Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) has been traumatised recently, so much so that she was admitted to a mental hospital, but today she is being released and her husband Jeff (Mark Erickson) tells her doctor that he wants to have another baby with her. It was the death of their first child which sent her over the edge, something she feels responsible for, so what better to take her mind off her troubles than a holiday on one of the islands off the coast of Seattle and the Northeast? Jeff has rounded up four of their friends to accompany them, but once they get into the plane they have no idea of the terror awaiting...
Despite the title, American Gothic was a co-production between Canada and the United Kingdom, both countries responsible for some of the chilliest-looking movies around, so you can imagine that once they joined forces on this, the results were very nippy-looking indeed, especially when most of it was filmed on location in a damp forest and its environs. As far as the plot went, it was your basic Texas Chain Saw Massacre "crazy backwoods family" yarn, one we'd seen a million times before and would see a million times more, though here was the novelty of the patriarch and his wife played by Rod Steiger and Yvonne De Carlo, who by this stage had seen their heyday well behind them.
De Carlo, formerly Lily Munster, was stuck in this kind of low budget material, though Steiger was offered a few more higher profile, if largely unimpressive, movies into the nineties, but here he was hamming it up as was his wont in surroundings that were perhaps a little beneath his talent. Nevertheless, he gave it the full one hundred percent, starting with a grim-faced menace and ending by renouncing the God he purported to be so faithful to, and all because Pa and Ma (they are never given proper names) opted to add to their brood. Did they get too greedy or overambitious? Are the middle-aged maniacs they claim are their children simply the brainwashed victims of their madness?
We don't find that out either, but in its way American Gothic was your basic slasher movie, if a tad more reluctant than many of its peers to show the gore and violence: lots of implements being wielded in closeup but not much depiction of the act of murder itself. This relative coyness was made up for by an atmosphere of oddity, as poor old Cynthia gets the worst possible treatment for someone in her state of mind when the plane sputters and is forced to land next to the wrong island. The gang set up their tents anyway, and try to make the best of it while the pilot attempts to fix the vehicle, but what do you know? It's irreparable, and now they have to find a method of getting word to the mainland so they can be rescued - no mobile phones in 1988 horror movies, of course.
Stumbling across Pa and Ma's house in the middle of the woods they think they're in luck, but alas the creepy couple have no electricity, never mind a telephone, though they do say a boat is on its way in the next couple of days. In truth, the potential victims other than the unfortunate Cynthia don't present a very good account of themselves, as if the filmmakers were goading them into falling prey to the elderly nutters and their three "children" (if they are related at all), so before long one chap has been put into a swing which is sent over a cliff in a ludicrous death scene, and to continue the twisted childhood theme another is strangled with a skipping rope, and so forth. The grown-up children are played by the familiar faces of Michael J. Pollard (well cast) and William Hootkins, joined by Janet Wright, not as recognisable but almost stealing the movie as the pink dress wearing, mummified baby cradling Fanny, a memorable grotesque. If only the rest of it had more courage of its convictions, its liberals versus conservatives theme largely unexplored. Music by Alan Parker.