Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue
is a relatively entertaining documentary by Andrew Monument that efficiently
surveys the history of American horror films via film clips, narration
by Lance Henriksen, and original interviews with film historians and
some of the foremost practitioners of the genre. It is also visually
clunky, and often repeats ideas originally expressed by film historian
David J. Skal in his influential book The Monster Show, even
though neither Skal nor his book are ever cited. This is important,
because many of Skal's ideas have been broadly adopted by other film
historians in the decade-and-a-half since his book was first published,
and are repeated almost verbatim by the ones interviewed for this documentary.
A key concept posited by Skal is the attribution of the oscillating
popularity of the horror genre over the last century to various social
and political problems and changes. This concept has gained traction
among film writers and scholars, and it's troubling to me that Skal
himself is not one of the talking heads in Monument's film, and that
the whole gist of movie rests upon his ideas, sans attribution.
This is not plagiarism, but one would imagine that a film taking its
thesis from a pre-existing source would have drilled down to the origin
of that source.
A chronological survey, Nightmares begins with Lance Henriksen
intoning that the first American horror film was 1912 adaptation of
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a film that did not earn an audience.
Skipping ahead two decades, Nightmares tracks the first significant
stage of American horror development with the rise of the great monster
films produced at Universal Studios in the 1930s: Dracula (1931),
Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), with The
Wolf Man (1941) coming a bit later. In the 1950s, horror blended
with science fiction, as fear of the atomic bomb began to pervade all
aspects of American life. The morass of Vietnam begat a more graphic
horror style that continued into the 1980s and has recently seen a massive
Director Andrew Monument gained access to some fantastic filmmakers
as interview subjects, whose insights are more engaging and grounded
than those of the film historians featured here. The filmmakers include
John Carpenter, Joe Dante, George A. Romero, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman,
and Tom McLaughlin. Their anecdotes about the inspiration they find
in the genre, and their experiences manipulating its conventions, provide
some of the documentary's best material. Carpenter dissects horror as
an identification of the "location of evil." Romero categorizes
his series of zombie pictures as analyses of how people behave when
things go wrong (i.e., fear-based reactions that lead to chaos).
Visually, Nightmares is problematic in two important ways. First
of all, the documentary does not present film clips in their original
aspect ratios. Older 1.37:1 footage is zoomed to fit the documentary's
1.78:1 frame, and widescreen 2.35:1 clips are cropped for the same reason.
This is a distractingly bizarre choice for a documentary about the history
of the movies. It tarnishes its own subject.
The other jarring visual aspect in Nightmares are multiple montages
of the gruesome moments from the history of the genre. At least twice,
we are subjected to extended batteries of vivisection, impaling, gouging,
spurting, and decapitation. These sequences strip the clips of their
original shock/horror value and amount to a blunt-force assault on viewers'
senses and stomachs. They are excessive at the same time that they betray
the footage in its original form.
Nightmares contains some entertainment value, and will certainly
be of interest to genre fans, especially for its filmmaker interview
footage. But the documentary as a whole doesn't have a particularly
compelling point of view. Its reliance on the uncited work of
David Skal and its discomfiting visual choices make it suspect as a
genuine "tribute" to the work of others.
The enhanced 1.78:1 image is okay, but it often shows signs of video
compression. The aforementioned zoomed and cropped clips are even more
distracting. Not a visual masterpiece.
The stereo soundtrack is adequate.
Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue will interest genre buffs,
but ultimately falls short as a fully-realized and well-crafted work
of filmmaking. Rent it.