the answer somehow involves more dead babies. Trust me on this one. I know that so much about American Gothic screams old hat, especially given its 1988 release date. Just how many times can you even bother with one of these backwoods psycho families, anyway, especially when the movie spends so much time working up to the gore? It’s a fair question, but one I think is sufficiently answered by the time this one wraps up. You’ve never quite met a clan like this one, and I can damn sure guarantee you’ve never seen Yvonne De Carlo stab anyone with knitting needles before. Unfortunately, Lionsgate has made that difficult to witness since American Gothic is yet another title collecting dust in its mammoth library, but here’s hoping they dig it out soon because it’s ripe for rediscovery.
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