American Horror Project: Volume I—The Premonition (1976) – By Roger Carpenter

 

American Horror Project is a fascinating idea by Arrow Video. Instead of trying to find classic horror films of questionable quality in the public domain and releasing them as a collection (think Dementia 13, Night of the Living Dead, etc.), Arrow has located some relatively obscure horror films from the seventies that most fans haven’t seen since their original release, if at all. Volume One features three films rescued from obscurity and given the special treatment by our friends at Arrow Video. I have not seen Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood or The Witch Who Came from the Sea but I have viewed 1976’s The Premonition.

Directed by a very young Robert Allen Schnitzer, The Premonition is best described as a psychic thriller. The adoptive mother of a young child, Sheri Bennett (Sharon Farrell) is tracked down and terrorized through dreams and visions by the girl’s biological mother, Andrea Fletcher (Ellen Barber). The biological mother and her sometime-lover, a cheap carny clown, kidnap the little girl and try to make their escape before Sheri is able to coax the girl back to her with the help of her husband and a “para-physicist” from the local college, Dr. Jeena Kingsly (Chitra Neogy).

According to the director, he has always been interested in mysticism and parapsychology. So when he read a novel about a crazed woman kidnapping her biological daughter from her adoptive family, he felt the material could be reworked to include a psychic theme, turning the standard drama into a horror thriller.

While most of the actors and actresses are solid character actors with many of them going on to have long careers in various areas of the entertainment industry, the two standouts are the crazed couple who kidnap the little girl. Ellen Barber does an admirable job playing Andrea Fletcher, an unhinged mother recently released (escaped?) from the psychiatric ward. Her companion is a young Richard Lynch who stars as a carnival clown with a crush on Andrea. He’s willing to do anything to get Andrea’s daughter back so they can resume the relationship that had started on the psychiatric ward. But Andrea isn’t interested in the clown’s come-ons. She is focused on one thing only, and that is her daughter. This fixation is clearly a source of madness as, in one scene, Andrea substitutes the real girl for a life-size doll when she is foiled during the initial kidnapping attempt. Cradling and rocking the plastic doll, she is deliriously mad while Lynch’s clown just becomes more sexually frustrated.

The crazy couple finally do succeed in kidnapping the little girl (a very young Danielle Brisebois of Archie Bunker’s Place as well as several other television shows and Hollywood films), hiding out and keeping on the run in Lynch’s van. Meanwhile, the adoptive father resists the notion that his wife is being psychically assaulted by the loony Andrea Fletcher. Perhaps a bit unfocused due to his infatuation with the new Indian paraphysicist, he finally comes to his senses and the two hatch a plan whereby Sheri Bennett gives a public concert of music well-known to the little girl in an effort to coax her from her kidnappers. The scheme works and the little girl follows the music to its source and her mother while the kidnappers try to make their escape. Both Barber and Lynch are superb as edgy, unhinged, and—at least for Andrea—reluctant companions in the quest to find her daughter. The rest of the cast ranges from workmanlike to slightly amateurish.

While the premise of the film is interesting and the film was successful both critically and commercially upon its original release, I found the film to be a bit tedious. While I commend Schnitzer for standing up and making the choice to film this thriller without a lot of blood and violence, the relative lack of action made for a boring and somewhat confusing ending, though many critics will disagree with this evaluation. The end resolution was more than a small jump for this viewer and came off as a bit silly, even for the mid-seventies psychic phenomena craze. Ultimately, the film is just a bit too slow and uneven to truly enjoy.

The real gem with this film is the healthy dose of extras that come with the disc. There is a very interesting commentary track with the director as well as several interviews, notably with the film’s composer as well as an interview with Lynch. Along with the standard issue trailers and TV spots, the disc includes some real ephemera, namely a series of four public announcement spots decrying the Vietnam War as well as three early film shorts, all directed by Schnitzer. The commentary actually helped this reviewer to understand what Schnitzer was going for and allowed for greater appreciation of this PG-rated film.

Again, while I didn’t really enjoy the film, the concept of rescuing obscure horror films and giving them deluxe releases is a good one. I hope Arrow continues this project. For more information about The Premonition or American Horror Project, go to Arrow Films USA website at http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa