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Directed by Don McBrearty in 1983, American Nightmare was actually shot entirely on location in Toronto using various seedy backdrops to nice effect. Originally released on VHS back during the horror boom of the eighties by Media, the film sees new life on DVD courtesy of Scorpion Releasing, who have done their best to give this ugly little duckling of a slasher movie the special edition treatment.
The story, scripted by John Sheppard, begins in a fleapit motel room where a hooker named Tanya (Alexandra Paul) is in bed, topless, as her 'john' comes over to her. We assume they're going to get it on, but nope, her companion (who we never see) comes up to her with rubber gloves on and promptly hacks her up with a blade so that he can leave with a tape of some sort. Shortly after we meet Eric (Lawrence Day), a popular musician who is out to try and track down his sister, Isabelle. Well, he tracks her down to the fleapit motel where we just saw Tanya get cut up. Turns out she's been using an alias and that she was also working at a local strip club (Yonge St. landmark The Zanzibar served as the location). He gets some information from a cross dressing male prostitute named Dolly (Larry Aubrey) and then heads out to see what he can see.
As Eric continues to investigate what has happened to his sister, he starts to fall for one of her stripper coworkers and has to deal not only with some grumpy cops lead by Sgt. Skylar (Michael Ironside) but also with his own father, who is puzzlingly nonchalant about his daughter's disappearance. Meanwhile, whoever killed Eric's poor sister has apparently enjoyed that first taste of blood and is more than happy to slice and dice a few more dancers should the opportunity present itself.
Produced by Paul Lynch, a prolific television director who also directed Prom Night, McBrearty's film features a couple of fairly effective murder set pieces but seems far more concerned with sleaze than with scares. Not only is the film padded with a few strip scenes but there's an incestuous subplot, plenty of action taking place in and around a porno movie/book store, and loads of gritty, grimy locations like dingy warehouses and the aforementioned fleapit hotel. Throw in countless strippers, a transvestite hooker and just a generally thick air of unpleasantness and, yeah, this one gets really sleazy really quickly. If this doesn't make it the most effective horror movie ever made, it does at least ensure that it's an interesting watch. Those with an affinity for seventies and eighties Times Square footage, when that part of Manhattan was at its worst, will no doubt appreciate seeing the now squeaky clean Yonge Street corridor as it once was.
As far as the performances go, Lawrence Day isn't the most charismatic leading man to ever hit the silver screen but he does a fine job with what's been handed to him. He gets a little melodramatic during the big twist at the end and looks more than a little out of place during some of the seedier location footage shots, but for the most part he's alright. Ironside is fun to watch as always and if he isn't as intense here as he has been in other Canuxploitation movies like Scanners and Visiting Hours his presence in the film is welcome. Lenore Zann shows up here as a dancer named Tina and is charming enough in her part as well, while Larry Aubrey provides some goofy comic relief throughout the movie as the high maintenance transvestite hooker.
If the movie isn't perfect it gives the audience pretty much everything they could want out of a movie like this - sex, nudity, violence, gore and sleazy locations that, combined with the gritty 16mm photography, make this an interesting time capsule of sorts. Toronto, like New York City, has been cleaned up considerably since this movie was made, and this movie offers a chance to see it as it was. On top of that, it's also pretty entertaining, if occasionally for puzzlingly bizarre reasons.The DVD:
American Nightmare arrives on DVD from Scorpion Releasing in a fullframe transfer taken from elements that were not in the best of shape (a tape master provided by the licensor was the only usable source available). Colors fade, things occasionally look a little soft and some scenes are a bit on the murky side. Mild print damage is present throughout and detail isn't particularly strong. With that said, this is perfectly watchable so long as you go in with your expectations in check. The fact that the disc is nicely authored helps with this as there are no problems with compression artifacts or macroblocking to report. Will this picture blow you away? Nope, but to Scorpion's credit they seem to have done as well as can reasonably be expected with what elements were available to them.Sound:
The English language Dolby Digital Mono track is fine, for the most part. There are some instances of minor hiss here and there but overall the dialogue is easy enough to follow. The score sounds alright, there are no issues and while the track is understandably limited in range, all in all it gets the job done. No alternate language options or subtitles are provided.Extras:
There are some very solid extras features here starting with an audio commentary with moderators Katarina Leigh Waters and Walter Olsen and the film's producer Paul Lynch. The commentary kicks off with Lynch explaining how the idea came to be for the film after working on a graphic design project with John Sheppard who he wound up collaborating on the film with. From there, we hear about Lynch's involvement in the film, some notes on the cast and crew who worked on the picture, working with a smaller talent pool in Toronto compared to what may have been available in, say, Los Angeles or New York. He talks about some of the locations, how some of them were secured and all sorts of other interesting subjects. Lynch talks about shooting the movie on 16mm, noting that they didn't want to spend the money for 35mm, how smaller distributors starting backing horror films in the early seventies which lead to the horror explosion of that decade which spilled over into the eighties. Olsen notes that American Nightmare is similar to the George C. Scott film Hardcore and Lynch agrees that there are similarities. He periodically goes off topic, discussing how Celine Dion saved Las Vegas, but for the most part he stays on topic and keeps talking. He's an interesting man and the moderators keep him going, so there isn't much in the way of dead air to complain about, and Lynch's enthusiasm is quite infectious.
Lynch also shows up for an interesting on camera interview with Waters in one of her Kat's Eyes segments. Lynch talks about how he got interested in film that lead to his desire to get into the business and how he worked as a cartoonist for the Toronto Star (the city's biggest newspaper) which leads to his sifting through archives on information about independent film. He touts Kubrick's drive as an influence and how he got a camera to learn the basics of photography. As one thing lead to another his career took off and from there he talks about different people that he worked with, William Smith for example, and different films that he was involved in. It's quite an in-depth and interesting interview and Lynch, who gives a great overview of his career here, has a lot of really interesting stories to share.
The disc also includes an audio interview with writer John Sheppard, once again moderated by Katarina. Sheppard answers questions here about how he got started in the business and writing for movies, how he did the first draft of the movie in twenty four hours, and how he wound up in Los Angeles. He talks about working with Paul Lynch and how they made a few movies together, the Toronto film scene of the early eighties and more.
Additionally there are trailers included here for a few other Scorpion titles (though no trailer for the feature itself), as well as some cool menus and chapter stops. As this is part of the Katarina's Nightmare Theater line from Scorpion, there's an optional intro/outro segment with hostess Katarina Leigh Waters that offers up some facts about the film in a humorous way.Final Thoughts:
American Nightmare is more interesting than it is effective but fans of low budget horror and exploitation films will eat this right up. The movie is sleazy and skuzzy, offering just as much sordid atmosphere as anything shot in New York around the same time, and the plot, which not the most original, offers up some decent kill scenes. Sure, there are occasionally long stretches where things get off track and the movie is padded with naked ladies dancing around, but if you're going to pad your movie, that's the way to do it. Trashy, scummy and plenty entertaining, Scorpion Releasing have offered this one up in fairly good shape all things considered and with a good selection of extra features as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.