Judge Daryl Loomis wakes in a cold sweat with images of William Jennings Bryan in his head.
Pray you never have one.
For most of the early history of cinema, there was little to say about Canadian filmmaking. But in the 1970s, the Canadian government decided to start promoting their own movies and began offering tax credits to filmmakers to shoot and produce their movies in the country. Quickly, Canadian cinema became a burgeoning industry in both mainstream and cult circles. In 1980, director Paul Lynch threw his hat into the ring with the cult slasher favorite, Prom Night. Based on that film's success, as well as that of gritty, seedy street thrillers like Maniac and Hardcore, he returned to produce the lesser-known, but fairly successful American Nightmare on some of the worst areas Toronto had to offer.
Eric (Lawrence Day) is the son of a powerful businessman whose sister disappeared some time ago. His dad doesn't seem to care too much, but he's desperate to find her and, with only the return address on a letter and the number of an answering service to go on, heads to the big city streets to search. With the help of her roommate (Lora Staley, Risky Business) and a concerned police sergeant (Michael Ironside, Deepwater), he discovers that a serial killer has been targeting prostitutes and, with the revelation that she had turned to the profession, his sister may already have been killed.
American Nightmare, though supposedly taking place in the US, is worth watching for showing a Toronto that no longer exists. The same is true for a lot of movies filmed in New York during the same era, but given Toronto's reputation for cleanliness, it's notable to see such a grimy, slum-filled city. This is a story that exists at the very bottom level of society, with the pimps and the prostitutes, the dealers and the junkies. It's a world of violence, and American Nightmare really pulls no punches. It isn't as gory or as vile as some of its brethren, but it's still pretty nasty and it works.
Director Don McBrearty (Coming out Alive who, oddly enough, would make his career out of Lifetime pictures) hits pretty much all the right notes, with sex and murder thrown around liberally during its ninety minute run time. There are even a few touches of incest, in case viewers didn't already need a shower after watching the film. Additionally, it features potentially my favorite cinematic stripper scenes of all time. Featuring a woman doing a cartwheel into juggling apples while successfully doing the splits while wearing a balloon animal hat next to a Christmas tree, it takes the profession into the realm of art.
This cheap, reasonably effective thriller also features an early performance from Michael Ironside, one of Canada's greatest character actors. His role isn't as big as it would seem given the criminal nature of the film; it's more about the brother and his new romance with the junkie stripper roommate, but he makes the movie a little better every time he appears. The performances, overall, are not particularly great, but the blood effects and tone are perfectly acceptable for the budget. American Nightmare may not knock anyone's socks off with its technical prowess, but this kind of gritty exploitation has its place, and this is a fine example of the genre.
American Nightmare arrives on DVD from Scorpion Releasing's successful "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" series. My review copy was a screener, and the results aren't particularly good, but I expect the retail copy will perform the same. Unfortunately, the image is full frame and a little rough, with an explanation about using the best elements they had available to them. That's fine, I suppose, but it still looks pretty crummy. To its credit, a lot of the dirt has been cleaned from the print, but the colors are washed out and there's little detail at any point. The mono sound is generally noise-free, but there's no dynamic range at all and, often, the dialog is hard to hear. The series is usually better than this, but if this was the best they could do, then so be it.
The features on the disc are not as extensive as Scorpion has done for some releases, but they're reasonable and solid. An audio commentary with producer Paul Lynch, narrated by Waters, delivers a ton of solid information on not just American Nightmare, but on the strange and varied career of the producer. Not only does he talk about the cult status and success of Prom Night, he totally rips the remake, which I find hilarious. An on-camera interview with Lynch continues the disc. It recycles a bunch of the same information, and is skippable, but there are a few extra tidbits about the film. Finally, another audio-only interview with writer John Sheppard finishes out the disc. There is a lot of solid info here, but an audio delay means that Waters and Sheppard are constantly walking over each other's words, making for an awkward twenty minutes.
I wasn't expecting much from American Nightmare, which is probably why it succeeded for me. It's mean, gritty, and violent, which is exactly what they were going for, so it's hard to argue. The terribly predictable plot is too bad, and it doesn't feature nearly enough of Michael Ironside to satisfy this fan of the actor, but the overall tone is effective enough to recommend to fans of this type of exploitation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
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