The American Nightmare: In the Hands of a Maniac

I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was 7 years old (much to my parent’s chagrin, I had friends with older siblings who took much less care in what I watched that my folks did). When I could sleep without a nightlight again, I watched Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. When nightmares from that subsided, I watched Pet Semetary, which gave me frightful visions of Zelda crawling up my staircase with her twisted back. So I could no longer sleep with the door open (a habit that remains to this day). I started reading Stephen King at 9, with Cujo, then voraciously devoured anything of his I could get my hands on (until I turned 13 and discovered fantasy. Oh yes, I am that big of a geek).

My parents, to their credit, recognized my obsession was not going to abate, and instead tried to steer me towards more age-appropriate horror movies and books. I could rent horror movies that were PG-13 and under. My father, bibliophile that he is, directed me to subtler horror stories, such as Le Fanu’s Carmilla. I certainly accepted such recommendations, but that doesn’t mean I stopped seeking out the more intense fare where I could. My sister had a lot more sense that I did. When Church jumped out of the tree in Pet Semetary, and she leapt 3 feet off the couch, she recognized that the movie would bother her later and left. I always had this feeling of invulnerability while watching horror – it was exhilarating! And I was never that scared while I watched, so why would it bother me later? When the lights are out? And everyone’s in bed and everything is quiet, except for that odd thumping noise I am *certain* I heard coming from the closet…

I enjoy a bad horror movie, but there is nothing in the world of entertainment that thrills me as much as a great horror movie. Except perhaps intelligent and passionate people talking about horror. If you’re with me, IFC’s The American Nightmare (2000) was made for you (us!).

Synopsis: Horror filmmakers and academics explore the emergence of horror trends through the 70s and into the 80s, starting with George A. Romero’s masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (1968).

This was like sitting in on a roundtable with some of the most influential American horror filmmakers of all time: Romero, John Carpenter, Tom Savini, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, John Landis, David Cronenberg – the talent involved is staggering. We learn their motivations and intentions; for example, Romero’s rationale for transforming the zombie from slave-form to hungry-for-brains-form. Or the fact that Night of the Living Dead was filmed in black and white to mimic the news programs of the day, in order to enhance the verite feel. We hear behind-the-camera stories, and not only from the era of focus; as these directors are all enthused horror fans themselves, we get stories from the classics as well. Apparently Boris Karloff received hundreds of cards from children who were sympathetic to Frankenstein’s monster (which gratified him, as that was his intention with his portrayal of the monster). We also get a personal look at how their lives have influenced their work. Tom Savini, in a particularly engaging segment, accounts his time as a soldier in Vietnam and how that impacted his visionary gore effects.

Throughout, the film is interspersed with intense footage of political and social events of the time. The filmmakers and horror academics continually tie what was happening on-screen to what was happening in the streets, such as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. Often the films were drawing much stronger parallels to the sociopolitical climate than they were given credit. The academics also explain the underlying cultural needs satisfied by certain horror myths; for instance, the creation of ghost stories help satiate our desire for immortality. All in all, it is incredibly interesting for any horror fan.

My favourite segment involved John Landis explaining the difference between the suspenseful horror of the 50s and early 60s, and the rawer terror of what emerged in the latter part of the 60s and the 70s. He spoke about how, when watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie, everything you feel is precisely what Hitchcock intended – he is in complete control, and there’s a sort of comfort in that, a sense of security. With films like Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, audiences didn’t know what to expect; the filmmakers were suddenly untrustworthy. Landis described the difference as going from “the hands of a master” to “the hands of a maniac.” What a brilliantly apt description.

MVP: John Landis, who speaks about all film as though he were a 12-year-old boy who had just finished watching each movie. I particularly enjoyed his recollection of the first time he saw Night of the Living Dead.

If you can get your hands on it, it is highly recommended. Until the next,

K

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~ by K. Harker on November 30, 2010.

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