Documentary Review

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Adam Simon looks at the roots of classic horror films, on the IFC Channel, Friday the 13th.

By Frederick C. Szebin     October 12, 2000

When someone usually puts together a horror movie documentary or appreciation film, you get the prerequisite clips, possibly the filmmaker's comments with actors' recollections, and sometimes a little fan feedback. Filmmaker Adam Simon (writer of the upcoming Bones, currently being directed by Ernest Dickerson for New Line Cinema) decided to take a (pardon) meatier approach to the task of not just remembering but validating key horror films from 1968 to 1979. In doing so, The American Nightmare, premiering exclusively on the Independent Film Channel, Friday 13th at 10:00 PM, utilizes horror film techniques to drive its message home, and in that respect the documentary is quite a fine little horror film of its own.

By placing his focus on only five key horror films of that period, Simon doesn't bother to go the 'making of' route. What Simon has done is to place each film within its social context, viewing them not as entertainment from a previous time but as mirrors of the failing social systems the filmmakers were experiencing. It is, perhaps, the most appropriate choice of all to start with 1968's Night Of The Living Dead, wherein man-as-monster is destroying the very social fabric we all came to rely on. And with daily doses of Viet Nam images on television, says Simon, is it any wonder that George Romero and his friends made that film at that time in history?

The other films under scrutiny are Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Shivers, Last House on the Left and Halloween, each picture analyzed within its historical contexta time when social unrest and unprecedented violence began to maul their way into the American Dream. As unapologizing grotesquery, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left, says The American Nightmare, were inevitable entertainments in a violent era when life and personal well-being had been shunned for the cold calculations of war and mounting violence spilling from the cities into the countryside that used to be pastoral and innocent. Now the Heartland itself harbored the horrors of the day. Where was a safe place in the '70s? Simon seems to ask the question, then tells you the answer: 'There weren't any anymore.' That was the visceral and emotional impact of the era and of these films, and has become an even stronger ideology at the beginning of the 21st Century.

John Carpenter (looking very much like a cadaverous creature himself these days), Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, John Landis (who, as he describes the horrors in the discussed films, smiles with an almost maniacal glee in the retelling), George Romero and Tom Savini are joined by Professors Carol Clover of the University of California at Berkley (author of Men Women and Chainsaws), Tom Gunning of the University of Chicago, and the amusing Adam Lowenstein of the University of Pittsburgh, who first saw Night of the Living Dead at his bar mitzvah! Each director and educator follows Simon's concept of horror film as social mirror, and the discussions move from nostalgic remembrances of first seeing the films, to intellectual commentary of each film's place in the socio-political order, and at no time does it get dull or dry. It's a fascinating proposition that horror mirrors the fear in society rather than causing it for a change.

The American Nightmare begins unnervingly enough with a chilling montage of newsreel footage of human atrocities edited with horror film footage mirroring those atrocities, and if you don't know the films, you honestly can't tell the newsreels from the film clips. Simon follows this idea throughout, showing the brutality of Craven's Last House on the Left with the real horrors from news broadcasts at the time.

Film buff and make up god, Tom Savini remembers his Viet Nam experiences; he loved horror movies, loved scaring people with his work, then once shipped overseas couldn't stop shaking from the very real horrors around him. As a photographer, he learned to detach himself from the very real gore and use his camera as a buffer between himself and the dead around him. He then goes on to tell how those experiences shaped his future work. It is a very telling and personal segment, one of the best in the film.

Another particularly effective sequence is showing one of the Hell's Angels getting his guts ripped out in a zombie orgy feast from Dawn of the Dead, which is intercut with 1970s footage of shoppers and partiers enjoying the consumeristic exesses of that decade. Romero was right, you see. Mindless, voracious, unstoppable; we have met the enemy, and we is them.

The interviewees spend a lot of the time discussing real life horrors, such as their childhood memories of wondering when The Bomb was going to drop, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the Kent State killings. Those were the real inspirations of horror films at the time. Horror movies since 1968 took a much more primal turn, forsaking the gothic trappings. Humans began to realize that the real monsters are within, and any one of us could either become one of the Things, or most likely, be caught in a city full of them. Romero realized this concept in Night of the Living Dead and drove it home in Dawn of the Dead. Others picked up the baton, like Craven, Cronenberg, Hooper and Carpenter.

One of the narratively simplest of the films discussed, Carpenter's Halloween takes the ongoing madness into a home, onto a suburban street, and just leaves you alone to deal with it, because that's the way it was and remains after 1979, more so with children killing each other, bestial humans dragging others to death behind their vehicles, and the media stirring it up for dinner time news as comics lessen the impact by finding laughter in other people's deaths and misery.

Horror movies now are so plain in a way; throughout the '80s they were downright ridiculous. We couldn't have a Night of the Living Dead now, or a Shivers. We prefer to hide, listen for the quotable one-liner, and wonder why they never make them like they used to. Thinking along Adam Simon's theory, maybe we're better off, but probably not. The American nightmare has changed, but is just as prevalent. Adam Simon's documentary points the finger at all of us and says, after 20 years, the view out there just hasn't gotten any better.

THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE debuts on the IFC Channel on Friday, October 13. It launches a film festival that will include several of the films discussed in the documentary.


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