Only a few days ago, I spoke very highly of the oft-neglected 1976 horror masterpiece The Witch Who Came from the Sea. It turns out that there was a film that has achieved the same kind of popular obscurity, and as part of the American Horror Project restoration, we were able to see both of these films. The other film I’m referring to is The Premonition. While the aforementioned The Witch Who Came from the Sea is notable for its low-budget appeal and shocking nature, The Premonition is one of the most extraordinarily complex and fascinatingly profound horror films one could ever experience. The reason I’m mentioning this films together, other than being related via the aforementioned American Horror Project, is because it becomes increasingly clear that along with these two films, and Carrie, Alice Sweet Alice, The Omen and Who Can Kill a Child, 1976 was a notoriously good year for horror films centered around children or the loss of innocence.
The Premonition takes place in Mississippi, where Andrea Fletcher (Ellen Barber) and her boyfriend, Jude (Richard Lynch) are undergoing a very risky project – because of a mental breakdown, Andrea was forced to give up her daughter for adoption. Now having been released from the mental hospital, Andrea goes in search of her daughter in the hopes of getting her back, through force. What she doesn’t understand is that her daughter Janie is under the care of the All-American nuclear family, with pleasant housewife and amateur artist Sheri Bennett (Sharon Farrell) and her husband, physicist Miles (Edward Bell) raising the girl lovingly. When Sheri begins to experience the titular premonition, their entire world is shaken when it comes true, and they have to face the prospect of realizing that the world is populated by some psychotic individuals, two of which enter into their lives in the most horrifying ways. It turns out that the only way to win this fight is through entering into the realm of the paranormal, leaving logic and reason behind.
There is just something so utterly extraordinary about this film – for an obscure horror film, it is unbelievably well-made. The actors in The Premonition also give some very impressive performances, with many notable standouts. The central duo of Andrea and Sheri form an interesting dichotomy – the former a dark-haired, mentally unstable and incredibly sinister gypsy-like figure, the other the blonde, stereotypical “dream girl” who every man wants to marry and settle down with. The Premonition is as much about social differences as it is about the supernatural, but we’ll discuss that a bit later on. I was captivated by the performances from both Barber and Farrell, who commit wholly to their characters, bringing out the full spectrum of possibilities, often veering into the domain of being utterly deranged, while still retaining introspective subtlety that defined their performances as being far more complex and nuanced than one would imagine. I was particularly fond of Barber’s performance as Andrea, as her radical decline into a woman who would go to any lengths to get her child back is simultaneously touching and terrifying. Her demented, wide-eyed portrayal was something to behold and left an indelible impression on my mind.
Yet, how can we not talk about Richard Lynch in this film? The Premonition features Lynch (an actor I have always recognized and enjoyed, but never found him particularly noteworthy or memorable enough) in one of the most impressive horror performances I have ever seen. The fact is that Lynch plays a character that isn’t conventionally terrifying – he isn’t a supernatural being or a wholly malicious character. He is in a way the corrupted version of the American Dream – he is the kid that ran away to join the circus, and never left. His long, greasy blonde hair and deranged charisma frame him as the very definition of the All-American boy gone wrong. I didn’t think I could be so haunted by a performance as I was with Lynch’s Jude. Something about him just terrified me, and the final act of this film shows some incredible acting on the part of Lynch, who spends the first two acts slowly developing a character that is a definitive version of an unconventional horror villain. If there is any reason to seek this film out, it is because of Lynch, who commits to this role and the result is a gloriously exquisite performance that will leave you horrified.
In terms of technical prowess, The Premonition is absolutely astounding. There is something about these obscure horror films that just strikes me as odd – despite being relatively obscure and not heralded as the masterpieces they are, they tend to be extremely well-made. The Premonition features some incredible cinematography, courtesy of Victor Milt, a strangely obscure cinematographer who has done nothing else of note. It is always strange when a film like The Premonition is made by someone who sinks into relative obscurity. As a whole, The Premonition is visually stunning. The juxtaposition between the bright lights of the carnival, along with the dull pleasantness of suburban life is pure genius, and the Mississippi setting gives The Premonition a strangely unique aesthetic that would have made The Premonition a bit too conventional if it were set in a more notable cinematic location.
The Premonition is a great horror film, and it features a terrifying story that makes it great entertainment for horror enthusiastics. However, there was something much deeper going on in this film, something that only dawned on me as this film progressed. Many great horror films have some underlying message, and they don’t come more authentic as in The Premonition. This film is about America as a whole and is primarily something that tackles two major themes – the first being motherhood, and the burden many mothers who are perhaps not mentally capable of bringing a child into the world and raising them. There are two maternal figures in this film, and The Premonition handles the concept of motherhood in a way that is unconventional for a horror film. Both actresses show the inherent terror and dread that comes from losing a child, and despite being on opposite ends of the dichotomy, the shared maternal horror between Sheri and Andrea is palpable, heartbreaking and utterly horrifying.
The other major theme in The Premonition is that of the corrupted American Dream. I’ve mentioned it above, but this film primarily resides on showing both sides of modern America – the quaint, common Norman Rockwell-esque suburban life, where a scientist can be married to a pretty young housewife and live in the suburbs and be utterly happy and content, while just across town, there are poor, lower-class working people struggling to make ends meet. The suburban and the rural are both represented here as being in very close proximity and cause the central conflict in the film – both worlds start to impinge on each other, and one starts to think that if it hadn’t happened that the two worlds would briefly collide, the conflict that exists in this film would not have happened (but it isn’t always the good idea for us movie-watchers to imagine what could have happened – just like how we yell at the ignoramus in most slasher movies to not go into the basement). It seems to me that The Premonition isn’t too concerned with being an outright horror film, but rather a socially-aware horror film that has a message behind it. I am not entirely sure if this is a very effective social film, as it doesn’t offer any resolutions, but the scathing commentary on society does exist there, and while I may be the only person who sees the merit in The Premonition being a film with a social message, it was the reason I was so captivated by this film. It is a shockingly cerebral film that finds its true terror, not in the supernatural elements, but in the psychologically-haunting story that could (and very likely does) happen to people.
The Premonition is a brilliant film. The performances are absolutely astounding, with Richard Lynch giving one of the most expertly exquisite horror performances of the 1970s. As a whole, The Premonition is a true gem. It is a complex, beautifully-made horror film that carries a somewhat heavy social message, while still be a tremendously scary film that has fun with its audience, while still proving to be a nuanced and character-driven film that puts the development of the story above everything else, something many modern horror films are incapable of doing. The Premonition is an extraordinary film that deserves a wider audience, because something as unconventional and deeply meaningful as this deserves to be seen. It is a wonderful film, and proof that horror cinema can be psychologically haunting and socially relevant while still being terrifying.