The cast of characters reads like a Who’s Who of the modern horror film: Romero. Carpenter. Savini. Cronenberg. Craven. Hooper. Even — a stretch here — Landis. These horror mavens, together with a diverse collection of film scholars and historians, all appear throughout the provocative documentary “The American Nightmare,” frankly discussing the social backgrounds against which they made their films and arguing that the films were, at least in part, metaphors for the societal conflicts of their time.
Romero, for instance, convincingly describes how the gritty, black and white “Night of the Living Dead,” which at times plays like a newsreel, is a neat metaphor for the Civil Rights movement in the South. Savini relates how he assimilated the real life horrors he witnessed during the Vietnam War and extrapolated many of his more gruesome effects from them as a way of working out what he saw. Cronenberg and Carpenter tag team the sexual revolution; Cronenberg’s “Shivers” (1975) about an orgy-inducing sexual parasite representing the beginning of the revolution and Carpenter’s “Halloween,” in which the killer targeted promiscuous kids, symbolically bringing it to a close.
It’s a clever thesis, not to mention a good way to rationalize showing lots of lowbrow blood, guts, and nudity on the Independent Film Channel. Some of these folks, filmmakers as well as scholars, seem to be indulging in a little over-intellectualizing; retro-fitting hoity-toity arguments to crude films most viewers would dismiss as schlock cinema. (The gas crisis an underlying theme in Tobe Hooper’s “Chainsaw Massacre”?) Yet, director Adam Simon does an excellent job backing up the filmmakers’ and scholars’ arguments with the appropriate film clips, then juxtaposing all of that with contemporary real life images for context; riveting episodes of our nation’s recent past that are far more horrific than the filmmakers ever imagined.
Scholarly dissertations or not, these surprisingly affecting and convincing justifications of on-screen violence are not going to make the self-designated moral crusaders we have running for president happy at all. (And Tipper will be positively apoplectic, which should make us all VERY happy.) A mere handful of weeks after these hypocritical, cash-grubbing and/or pro-concealed weapons candidates indulged themselves in their quadrennial skewering of Hollywood for churning out violent programming aimed at kids, the IFC is going to air “The American Nightmare.” Oh, the exquisite irony of the timing!
These filmmakers, you see, generally agreed that they targeted these gruesome and shockingly violent films precisely at the nation’s politically potent youth; usually to give them a subversive wake up call to the violence in the world at the time or simply to make a political statement. “Last House on the Left” may not be as socially redeeming as “Saving Private Ryan.” But viewed in that context, it’s actually a lot less offensive than such pabulum as “Survivor” and “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” But it’s not nearly as scary.