I went into American Gothic expecting some run-of-the-mill 80s slasher fare, and while that was more or less delivered, it did have some surprises. Really, I can’t think of many folks who would willingly pass up Yvonne DiCarlo, Rod Steiger, and a family of backwoods killer lunatics, but boy howdy is this ever a weird one.
We open with Cynthia who reunites with her husband Jeff after she was briefly hospitalized over the accidental death of her baby. How’s that for starters? The doctor recommends that Jeff “try and keep her around people she feels comfortable with.” To that end, Jeff has planned a camping getaway with their friends: Rob, Lynn, Paul, and Terri.
As I almost always find myself asking at times like this, what could go wrong?
Trouble with Jeff’s plane, that’s what. The group is forced to land to make repairs, and they end up on some island somewhere on their way to where ever the hell they were going. So, they set up camp, discover shockingly they can’t fix the plane, and head off in search of help. Ere long they come to a cabin and, naturally, walk right in. Like ya do. It doesn’t look run down, dusty, or abandoned inside, so, naturally, they make themselves right at home.
Predictably, the owners show up and land sakes alive ain’t they just every bit as taken aback as them young folks? Well, good ol’ Ma jus’ can’t help but commence to rustlin’ up some vittles for these, as she calls them, children. Jeff of course explains their predicament, and gruff ol’ Pa assures them someone with a boat may be by tomorrow. It’s settled that everyone will stay the night (bed time is, incidentally, at 830), lads in the living room, lassies in the bedroom.
From here, our stouthearted little band meets the rest of the family one by one. As you probably imagined, it ain’t powerful long afore carnage ensues. And, spoilers ahoy, oh what carnage there is. It’s not exactly a gore fest, but partial credit nonetheless for jump rope, knitting needles, a unicorn statue, and one dude getting launched off a cliffside swing.
Along those lines, writers Burt Wetanson and Michael Vines do a nice job putting the Gothic in American Gothic (no surprise really–Wetanson went on to write for the animated Beetlejuice series). The “children” are all homicidal adults made even more bizarro by their childlike mentality and demeanor. Teddy is apparently a necrophiliac, Woody is a murderous voyeur, and Fanny is a kill-crazy Little Orphan Annie who cares for her “baby,” the mummified remains of an infant (tell me that isn’t right out of M.G. Lewis’s The Monk).
Yvonne DiCarlo and Rod Steiger are…unsettling as Ma and Pa. She’s eerily folksy; he’s fanatically religious. In fact, it’s arguable to read the plot partly as a demented little spin on Goldilocks–Mama bear, Papa bear, and three psycho Baby bears. Not a bad comparison since bears can, y’know, kill you. Add to this an alternate version of “The Three Bears” in which the intruder is an old woman rather than Goldilocks. She noses around Chez Ursa because she’s curious about her neighbors. The punishment for her behavior? Impaled on a steeple. Relatedly, Pa meets his end just as he raises his hands to the heavens and renounces god.
Fair warning, this movie was roundly trashed when it was first released and has no critic reviews on the ol’ Tomato page. But it has a 51% Audience Score based on over 500 ratings, so there are those of us out here who get it. Finally, there’s a sick little twist at the end which I won’t give away. It’s darkly funny and highly satisfying if not particularly surprising, so don’t feel bad if you figure it out well before the 30 minute mark. If you’re a fan of pitch black humor, this is worth a look.
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