Monday, June 28, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Eh-Merica

Year: 1983
Director: Don McBrearty
Cast: Lawrence Day, Lora Staley, Neil Dainard
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

American Nightmare might just be the most Canadian slasher movie ever made, and that includes the title that cravenly wants you to think it's from the U.S. In front of and behind the camera is a coterie of Canadian slasher royalty, including screenwriter John Sheppard (Mark of Cain), producer Paul Lynch (who directed Prom Night and Humongous), composer Paul Zaza (Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, Ghostkeeper, Curtains, and Body Count), and the word "abote." And the director doesn't have other credits in this marathon, but he does in another because somehow, some way he ended up directing a million Hallmark Christmas movies including Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe.

Now it's the accepted party line that Canadian slashers are of a piece a step above their American brethren, so let's kick the tires on that theory with the ne plus ultra of Canadian crews, shall we?

Pour some maple syrup on your popcorn and get to reading.

In American Nightmare, Eric (Lawrence Day) arrives in an unnamed American city (Toronto) to investigate the disappearance of his sister Isabelle (Alexandra Paul). He quickly discovers that she has been mixed up in the seedy underbelly of the city, namely a local strip club. The local detective (Mike Ironside, better known to everyone who isn't the credits designer on this movie as Michael Ironside, also of Visiting Hours and Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) isn't super invested, so Eric enlists the help of stripper with a heart of gold Louise (Lora Staley).

All the while, a killer wearing an evil beret and a pair of clear gloves is stalking people involved in the club, including dancers Tina (Lenore Zann of Happy Birthday to Me, Visiting Hours, and Murder by Phone) and Andrea (Claudia Udy of Edge of Sanity and Skullduggery), as well as transvestite Dolly (Larry Aubrey). Oh, and also Eric's father Hamilton Blake (Tom Harvey) owns a TV station with his business partner Tony (Neil Dainard of The Incubus) that is putting on a huge New Year's Day telethon for UniSave, which is something something underprivileged children. Suspects include Tina's boyfriend Mark (Page Fletcher of Humongous), and literally any other man onscreen for any amount of time.

Men! What would we do without them?

There are two types of exploitation slasher movies. There is the kind where everyone is in on the joke and ready to have fun embracing the over-the-top ridiculousness of it (usually teenybopper sex romps full of boobs and bloody murder ie. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), and then there is the kind where everything is just grimy and sleazy and makes you want to take a shower afterward (anything focused on horrible rape, sweat dripping down a maniacal man's face, etc., ie. Don't Answer the Phone). It's all a matter of tone.

American Nightmare is somewhere in the middle. It doesn't have the finesse of Visiting Hours to position itself as a commentary on the misogyny of its killer, or the benefit of having a female director like the later (but similar) Stripped to Kill. But it has its merits in its own idiosyncratic, lopsided way. In the negative column, the kills are more brutally functional than creative (lots of slits throats and angry choking), and are thus pretty rough to watch. It's easier to watch annoying upper middle class teenagers get bumped off than sex workers who deserve better. Don't ask me why. Slasher viewer ethics are a gray area at all times.

But, on the plus side, American Nightmare takes the Stripped to Kill approach of including burlesque sequences that are of course meant to titillate, but also have an explicit interest of showing off a variety of talented women expressing themselves. And the characterization of the women is deeper than one might expect from the slasher genre. Hell, just a few entries ago, we reviewed Boardinghouse, where every female character was like the Phoebe Cates pool scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High had a baby with a wooden block.

There is a great deal of empathy in the portrayals here, especially Louise, who genuinely likes her job even though in some respects she is trapped in it (note the freedom she feels while performing topless vs. the torment and horror when she attends a TV audition and is forced to take off her clothes - powerfully performed by Staley). This movie posits that sex workers are real people with real feelings who deserve respect, even as it brutally punishes them with violent death. In a way, the movie is doing its job. It makes you care for its characters (including Dolly, who would probably have identified as transgender in a modern milieu, and is given an unusual depth of emotion for 1982) and thus infuses the murder scenes with extremely high stakes. 

Maybe it's harder for the slasher genre to express both sides of the body count coin when it's dealing with typically oppressed people, because - intentional or not - the themes of these movies do tend to politically align the audience in some way with the killer's actions. Note how the killer only targets women and queer people, not the straight white pimp who is actually responsible for the crime he wants revenge against.

Honestly I don't have an answer here. Let me move on before this becomes a full-on thesis.

There's a great deal of good or at least above average in American Nightmare. It's frequently well lit and occasionally throws in a pretty shot or two for good measure. And it's part of a time honored slasher tradition of being a secret Christmas movie (the impending telethon is on New Year's Day after all, and there are some threadbare Christmas trees tucked into corners). Plus Lenore Zann is intensely compelling with her huge, glistening doe eyes.

Honestly, the only weak spots in the acting are Day and Harvey as father and son. Their climactic confrontation is frankly baffling to witness. One flatly intones accusations while the other mutters lines under his breath that should have been shouted. It's all very high school one act festival. But really the only thing holding me back from giving this a full-fledged 7/10 is the extremely complicated feelings that led me to philosophize for objectively too many paragraphs earlier. All in all, not a bad start for my first real attempt at tackling 1983!

Killer: Tony Shaw (Neil Dainard)
Final Girl: Louise (Lora Staley)
Best Kill: I can't say I really liked any of these kills, but Dolly's murder, where they are lifted off the ground by the killer's sheer strength is pretty impactful.
Sign of the Times: There's a loooooot of business with VHS tapes going on.
Scariest Moment: The killer puts on vinyl gloves right after washing his hands, which I can tell you from experience over a year of quarantine is a recipe for disaster.
Weirdest Moment: Eric sits down to a movie marathon of his sister's sex tapes (to discover the identity of the killer, but still).
Champion Dialogue: "Things are really bumming out for me."
Body Count: 6

  1. Isabelle has her throat slashed with a straight razor.
  2. Andrea is drowned in the bathtub.
  3. Dolly is stabbed in the gut.
  4. Tina has her throat slit.
  5. Hamilton Blake shoots himself.
  6. Tony Shaw is pushed off a roof.

TL;DR: American Nightmare is grossly exploitative, but also has a surprisingly deep approach to character that redeems it somewhat.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1258


  1. "a killer wearing an evil beret and a pair of clear gloves is stalking people involved in the club"

    Yet no one is killed by baguette.

    I can see what you mean about the tonal difference; I might posit that there's a distinction, probably not usually that consciously-made, between "horror" and "the way it is" in movies about serial killers, so on one hand, it's fun to have fun with a bunch of suburbanites (or, to keep it Canadian, even mine workers!) getting menaced by colorful supervillains, and movies that go out of their way to plumb urban decay in the 70s and early 80s let alone focus on vulnerable populations therein. It's a lot less easy to enjoy a story about a serial killer that takes place amongst people that would be the likeliest serial killer target than it is, say, the personnel of an apparently-abandoned hospital get picked off by a giant because his sister is their only patient. In turn, just to justify itself, that kind of movie requires some higher floor of quality, and maybe some artistic purpose beyond wallowing in grit and grime and realistic murder, and of course most slashers are micro-budget programmers, not Seven or Zodiac. That doesn't mean that something like, say, Maniac isn't art, just that it's never going to be a movie I value over, say, Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3. (For another example: there's a vampire movie out right now that sounds from reviews like it's only distinguishable from a movie about a redneck family who enables their brother's serial killing because the brother drinks blood, and I don't really understand the impulse to take the fantasy gloss off of such things, even if I know it can, theoretically, be done well.)

    Good to see Census Bloodbath return, though!

    1. You make a good point. I think I was limiting myself to a very narrow window of "slasher that doesn't have any real artistic ambitions." You're right, there is a lot of very good horror that appropriately handles tough subjects like that. The kind of movie you only watch once, but still.

      And thank you! I'm happy to be back! Work + pandemic really drained me of doing anything at home other than clean and make food and watch sitcoms, but I quit my terrible job and now I can resurrect the slashers!