While it may or may not be “the best documentary of its kind in years,” Nightmares in Red, White and Blue is certainly the most comprehensive. Covering almost one hundred years of American horror film history, Nightmares is not a film you watch so much as absorb. It deserves its own study guide, and that’s exactly what I found on the film’s official website. God I love living in the future, don’t you?
It not even a film, really. More the backbone of a college course…or a whole wing of some major university department. Plus it’s got Lance Henriksen as Our Humble Narrator and if ever there was a man chosen by prophecy to narrate this kind of stuff, it’s Frank Black. “Yea, verily, one will be born among them with a face like an Arizona relief-map and the voice of gravel under foot. And he shall narrate horror film documentaries, because that’s certainly better than slumming in a wasteland of straight-to-DVD indie-horror…”
So the “best documentary of it’s kind in years” begins with Frank Black reading our liturgy:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The film sticks with this act the whole way through, paying gratuitous lip service to the kind of warm, fuzzy feelings those words are meant to stir up in we Nortes. The “American” in the title obviously refers to the United States, despite the fact that Canada’s favorite son, David Cronenberg, arguably laid a heavier hand on the modern Horror landscape than anyone on my side of the 49th parallel. I’m not about to nitpick the nationalistic myopia of a film called Nightmares in Red, White and Blue…which, now that I think about it, could also work as the title for a whole series, exploring the history of Russian, French, Cambodian, Cuban, and even North Korean horror movies…someone get whoever owns the History Channel in on this. I know I’m not the only one who’s sick to death of seeing Hitler.
But I’m stuck with this and documentaries are the second-hardest thing the world for me to review (the hardest being films I love – reviews I’m almost never happy with – the way I’d never be happy with this sentence if it ended on a preposition). Their lack of a classical “plot” means I have to fall back on summarizing even more than usual. Except in cases like this, since a plot summary of Nightmares would be little more than a condensed, cliff-notes version of American Horror Film history. Which describes Nightmares a lot better than those shills at Fangoria (who provided the “Best Documentary Evah!” quote I’ve been and will continue to harp on).
After the pre-credit teaser, Bride of Re-animator producer Brian Yuzna reminds us of Lon Cheney Senior’s preeminent place as a pioneering genre actor. We know him for his more elaborate monsters, but Yuzna reminds us Cheney cut his teeth portraying that other great and most-silent scourge of 1920s America – those carrying the wounds of World War I. A parallel’s draw between the success of Cheney’s bigger pictures (like The Unknown, Laugh, Clown, Laugh, and 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera) and the simultaneous dual power of monsters to both attract and repel American audiences.
Then Lance reminds us of FDR’s dictum: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Thankfully, German Expressionists had other ideas, like the two Roger Corman calls by name: Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. So the Vampire and the Mad Scientist passed through Ellis Island along with millions of other refugees from Eastern Europe and its wars. Anonymous and unnoticed, they entered the public consciousness as the Great Depression worsened. Everyone knows it started in 1929, but few realize how absolutely shitty were the years 1931-1935. The only decent thing to come out of that lost half-decade were the old Universal Studios monster movies.
John Carpenter cuts in here to talk about the two kinds of stories we like to tell ourselves about Evil. Either “Evil is in The Other,” that tribe on the other side of the hill, or “Evil is in Us” and we’re all fucked. Carpenter calls the later a harder story to tell (which explains why he’s made the former so many times over the years) but Universal’s Monster pictures (Frankenstein, Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, etc.,) make a better lie out of that than paragraphs of cogent analysis. This was around the time when Hollywood’s first major industry censor board, the Hayes Production Code, decreed that movie monsters had to die at the end of every picture, without fail. Far from teaching Americans a moral lesson (that Evil Will Always Be Punished), this decree would ensure all monster movies would – from a certain point of view – become tragedies, generating more sympathy for more movie monsters than anything this side of Boris Karloff’s face.
The film dances around the full implications of this. If it didn’t, I’d have nothing to bitch about, so I don’t mind. Still, it’s sad to see someone ignoring obvious conclusions, even when they’re staring them right in the fucking face.
The 40s were an almost-universally awful time for everyone, and American horror fans suffered through a plague of sequels, crossovers, and what we nowadays call “franchise reboots.” Disney entered its Golden Age around here and Joe Dante makes a good point: “the scares are always a huge part of what was appealing to Disney movies.” Lower down on the marquee, Val Lewton’s RKO Cat People movies helped create the “B-movie” formula, both to cut costs and, as Our Humble Narrator explains, “Lewton believed that in darkness, audiences would imagine their own worst fears.” It’s all about repression, you see? Becoming the animal we keep locked behind our bland, everyday faces. As Uncle Charlie puts it in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt “If you rip the fronts off of houses, you’d find swine.” And in the land of the “free” all swine are created equal.
These aesthetic and cultural threads aligned with the new fears of a post-war age: the Atomic age. Corman cuts in to remind us of The Day the World Ended, a classic of the Post-Apocalypso sub-genre with an equally-classic assumptive question for a tag line: “Will Science unleash the fearsome forces of lost worlds?”
Well, we all know the answer to that. And thanks to this documentary’s production date, we get to hear about it from the men themselves. My favorite bit beings here: a concise overview of the American daikaiju picture. Carpenter calls out the Big Two (Them! and Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) by name while Joe Dante tells some funny stories. Them! kept him awake at night because the Giant Ants sounded far too much like the crickets in his backyard. And Tarantula
(“Even Science was stunned! The new Atomic Miracle should’ve been mankind’s greatest boon! Instead, when such power to cause phenomenal growth proved dangerously unstable, man was confronted with his most shocking blunder!”)
was so damn scary it drove little Joe out of the theater. He abandoned his father to endure the bland Them! rip-off all by himself. “I don’t think he ever forgave me.” Classic stuff. I wish my dad were here. He’d have some choice things to say about the history this film omits.
Apart from daikaiju, Alien Invasions also plagued America (and the world, but forget that for moment) throughout this period. “The Thing was the first movie to really press my buttons,” George Romero says, one of the many, many things he and my father have in common. “If you watch that movie and really analyze it, they’re always opening doors.” There follows a minute-long montage of The Thing‘s characters opening and closing doors…or ordering people to bolt them. “Sooner or later,” Romero adds, “of course, you know The Thing is gonna be there and…goddamn.” My dead father’s sentiments exactly.
This is something younger fans might not get: that the expectation of Horrors To Come can actually leave a deeper impression than any Horror you present on screen. We see that in The Thing, and the fact that film’s a lot scarier before we get a good look at James Arness and his Space Leotard. We see it again in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is all about that great creeping dread in U.S. society: the pressure to Conform, Submit, and Stay Asleep.
Corman’s Poe pictures provided us a transition to the ’60s. Like most decades, that one’s aesthetic themes started off strong, decayed as sequels and rip-offs piled up, and fell out of fashion once seven or eight years worked to make everyone sick of them. So reaction against the Gothic castles, foggy moors, and English-accented retreads of Universal’s monster icons, drove audience the toward Eurotrash and exploitation pictures which powered the rise of Grindhouse.
Carpenter: “As the culture changed from the 60s into the 70s everything got harder. There’s more sex, then there’s more violence. it was a lot of excessive stuff going on.” The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left. As author and fellow-critic John Kenneth Muir points out, “Those are films that actually discuss violence in a meaningful way. In our culture we have made violence acceptable. That when we’re attack, we attack. That violence can be okay under certain conditions…What these horror films do is they rip that decorum off killing. They show you the naked ugliness of violence.”
And in so doing they birthed the Slasher sub-genre of the 80s, a tragic tale of good ideas gone wrong that I’ve chronicled (at considerable length) in my reviews of the Halloween and Friday the 13th series. Those two Big Names get their due, as does Alien, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws and The Amityville Horror…and that other influential name in 1970s horror, Stephen King.
Friday the 13th Part VI writer/direct Tom McLoughlin offers the best analysis of King’s appeal I’ve ever heard: “He obviously saw the same Twilight Zones we all saw, the same Outer Limits, Corman movies, all that same stuff. He loved that stuff. But because of his writing talent,” King makes his bank “filling his novels with the thoughts of these characters.” Which explains why so many “Stephen King movies” suck. Even the best of them lack his essential, central hook, which has nothing to do with monsters and everything to do with placing his audience in the position of a mid-century horror movie protagonist.
Instead, “old fashioned” revivalist pictures became a force to be reckoned with…for about five minutes. Like The Howling. Which features a shot of The Wolf Man we just saw forty minutes ago. This could’ve been a theme all on its own: the American horror film’s queer habit of doubling back on itself every generation (or so), re-purposing old tools for new eyes. For what is modern Torture Porn if not Grindhouse 2.0? What about all those “Authors Name: Apostrophy S: Title of Work” remakes that were…well, not popular, there were only like two…but big, high class names like Coppola and Branagh directed them. Where are they in all this?
To an extent, the American horror film’s tendency to eat its dead becomes our focus as we trawl through the 90s and fetch up on the oily shores of the twenty-first century. The present generations relive the horrors of the past through monsters drawn from “classic” cinema. Whether “classic” means “from the 30s” or “from the 70s” is immaterial. Throughout it all the American Nightmare has remained constant: a Jungian Shadow of that dream Karl Bishop Weyland spoke of over the Ellis Island stock footage. The outsider, looking in, seeking liberty and happiness, no matter what sick, psychotic game makes him happy. That’s the real irony of Hostel: it takes place in another country. We’re the land of Commodification! Don’t you read the subliminal advertisements? We should be the ones coming up with the torture porn palace and luring rich businessmen and -women from all over the world with its top of line accommodations (an oversight the series corrected in 2011 with the straight-to-home video Hostel: Part III).
Predators in human guise, simultaneously repulsive and alluring, the American Nightmare pervades the psyche, feeding off it even as it feeds our vicarious needs to slough off the mask of normalcy. You don’t have to believe that. But, as with Candyman, just beware. And smash every mirror in your house.
On the whole, Nightmares is a gigantic trip down Nostalgia Avenue. Since traveling down that road is an American pastime in itself I can easily see how it could please the boys at Fangoria. But they’re big softies. There’s holes in this roadshow big enough for a giant ant to punch through. Where’s Sean Cunningham? Where’s Wes Craven? The Cronenberg thing (he gets a shout-out at the beginning, but once we get to the 80s? No go) is really just a personal bitch I’m pitching, but where the hell were those two? (A: Running their pet franchises into the ground.) Where’s are all the archival interviews with James Whale, Vincent Price, or anyone else from that side of the 60s? That can’t all be lost…though they probably are caught up in rights negotiations.
Considering what he has to work with and despite having the name of a Republic Serial protagonist, director/editor Andrew Monument has managed to impress. This is polished, professional piece of work, well-paced in spite of its comprehensive approach.
In fact, it’s very comprehensiveness is Nightmares‘ ultimate downfall. It has too much ground to cover. This is not the subject of a two hour talking-head presentation. At the very least, the American Horror Film deserves no less than a fourteen-hour Ken Burns’ tongue bath, complete with mawkish music and gratuitous use of the slow zoom-in on pieces of portentous still photography. Hell, I’ve seen documentarians spend more time examining the nose hairs of German generals at Normandy than they’ll ever spend watching horror films. Of any nationality.
Aiming for “broad” Nightmares hits “shallow” in the lung as it valiantly shields “broad” from the incoming round. It’s a well-done, shinny kind of shallow, but “the best documentary of its kind in years”? Puh-leeze. Name the last one that tried to cover this much in so short a time frame? Even the bullshit pseudo-docs on DVD extras know their limits. Ignorant of them, Nightmares winds up feeling like a clip show, a reminder of all the films you could be watching right now. Most of which are substantially better as films.
But here’s where I have to take a step back and remind myself I’m a freak. There are people out there who haven’t grown up watching this stuff. They haven’t heard George Romero tell the “how I came up with Night of the Living Dead” story a bazillion times. They don’t know Slashers came to us out of Italy. They only know Peter Cushing from the Death Star’s bridge. Or maybe they know Karloff, Lagosi, and Lon Cheneys but think The Dead Zone is about zombies. Whatever the case, they are this film’s necessary audience.
Monument’s done a good thing here, synthesizing the received wisdom of at least three generations of horror film nerds into one, easily-portable unit. Problem is it’s wisdom horror film nerds (for the most part) imbibe with their mother’s milk. The Internet’s only made that easier. I’ve learned more about more films in the last ten years than I did the previous twenty, and for good reason: my cybernetic kinship network. But I’m lucky enough to have found smart, funny, talent people online. And so are budding horror fans everywhere…if they’re smart enough to navigate the series of tubes. Now they have a starting point to explored their favorite films in a historical context, something we always encourage.
So while it may not be “the best” it’s still alright for what it is…but not what it attempts to be. It’s far too rushed and a little too myopic…but even that fits. After all, what could be more American than that? Buy it to encourage independent documentary filmmaking. Or buy it to pass out to your friends. Buy it for your own quick reference if you really want to…but dedicated horror fans should look over all the films I’ve name-dropped in this review. Are there any holes in your library? I know there are some serious holes on this site. I’ll be working overtime to fill some of them up over the next few months. I suggest you do the same. We can compare notes. It’ll be fun. And educational.
8 thoughts on “Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film (2009)”
No Cronenberg? Boo!
He ain’t Amerikan. *shrug* Simple as that. Whaddya expect? At least the film’s truthful. And to be fair, Cronenberg does get a two-second visual name-check in the opening montage. Unfortunately, his scene comes from a clip of Jason X.
It should have been from Clive Barker’s Nightbreed.
Have you seen that one? Cronenberg is amazing in it.
Sadly, I never even made it all the way through Barker’s novella. Sadder still, Barker receives just about the same one-shot acknowledgment from this film. The more omissions I think up, the more this whole “a century’s worth in just over two hours” concept starts to look like a fool’s errand. You could draw (and other people have drawn) two hours of material out of the 1980s alone and still not even scratch the surface of “American” horror film.
I’ll push Nightbreed up the charts, though, considering I haven’t exactly paid due homage to Barker’s work myself, either.
In many ways, Nightbreed is kinda like the anti-Avatar.
Did they mention It Came From Outer Space? You know, the one where the ship lands in the backyard, seen only by the small child whose bed is under the window and the next morning everyone in town begins to change. His parents, too. And no one else notices. That one like the Thing brought home the idea that the fear before the explanation is the worst. Had to move my bed. Couldn’t sleep for weeks. MY mom loved horror films and made sure we saw them all. Wonder if there’s a gene for that?
No, they did not, even though I think you were thinking of Invaders from Mars…which is an easy mistake to make. Both are alien invasion movies that came out in 1953, aping The Thing‘s success. Both start off with crashed starships that are only observed by a single person. Both starships attract residents of the local town to them, and send the residents back…changed…in various ways. There was a lot of that going around in the 1950s. Why do you think aliens were so keen to throw giant monsters at us during the 1960s? All their (relatively) low key invasion plans had already failed.