Arrow Video’s American Horror Project is dedicated to “its mission to unearth the very best in weird and wonderful horror obscura from the golden age of US independent genre moviemaking.” The second volume — the first had Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, The Witch Who Came from the Sea and The Premonition — lives up to that bold challenge.
John Hayes began his career producing and directing short subjects, even getting nominated for an Academy Award for 1959’s The Kiss. In addition to those roles, he often wrote his own films and occasionally appeared as an actor in movies like The Shaggy D.A. and his own End of the World.
After his initial full-length movie, The Grass Eater, he made Five Minutes to Love, a Rue McClanahan (yes, from The Golden Girls) starring film all about Poochie, a woman who lives in a junkyard. Also known as Hollywood After Dark, it was picked up by exploitation godfather Kroger Babb. He also directed Jailbait Babysitter and several adult films, such as Pleasure Zone and Hot Lunch.
Hayes is probably best known for two movies he made in 1974: Grave of the Vampire and Garden of the Dead. Hopefully, people will soon add this film to that list, as I absolutely loved it.
Grace (Brooke Mills, The Big Doll House, The Student Teachers) grew up in an orphanage where she dreamed of the day her father would return, forever living outside the other children around her. When she grows up, she goes to work with her adopted foster brother Rev. Paul Jessie Bundy (Michael Pataki, amazing as always), who has turned his father’s church into a circus. For her part, she wears a sexy costume before jumping off a high platform into water to symbolize Satan falling into Hell. He also uses her to faith heal others — indeed, the movie was made as The Faith Healer — while hiding his lust for her.
She’s already dating their other foster brother, Dr. Patrick Bundy, yet refuses to have sex with him. He gives up and starts dating another medical student. If this seems strange that brothers are at war over their sister, well, stay tuned.
The church makes it to a town where she hears word of her father (Edmond O’Brien, who started his career as a magician trained by next door neighbor Houdini before appearing in plays at Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Seven Days In May and The Wild Bunch). This brings her to the combination funeral home/brothel of an undertaker (Marc Lawrence, who was in a ton of movies, but I’ll always think of him as being in Night Train to Terror) who has her father dead on his mortuary slab. She wishes him back to life and he rises to murder the undertaker in a completely frightening scene that creates one of several breaks in the film with reality.
The one issue I have with the film is that its narrator reveals the big twist early. The destroyed house on the edge of town that Grace lives in isn’t the comfortable home that’s in her mind and her father doesn’t exist. Who knows what the people who came there to see her dance to his squeezebox songs really saw.
This movie is the kind of crazy film that I text people about in the middle of the night because I don’t believe that it can be real. But it is — it gloriously is — and now I’m here exclaiming that you should go out of your way to see it.
In 1976, Hayes directed Baby Rosemary, which is an adult remake of this film. That’s probably one of the few — if only — times I can think of when the same director created a XXX and mainstream version of the same film, albeit six years apart.
The blu ray of this film is packed with extras, including an appreciation by Stephen Thrower and brand new audio commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan. There’s also a video essay by Thrower concerning Hayes’ films from 1959 to 1971, an exploration of Edmond O’Brien’s career by writer Chris Poggiali on the prodigious career of celebrated character actor Edmond O’Brien and excerpts from an audio interview with Rue McClanahan about how Hayes started her career.
You can learn more about the American Horror Project vol. 2 box set on Arrow Video‘s web site. This is one block of blu rays worth owning, trust me.
DISCLAIMER: Arrow sent us this set for review, but we were already planning on buying it. That had no bearing on our review.