There's no better B-actress on the scene than Debbie Rochon. She also wears her scarlet "B" with a great deal of pride. In fact, she's a devoted fan of fringe cinema and a gifted writer who once had a regular genre column and co-authored the B-Movie Survival Guide. Debbie left Vancouver before her 18th birthday to study acting in New York, where she appeared in many off-Broadway productions, but truly blossomed as a genre actress in the early '90s. What's most striking about Ms. Rochon is her chameleon-like versatility which allows her to slip effortlessly from one well-formed character to another -- a tattoo'd, pierced gothic lesbian in Tromeo and Juliet, a sex-crazed B-starlet in Terror Firmer, a no-nonsense movie censor in Erotic Survivor and a boogie-woogie chimpanzee in Play-Mate of the Apes. OK, so maybe that last one was a stretch, but Debbie eclipses them all as serial killer Jane Toppan in American Nightmare (2000, 91 minutes). Her performance is so raw, so crazed that the shear force of it makes this, well, NIGHTMARE of a flick worth enduring.
The movie: An oily FM reject has himself a "pirate" radio show called "American Nightmare" (a.k.a. the lamest horror conceit of recent memory) where folks phone him up and gab about their deepest fears. Perfect Halloween programming for a group of friends lounging around a totally believable coffee shop (with set decoration by the same folks who do religious "Say No to Nookie" videos). They goad each other into humoring "Caligari" (Chris Ryan) by taking turns being the ninth caller. Get used to this yahoo and his love affair with the microphone, because his show is the thread that strings this whole mess together, as Jane overhears and makes good on her victims' curiously theatrical fears. She derives the most pleasure from tormenting Doug and Wendy Whiner (Brandy Little and Johnny Sneed) who don't die NEAR soon enough. She's a babysitter who squeaks and sobs every other moment because it's the anniversary of her sister's murder. He's a computer geek who doesn't have the gumption to mount her hard drive. So in between killing off their friends by burying them alive, or hacking off their Mr. Happy mid-diddle, she plays hide and seek with the crybaby, has phone sex with Caligari and sends the joystick jockey to ImKillingYourFriends.com. It's horrible. Well, not the deliciously demented kill scenes, or the schizoid weirdness exuded by Ms. Rochon, but everything else reeks. CineSchlockers shouldn't blink when Wendy arrives for her babysitting gig, because B-Queen Brinke Stevens has a cameo as the mom (in wardrobe bound to bring back memories).
Notables: Four breasts. Eight corpses. Phone nookie. Killer cam. Gratuitous goth-rock band. Face painting. "I've been slipped a Mickey" cam. Gratuitous psycho photo and newspaper clipping gallery.
Quotables: Bruce has such a way with words, "Man, I'd tag her so hard her mom would feel it!!!" Time-tested horror dialogue, "What was that?!" and "Be safe!"
Time codes: Time for a nice soapy shower (20:30). Quick! Don't miss Brinke! (24:30). Self-gratification with hunting knife (30:25). Doug and Wendy find love (1:14:25). The entirely groan-worthy ending (1:27:10).
Audio/Video: Presented in a widescreen (1.85:1) print that's almost TOO sharp during those mind-numbing coffee house scenes, but the crisp blues toward the end of the shower scene are as stunning as squeaky-clean actress Rebecca Stacey. Robust Dolby Digital 2.0 track.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes documentary featuring first-time writer/director John Keyes' insights on the development of his story, casting and the hardships of never-ending night shoots. Interviews include most of the supporting cast who also sing Ms. Rochon's praises, but she only appears in clips from the film and on-set footage (25 mins). "Killer in Texas" music video by Ghoultown (4 mins). Static menus without audio. No printed insert or liner notes.
Final thought: Lift Debbie's icy ferocity as Jane Toppan out of the flick and this two-star nod vanishes. Watch her fly this featherless turkey. Recommended.
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G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.