This past summer I spent a week back in Chicago; the land of my childhood. While there, my family and I decided to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, which I had never really been to as a kid. There are many very famous works of art on display there, including the Grant Wood painting American Gothic. In the back of my mind, I had remembered a horror movie that borrowed that name. It had a very brief theatrical run and a minuscule home video release before all but vanishing from almost everyone’s memories. I had totally forgotten about it, as well, until I spotted a rare DVD copy at one my local used disc shops. So, get ready for some creepy country folk in 1987’s American Gothic.
The story centers on a group of friends in Seattle who hop into a small plane to go camping out in the wilderness. The organizer of the trip, and owner of the plane, is Jeff (Mark Erickson), whose wife, Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) was just released from a mental institution. Seems she was riddled with guilt after the death of her infant daughter, who she left unattended in the bathtub. Jeff thinks the trip will be good for Cynthia, but the group soon runs into trouble. The plane experiences engine problems and they are forced to land on a small island.
The island seems uninhabited, at first, but they soon find a house owned by a strange family. Ma (Yvonne De Carlo) and Pa (Rod Steiger) seem to be stuck several decades in the past. They don’t even have electricity. The house is also home to their three “children,” Fanny (Janet Wright), Woody (Michael J. Pollard) and Teddy (William Hootkins), all of whom are actually full-grown adults that act like kids. Well, they act like kids except for the fact that they like to kill people in their spare time. Gradually they begin to pick off the unwanted visitors, at times using playthings like a swing and a jump rope as weapons.
American Gothic is, for the most part, a fairly standard piece of hicksploitation horror. It’s got a strange family who are a bit behind the times knocking off a group of unwelcome city folk one by one. Most of the film has a somewhat light-hearted tone. That is, except for a few elements that are brought into the story that take things to some very dark and disturbing places. It was quite jarring to be watching this slightly silly little horror film and then be hit with something that made me go, “whoa, where did THAT come from!?” These shock moments will be quite off putting for many viewers, but the film does offer some pleasant surprises, as well. The best is a wonderful twist on the concept of the final girl. It’s something wholly original and it would be a crime to give it away here. I will say, though, that what makes this final girl twist work is a lovably bizarre performance from Sarah Torgov as Cynthia.
All around, the film is bolstered by a unique cast delivering far better performances than a backwoods slasher film like this ever deserved. Going in I kind of assumed that this film would just be a paycheck for Rod Steiger and Yvonne De Carlo. Sure, both of them were still working regularly at this point, but let’s be honest, both were also a bit past their prime. You wouldn’t know it here as both deliver wonderful performances. De Carlo especially sells it as a seemingly sweet old woman with an evil streak that creeps out every now and then. Steiger’s permanent scowl is also a perfect fit for the patriarch of this twisted family. I loved the scene where he staunchly refuses to allow his male and female guests to share the same bedroom because they ain’t “hitched.”
As much as I enjoyed Steiger and De Carlo, the real standouts here are their “kids.” Janet Wright gets the most screen time as Fanny, a fifty-something year-old woman who thinks she’s about to turn twelve and plays with a doll that is, well, about as far from a Cabbage Patch Kid as you can get. She spends the whole movie in a red dress that could’ve been borrowed from the set of Small Wonder (weird 80’s TV reference for the win), and turns in the creepiest performance of the film. That’s quite an achievement when one of your co-stars is Michael J. Pollard, who could make playing Boggle unsettling (weird 70’s board game reference for bonus points). Also wonderfully crazy is William Hootkins (yup, Porkins from Star Wars) who dons an Indian headdress and shoots suction cup arrows at two potential victims in one scene.
Though American Gothic’s basic premise is nothing new, it still manages to do some unique things. The characters are quirky, the kills are creative, and final twist is a real winner. I could’ve done without some of the story elements that seem to be dropped in just to shock, but overall this is a horror film that has a lot going for it.