Retro-review: Newly available as part of the American Horror Project Vol.2 on Blu-ray from Arrow Films & MVD Visual!

DARK AUGUST (1976)

aka THE HANT
Directed by Martin Goldman
Written by Martin Goldman, JJ Barry, Carolyne Barry
Starring J.J. Barry, Carolyne Barry, Kim Hunter, Kate McKeown, Frank Bongiorno, William Robertson, Richard Allan Fay, Kenneth W. Libby, Karen Lewis-Attenborough

DARK AUGUST is an interesting trip through a grief-stricken mind, haunted by sins of the past and unable to move on with one’s life. It is a film that involves magic, folksy horror, and spiritualism, but at its heart it deals with some very real and dank human feelings.

JJ Barry plays Sal Devito, a man of the city who recently moved to the country to start a new life with his girlfriend Jackie (Carolyne Barry). Upon arriving in the small Vermont town, Sal accidentally hits a young child with his car. This leaves Sal beside himself with grief. William Robertson plays the silent and creepy grandfather of the little girl who stalks Sal and watches him from the shadows, plotting revenge. But it seems killing the child has already let loose a curse upon Sal who suffers from seizures, nightmares, paranoia, and visions of a hooded specter that looks like the grim reaper. At the end of his rope, Sal decides to go to a medium (played by A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’s Kim Hunter) in hopes to lift the curse and begin a normal life.

I don’t know if I can recommend DARK AUGUST as it is a mild horror offering with very few thrills and scares. Instead, it focuses on really getting under the skin of its lead character in Sal Devito. The film succeeds in doing this, but the problem is that Barry really doesn’t have the presence and skill to pull off some of the complex nuances this performance requires. Barry feels like he should be playing a construction foreman or a pizza guy in Brooklyn. He’s got this tough guy talk, walk, and dress that just doesn’t fit the sensitive guy vibe he’s trying to pull off. Because of that, this movie that is built around this performance is less convincing than I think it could have been with a more talented actor.

The music in this film at times feels out of place. It’s intense and in your face, but the fact that it is highly electronic and louder than the rest of the film really doesn’t fit the countryside environment the story is placed into. Still, fans of John Carpenter’s synth scores will see a lot of similarities in DARK AUGUST.

There are quite a few intense scenes such as a scene where Sal confronts the grandfather in the town square and ends up getting into a fight. There’s also a scene where grandfather attacks Jackie that will get under your skin. Director Martin Goldman takes advantage of the heavily wooded areas and vast and somewhat barren landscape of Vermont’s countryside and succeeds in giving the whole film a creepy vibe. The non-ending feels like the filmmakers were trying to make a nihilistic point about guilt never really going away, but even so, it fell flat for me. I think the decision to play down the mystical side of things and lean heavily on the performances of the amateur actors hurts the film in the long run. It might have been budget or the filmmakers desire to lean more on drama than straight up scares, but whatever it is, DARK AUGUST works much more as a dark drama than out and out horror, so go seek this one out looking for thrills and chills.