Released in 1983 but made in 1981, the little seen Canadian film ‘American Nightmare’ was shot at a time when the slasher became a horror sub-genre proper after the bloodgates opened for it the previous year with the phenomenal box-office success of Sean S. Cunningham’s simplistic yet effective Friday the 13th. This was Cunningham’s blood drenched contribution to the template innovated by John Carpenter in 1978 with the masterful ‘Halloween’ that itself took conventions from Bob Clark’s 1974 cult classic ‘Black Christmas’ that is also a Canadian production.
The early ‘80s was rife with Canuxploitation slashers in the period of 1980 to 1983 that while were made to cash-in on the American craze they actually turned out to be some of the very better offerings in the sub-genre’s Golden Age heyday bettering many of their USA counterparts. There is the underrated duo of ‘Prom Night’ and ‘Terror Train’ in 1980, the best of the bunch My Bloody Valentine and the smart but at times absurd ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ in 1981, the hugely suspenseful and tension filled ‘Visiting Hours’ in 1982 and the obscure delight of ‘Curtains’ in 1983. While the title in review here was obviously made as a cash-in as well, it actually owes a lot to the Italian giallo a genre that has a distinct influence on the slasher. It is actually co-executive produced by ‘Prom Night’ director Paul Lynch who was originally slated to direct.
Filmed entirely on location in Toronto the story is set in an undisclosed location but is presumably New York what with the title ‘American Nightmare’ capitalizing on the slasher’s dominance of the domestic box-office in its native homeland but particularly with the seedy downtown locale of sex shops and strips clubs where the story primarily tales place. This is a much dirtier, grittier and mean spirited affair than most of the previously mentioned Canadian slashers harking to Joseph Zito’s rare 1979 movie the immensely sleazy ‘Bloodrage’, William Lustig’s powerfully depraved Maniac (1980) and Lucio Fulci’s overrated odious crap The New York Ripper (1982). While this is not as visually graphic and as intense in its set-pieces as those last two titles there, this is certainly a grimy and nasty little one to rival Zito’s work and has shades of Paul Schrader’s excellent 1979 crime drama ‘Hardcore’ sharing a similar plot.
Eric Blade (Lawrence Day) an accomplished pianist and the son of a wealthy and powerful entrepreneur Hamilton Blake (Tom Harvey) receives a letter from his missing runaway younger sister Isabelle (former Baywatch star Alexandra Paul in her screen debut who gets her tits out) asking him to save her from a danger she does not specify. With the return address his only lead, he heads into the murky world of the sex industry in the rundown downtown district populated by pimps, prostitutes and smut peddlers as Isabelle was working as a stripper who was turning tricks. The investigating detective on the case Sgt. Skylar (Michael Ironside) is not too bothered about finding a missing hooker until he finds out she is the daughter of a rich and respected businessman. Eric teams up with Isabelle’s roommate and co-worker at the strip club the good hearted Louise (Lora Staley) to find her but Louise finds herself in danger when Isabelle’s killer starts to stalk her attempting to murder her and gruesomely bumps off every lady of the night Louise and Isabelle is associated with.
The giallo elements are clear here. We already know from the outset that Isabelle is dead unbeknownst to the amateur detective duo of Eric and Louise as they try to uncover the mystery of her disappearance. This leads to a case of blackmail and a sickening, perverted, and shocking punch to the gut revelation. Our male and female amateur sleuth team is made up of respectively an outsider venturing into a foreign to him territory an outside world he does not fully understand and someone who is part of this world and knows its ins and outs. The supporting cast of characters that Eric and Louise gather there information from are all low-life degenerates as in gialli no character is entirely innocent. A typical trope of the genre is the police that are about as useful as a chocolate teapot as seen here leaving it up to our two protagonists to try to solve the case themselves that contributes to the theme here of class prejudice as does the killer’s motivation.
The unseen murderer wears gloves but unlike in the giallo in which they are usually black the mystery assailant wears surgical gloves here. Of course, there is also plenty of female nudity with boobs galore but unlike in gialli it is not depicted as being very erotic here. It is not a stylish affair either with no flair at all unlike the Italian genre that thrived upon style as this employs just a dull point and shoot mentality at the proceedings. There is very little in the way of a non-diegetic soundtrack as well and this is a crucial part of the giallo with many splendid compositions by the great Ennio Morricone. Paul Zaza’s score is subtle used in the set-pieces to heighten the suspense and tension but there is a lack of music elsewhere in the film where it really could have done with it.
Director Don McBrearty moves everything along at a deft steady pace. Like most slashers though there are the usual illogical pitfalls entailing the would be victims who are aware that someone is targeting their like but continue to walk the streets alone at night and even enter in areas where this serial killer has struck before. The atmosphere is bleak thanks to the low-budget production values and the dark lighting techniques that really compensate the tone of the sordid subject matter and the unpleasant squalid urban environment. The picture quality of the 2011 DVD release by Scorpion Releasing is a passable tape master transfer but this grainy look only adds to these atmospheric aspects.
The acting is largely solid. Day is a little wooden at times when scenes call for his character to convey power in his emotions but overall is fine. Staley turns in the best performance and her chemistry with the male lead feels real. There are other standouts from the cast. There is Larry Aubrey as Dolly, a transvestite hooker and Louise’s neighbour. Laurie Zann as Tina (‘Happy Birthday to Me’ and ‘Visiting Hours’) who is the supporting star of the red herring sub-plot and features in one of the movie’s most memorable set-pieces (see if you can spot a similarity in it to a certain moment in Wes Craven’s masterpiece ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ released a year later). Zahn’s co-star in ‘Visiting Hours’, Ironside who shared memorable scenes with her has no screen time with her here at all. One of the greatest character actors of his generation in an early role in his career is underutilized playing a cop assigned to the case in a mere padding role. The dialogue is also very authentic.
‘American Nightmare’ is no classic but is a good little slasher come giallo gem overall. It is not perfect but is generally well written, directed and acted enough that it rises above being just exploitation but there is enough here to keep the grindhouse crowd happy as well - so the best of both worlds then. During its 32 years of release at the time of writing, the film has not found much of an audience and it really does deserve to be seen by a lot more genre enthusiasts. Under-seen, underrated and recommended.
*** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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