American Gothic (1988)

American Gothic

American Gothic is a forgotten British/Canadian slasher flick from the 1980’s; the decade of the slasher flick. However, American Gothic is very unlike the ‘traditional’ slasher film of the 1980’s. Although it begins with the traditional slasher film set-up – a group of young adults wind up in an abandoned location – there’s much more going on in American Gothic, it’s much more strange and uncomfortable when compared to other slasher films.

American Gothic has a very strange tone that permeates throughout the entirety of the film. The plot focuses on the themes of mental illness, and the oppression of religious fervor. At first, it may seem like American Gothic is a ‘satirical’ take on the Amish community much like Deliverance ‘satires’ America’s deep south, but the more you watch, the stranger things become until you have no idea about what’s going on anymore. There are so many unanswered questions by the time the film has finished, that the movie leaves you to ponder in confusion.

I feel that the strongest aspect of American Gothic is the acting. With so many strange characters it’s very hard to make them believable, but American Gothic has a very good cast of actors to play the bizarre roles. Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters) and Rod Steiger (Al Capone) give fantastically demented performances as the religiously conservative couple who live alone on a deserted island, but relatively unknown actress Sarah Torgov steals the show by giving a believably sympathetic, yet diverse performance as the main heroine: a character which has suffered so much trauma in her life that her mental state is very fragile.

American Gothic‘s visual style, however, is quite bland. There are a few creative shots scattered throughout the film, but the majority of the film looks visually uninteresting. The film chooses to go for a look of realism, rather than having a stylized identity. However, this generic look works very well alongside the film’s content, as the focus is on the story and the characters instead of having a particular visual style that makes the film stand out. The special effects aren’t very eye-catching either, most of the violence is underplayed with many of the deaths happening off-screen, but again, this wasn’t the film’s point either. It’s very obvious the film focus is on the characters and their struggles and stories, which is unlike a lot of 1980’s slasher films which focus on everything else but the characters. This interesting approach to substance over style is what I feel defines the film and sets it apart from other slasher flicks; for example, how many other slasher films would put in the time to have a sympathetic villain.

Despite American Gothic’s lack of visceral violence, or monstrous villains, both aspects that took center stage in 1980’s horror cinema, American Gothic makes up for it by being more subtle, more subversive than other movies of it’s generation; thus giving the movie a clear identity when stacked up against other 80’s slashers such as Friday The 13th, or Nightmare On Elm Street. That being said, though, American Gothic still has the ability to shock with it’s own brand of disturbing visuals, but there’s always an underlying subtext that makes certain moments feel even more disturbing.

American Gothic is definitely worth a watch. It stands out by being different to other films that came out around that particular time period. American Gothic tries to do more with the slasher genre than following a simple formula: it looks at characters and villains in a different way whilst following slasher movie conventions, and the movie ends up having it’s own identity as a horror movie. A definite recommendation.

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