American Nightmare 1981
Directed by: Don McBrearty
Starring: Michael Ironside, Lawrence Day, Lora Stanley
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
This is the earlier of two slasher movies in circulation that have the title American Nightmare. The more recent one was unleashed amongst the mass of Scream imitators and disappeared fairly quickly, whilst this entry from the golden years looks to have suffered a similar fate. With a score from Paul Zaza and a cast that included (then) up and coming talents like Michael Ironside, Lora Stanley and Lenore Zann it came as a surprise to me that it didn’t grab any of the buzz that served its compatriots like My Bloody Valentine and Terror Train so well.
The son of a wealthy local businessman returns to his hometown after receiving a letter from his younger sister that begs for help. Upon arrival, he learns that his sibling has disappeared (brutally murdered in the pre-credits) and asks a stripper to help to locate her. Unbeknownst to them, her murder was the first at the hands of a vicious psychopath that is butchering local hookers.
I have been collecting slasher movies for longer than I care to remember and as the list on a Slash above shows clearly, I’ve worked hard to uncover a share of the hidden ‘gems’. I didn’t know that this even existed until fairly recently and I was quite surprised that I’d never come across it before. American Nightmare is a misleading title in more ways than one, because the film was actually a Canadian production that was shot in Toronto and it plays like a European Giallo. It has very little in common with Slashers from the US and this is most obvious in the disguise for the killer and characterisation of the key players. We do have a final girl, but she’s no Laurie Strode. In fact, she’s a stripper, which is an unusual touch for a film of this style.
Another way that it feels more closely aligned to its European counterparts is in its excessive use of sexual psychology as a backbone for the story. The victims are all degenerates of the kinky variety and the motive is one that you’re more likely to find from the films of Southern Europe. McBrearty tries hard to develop a sustainably sleazy tone, but he goes about it the wrong way and the runtime instead becomes needlessly repetitive and in all truth, slightly tedious.
The majority of the female victims are killed whilst in a state of undress and in between there are a lot of scenes that take place at a seedy strip bar. Whilst it makes sense to use this location in order to develop the atmosphere, the director includes long sequences from nude dancers as a form of padding. Now padding, much like ice in a vodka and coke, is something that looks like, feels like and smells like what it is – unnecessary. It doesn’t help that these parts are flatly directed and dull, and whilst I appreciate that bare skin is part of the exploitation package, the choreography was mind-numbing and the girls were not the hottest. At first, I wanted to acknowledge the realism, because let’s face it; bottom-dollar prostitutes are not going to be as beautiful as roses. Needless to say, if you are going to pack your feature with overlong set pieces of chicks whipping off their kit, it may be an idea to at least make them worth watching.
It was also a struggle to relate to the story as neither of the key players shine in any way at all. Staley is fine as the heroine, but she is given very little that makes us want to bond with her, whilst Lawrence Day is colourless and weak in the lead. The majority of the picture is shot with the creativity of a soap opera and lacks any va-va-voom, so the pace remains stagnant for extended periods. This changes drastically when the shadowed psycho gets to work and the killings are surprisingly well executed and mix an unnerving level of brutality with a superb, but sadly underused score from Paul Zaza. One of the later murders is almost unwatchable due to the visible suffering of the victim and at times it almost feels like these parts are too good to be have been shot by the same guy that has bored us rigid during the development of the characters and the mystery.
I didn’t manage to work out the identity of the maniac, but this is one of those films where I did think it may well be her, but then I kept changing my mind as the plot unravelled. I am not sure if this can really be credited as great screenwriting though, as it was hardly a shock once the big unmasking scene came around. I remained eager to see who the sadistic slayer was though and I guess that’s what matters most.
What American Nightmare does brilliantly is give depth and a face to a horror film cliché. Think about titles like Maniac, The Burning, Close your eyes and prey and, well, I could go on but the list is endless. Prostitutes in these films are always introduced as lowlifes that can be killed without anyone batting an eyelid, whereas here we are given more of a look into their lifestyles. Some, (but not all surprisingly), want to leave the game behind and they work the streets out of desperation, which makes a refreshing change from the norm. Our hero even gets a scene where he realises his error in pre-judgement and I liked this concept very much.
To be honest though I’m not quite sure what to rate this one. It has some really unique, sharp and brilliant moments, but struggles with the basics a bit too often to be a classic. I think it could be so much better if it were twenty minutes shorter, but at just shy of an hour and a half, it’s hardly Dances with Wolves. It’s a shame, because there’s stuff here that is worthy of Argento, but it’s the little bits, you know, those that aren’t so much fun to film, where we lose that momentum and focus. I’m reminded of my review of Grim Weekend, where I mentioned that the trailer had me fooled into believing that I was in for a good time. It feels here like McBrearty was only interested in the parts that were setup to convey horror and although he does well to build suspense and trepidation at the hardest of times, he strolls through the rest of the movie in first gear like it doesn’t matter.
If you haven’t seen American Nightmare then you should track it down. I get disappointed when something comes within smelling distance of greatness, but throws it all away in the midriff. With better lighting and pacing, it could have given Curtains a run for its money. As it stands, it sits alongside Evil Judgement as an obscure Canadian picture that hits the right switches, but only on the odd occasion