As the slasher – and horror by default – slowly lost steam by the latter half of the 1980s, plenty of horror titles saw either limited theatrical releases or went straight to video. One of those movies, American Gothic, had the kind of VHS cover art that should have embedded itself on horror fans’ brains. And its premise – which borrowed bits of religious and rural horror – should have lent itself to the kind of camp horror that inevitably leads to cult status. Instead, American Gothic remains a largely obscure late entry to the 80s slasher subgenre.
After losing her baby in a tragic accident, Cynthia joins her friends for a weekend getaway. But an unexpected mechanical problem forces them to land their seaplane on a remote island. With no way to radio for help, the group searches the island and finds a lone house occupied by a strangely devout family. The elderly Ma and Pa are religious fanatics who reject modern society – their adult offspring believe they’re still children. And the arrival of strangers and the modern world threaten to trigger a violent reaction.
American Gothic Fails as Camp and Slasher
Before he made American Gothic, director John Hough amassed a decent filmmaking track record. From British 70s horror (Twins of Evil, Legend of Hell House) to Disney semi-classics (Escape to Witch Mountain, The Watcher in the Woods), Hough knew his way around the horror genre. So it’s not fair to say he was out of his depth. Nevertheless, American Gothic fails on just about all expectations for a slasher movie. The score doesn’t fit with what should be on screen – Alan Parker’s (Jaws 3D) opening music belonged in an 80s sitcom. There’s almost no scares in a movie that drags for nearly 40 minutes or so before anything of note happens. And the kills are unimaginative. Both of these issues are unacceptable for what’s essentially a B-movie.
Nevertheless, American Gothic fails on just about all expectations for a slasher movie.
Chalk up many of these problems to Burt Wetanson and Michael Vines’ screenplay. On one hand, the writers recycle bits from past religious (Deadly Blessing) and rural horror movies. Religious fanatics, childlike adults with homicidal tendences, and people stranded on remote islands were old hat even by the late 80s. Where American Gothic really goes wrong is its tone. Somewhere in this slasher is a campy cult classic. Unfortunately, Wetanson and Vines never fully embrace those campy bits. Instead, American Gothic often feels unintentionally funny.
American Gothic Coerced a Surprising Amount of Talent for Its Recycled B-Movie Bits
Poor Rod Steiger. At the height of his career, Steiger was an Oscar winner starring in classics like On The Waterfront and In The Heat of the Night. As premium roles dried up, Steiger made his way into the horror genre. Some of those roles, like The Amityville Horror, turned out pretty well. Oftentimes Steiger found himself in some pretty bad B-movie horror outings like The Kindred and American Gothic. Not surprisingly, Steiger is the best thing about this slasher as the devout ‘Pa’. He adds a bit of menace to what’s an otherwise toothless movie. Similarly, Yvonne DeCarlo (The Munsters) brings reliable professionalism to her role as ‘Ma’. While she’s never really ‘scary’, she’s at least believable in a silly role.
Oftentimes Steiger found himself in some pretty bad B-movie horror outings like The Kindred and American Gothic.
As for the rest of Ma and Pa’s brood, the actors and performances are appropriately offbeat. Veteran character actors William Hootkins (Star Wars), Janet Wright (Corner Gas), and Michael J Pollard (Scrooged) have fun playing childlike characters. And if American Gothic had leaned into the comedy, it would be easier to enjoy the performances. Like the rest of the movie, however, the characters are too silly to be scary and not silly enough for cult status. On the flip side, the cast of victims range from stiff to vanilla. No one stands out as particularly bad or good. But Sarah Torgov (Meatballs) veers close to camp territory by the end.
American Gothic a Bland Slasher Best Left in the 80s
Maybe there’s a reason why American Gothic has languished in obscurity. Though it’s not a ‘bad’ movie from a technical perspective it’s tonally off and pretty unremarkable stuff. Hough conjured up more of a creep factor and atmosphere in Disney’s The Watcher in the Woods than he pulls off here. In fact, American Gothic lacks any real scares often feeling like it should be aiming for dark laughs – it does manage some unintentional ones. Throw in forgettable kills and a plodding pace and this late-80s slasher is left on the VHS shelves of times forgotten.