At the Movies with Alan Gekko: American Gothic “88”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Rod Steiger, Yvonne De Carlo, Sarah Torgov, Janet Wright, Michael J. Pollard, William Hootkins, Mark Erickson, Caroline Barclay, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Fiona Hutchison, Stephen Shellen/ Runtime: 89 minutes

I think it is safe to say that by the time the late 80’s rolled around that the formula for the slasher film had been able to leave the wooded areas found in such gems as “Sleepaway Camp” and the “Friday the 13th series” and had been pretty much gone just about everywhere including an Ohio town haunted by a child pedo boogeyman with quips to spare named Fred Krueger, a “Terror Train”, an island manor for a joke or 2 on April Fool’s Day, a New Year’s celebration turned evil, and even to a Chopping Mall for a deadly fight against some deadly security robots to say nothing of that weird series where Santa was the killer on quite the silent yet deadly night. Suffice it to say then that a return trip back to the woods for this storied sub-genre of horror was all but inevitable. Thus in the year 1988 movie lovers we were given this return in the form of a movie called “American Gothic,” a film that was our long-awaited reunion with a group of hopeless, inconsiderate young adult morons as well as the psychopathic killers the dimwitted kids often tragically cross paths in the woods. Yet intriguingly, it would appear that this film’s dynamic writing duo of Burt Wetanson and Michael Vines actually seemed more aware than most writers of 80’s horror that the material they were working with might not be the freshest in the market anymore. Thus, and to the immense credit of the writers, they actually did try to elevate the mentally unhinged ingredient in the material and legitimately tried to blend together a sense of realistic psychosis with the typical B-movie style antics that typically result in some form or fashion of a body count. Yet even though the surprises are, unsurprisingly, limited in this film, the movie does at least have a distinct plus in the form of a surprisingly strong cast as we soon discover that the agents of terror and mayhem are a familiar, to a certain audience, pair of celebrated character actors in the middle of their “golden years” and really relishing the opportunity to terrorize the silver screen with both skilled thespian eccentricities and a veteran sense of timing. Yes the film all in all may not blow you away with any potent force, but at least film helmer John Hough seems to comprehend just what materials he is working with, and as such, ingeniously puts more of an emphasis on the kooky yet charismatic actors at work here to get the film across the goal line and all the way to an ending that works…..I think.

The plot is as follows: American Gothic tells the riveting story of a young woman by the name of Cynthia. As the film opens, we get to see her in the middle of her release from a psychiatric facility where she has been receiving care in the aftermath of a horrific breakdown due to the tragic demise of her infant child who drowned in the bath whilst she was occupied by a telephone call in the other room. It is to that end that her husband Jeff, hoping to give her a vacation before entering the “real world” again, chooses to take her on a trip to the islands around Canada for some rest and relaxation with him and their friends Terri, Paul, Rob, and Lynn. Yet what at first seems to be an enjoyable and engaging weekend away with friends is quickly turned into something else entirely when their expedition is cut into courtesy of motor problems on their plane which result in Jeff having to make an emergency landing near one of the more remote islands in the chain. Yet while in the process of setting up camp for the night so that they can hopefully repair the plane and be out of there by the next morning, our wild and crazy guys and gals find themselves instead stumbling upon on a quaint little house. A house they soon learn is occupied by an elderly couple who insist on going by Pa and Ma as well as their adult children named Fanny, Woody, and Teddy respectively. Indeed even though their particular lifestyle has resulted in them all but expelling away the “modern world”, Ma and Pa nevertheless welcome the group into their time capsule of a house. Yet while our gang of intrepid youth take in their temporary refuge, it, naturally, isn’t long before weird things start happening, and soon this group of rowdy youthful adults will find themselves locked in a terrifying battle for survival with a kooky family who, we soon learn, also parted ways with the very concept of reality a long long time ago….

Now it should be noted that American Gothic most certainly isn’t willing to go down the simple path when it comes to getting you involved to the point that right off the bat the film goes full-steam ahead in the potentially film sinking choice to make the main character into an emotional time bomb due to the demise of her only child. A choice that clearly makes sense because nothing makes a slasher film more entertaining than having the story open with the horrific drowning of an infant (sarcastic rant over). Thankfully although the tragedy does provide a crucial ingredient in regards to Cynthia’s arc in the film, it also doesn’t hint at the tone of horror that the film is going for, and as such the film doesn’t really use it for any other purpose than to show why the main character is the way she is and also hints at the direction she will go within the film’s “story”. Also, to the credit of the film’s helmer, the movie isn’t completely overwhelmed by the main character’s grief as it actually becomes more taut and engaging once the younger group meets Ma and Pa thus setting up a chess match of wariness as both parties try to set some kind of mood for this most unexpected get-together inside an island home that happens to be without a manner of getting in touch with the outside world to say nothing of most of the conveniences of the, at the time, 20th century.

Now it should also be noted that this is a unique film in that literally every single younger character is actually due for some degree of atonement for their actions. A fact that is apparent since the lead character drowned her baby albeit accidentally, and the others have no qualms either messing around the isle estate when they initially believe it deserted or just showing way too much disrespect to their “old-school” and reluctant hosts who are strong advocates for the “good book” and who try in vain to instill even a hint of a moral code into the lives of their visitors. Another area where this film is unique is that this film truly exists in a distinctly gray area where literally everyone could be a creep to some degree or another. A narrative choice that results in the audience being left a little unnerved and on edge as we await for Ma and Pa to begin figuring out “punishments” and their “children” to “carry out the punishments” by taking out their reluctant guests one by one and through the utilization of such items as a cliff side swing and a horse statue. Yet praise must also be given to the film for not really making things too gory, and instead choosing to put more of an emphasis on the poisonous vibe of abuse that is present and which has given Ma and Pa the ability to lead such a family of psychotics. Indeed in many respects there is a very distinct “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” feel to this movie, and even though this film goes nowhere close to intense and feral levels that film went to, there is still an uneasy atmosphere about as we watch and enjoy the shenanigans of this particular family and their obsession with butchering those who don’t see eye to eye with their God-fearing, technology-shunning manner. Want an example? Well you know the typical horror tropes of passionate sex, smoking, and drinking? Well in this film that is “devil’s play” and as such that won’t be allowed in this puritan house straight out of hell and will always lead you to be taunted, chased, or the opportunity to give one of the “kids”, a chance to engage in some of his more…..carnal urges. (Trust me it’s ickier than that)

All in all I think it is most certainly safe to say that American Gothic is not a trendsetter by any stretch of the imagination seeing as it sticks rather closely to the trends of that time period which result in things being quite by the book for the first hour or so. As such, this film’s transition to the fight between two very different forms of lack of sanity in the final third is a most welcome change as it manages to provide the movie with a shot of satisfactory hideousness that manages to work well within a story that involves insanity attempting to find its true heir of sorts. It should also be noted that although the film’s helmer tries to conjure up some symbolic imagery to give the film a hint of artistry, his main positive is in his work with the cast and letting them run wild with this material even if that doesn’t require more than a thinly veiled false sense of hospitality as well as snarling threats that seem like they came more from a bully in a Sunday school class more than anything. Indeed to that end, it should be noted that the duo of veteran thespians in this, Mr. Rod Steiger and Miss. Yvonne De Carlo are actually not bad in their roles as Pa and Ma respectively, and both manage to conjure up a riveting screen presence in a film that typically doesn’t require anything more than them utilizing basic emotions to horrific events. Thus it is to that end that American Gothic is at its most engaging with audiences when it is working of thespian appeal alone since this is what provides the film’s potentially undesirable narrative with a theatrical distraction to help keep the focus off the more icky aspects of the script. Nevertheless however, the simple desires for the genre are achieved, oddity is hinted at, and every now and then, we get a fair amount of homicidal insanity and you really can’t ask for much more than that. On a scale of 1-5 I give American Gothic a solid 2.5 out of 5.