Friday 5 January 2024

USAH (Giorgio Clementelli, 2023)

In just under 80 minutes, Giorgio Clementelli's documentary USAH completes a whistle-stop tour of the Northeastern United States, taking in seven dozen iconic locations which have served as backdrops for numerous American horror stories, be they real or imagined.  As might reasonably be expected, USAH spends much of its brisk running time in the New England states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, but it also expands its reach west to New York—both state and city.  Here, Clementelli's film references the likes of the brutal murders that inspired the Long Island-set The Amityville Horror; Sid Vicious' girlfriend Nancy Spungen's violent, unexplained death at NYC's Chelsea Hotel; Michael Winner's lurid, sloppy yet strangely enjoyable 1977 shocker The Sentinel; and Washington Irving's 1820 short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"—a classic tale in which the title village's Oude Nederlandse Kerk (Old Dutch Church) features prominently.

The jam-packed USAH - Uncommon Stories of American Horror (to give it its full title) casts its net wide to include horrors both cinematic and literary, with the latter category chiefly represented, unsurprisingly, by famous New Englanders H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, who both figure prominently in the film.  As an illustration of how adept USAH is at separating verity from fabrication, it allows us to contrast two real-life medical institutions: the now-demolished Danvers State Hospital—a psychiatric facility that purportedly provided the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep"—and the notorious Letchworth Village, where abuse and neglect were rampant.  Sadly, Lovecraftian terrors are no match for the real-world horrors for which they are analogous, as the unclothed, unwashed and unhappy Letchworth patients would no doubt testify.  Likewise, the film notes how New York City's Dakota building has seen both fictional and true horror, given that it doubled as the apartment block in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby before later becoming the location of resident John Lennon's murder.

As far as the Dakota is concerned, the tragic death of Lennon soon eclipsed the building's murky past as the centre of Polanski's movie, but it isn't always the case that truth wins out over fiction.  In terms of a work that best symbolises horror's slippery relationship with the factual, it is hard to think of a better example than the aforementioned The Amityville Horror: while Ronald DeFeo Jr. was convicted of the murders of his mother, father and four siblings, these appalling true crimes are largely forgotten in the face of a rather silly book and even sillier film, both of which detail the supposed paranormal experiences of the Lutz family, who bought the DeFeo house for a knockdown price a year or so after the murders.  Although The Amityville Horror effectively ignores the terrible story of the DeFeos—whose once-happy Dutch Colonial home has long since been reduced to a trope—Clementelli's film provides a welcome reminder that the real Amityville horror occurred long before the Lutzes entered the picture.   

USAH - Uncommon Stories of American Horror is predominantly focused on the blurring of the lines that occurs between real-life violence and imaginary tales, and although the film features some fine purveyors of the latter—notably Lovecraft, Poe and Irving—it works best when digging into true crime cases.  While the exploits of fictional boogeymen like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees get a passing mention, it's clear that Clementelli has a much greater appetite for examining, say, the trial of Lizzie Borden, who was famously accused of the axe murders of her father and stepmother; in another example of how the truth can be obscured by the most trivial means, Miss Borden's acquittal has been rendered all but meaningless by the playground song, such is the way the mischievous rhyme has cemented itself into popular culture.  Its slightly puzzling title aside—it's debatable whether any of the stories told here can be considered to be uncommon—USAH is a film that covers familiar ground in a fresh, entertaining way.      

Darren Arnold

Images: Polymath PR