Sunday, October 14, 2012

American Nightmare (1983) dir. Don McBrearty

Logline: A pianist, Eric (Lawrence Day), travels to Toronto (standing in for an ambiguous but perhaps representative American city) in order to search for his runaway sister. He quickly becomes enmeshed in the city's seedy underbelly of prostitution, strip clubs, and sex shops. As he chases down clues, Eric begins to realize that the city's poor and struggling aren't so bad-- they're still people; they just have less money than he does! But someone, who is picking the "scum" of the city off one by one in bloody fashion, would beg to differ...

Crime in the Past: More of a crime in the present, but a woman and her videographer are planning on blackmailing someone powerful with some spycam sex tapes, for which the lady is promptly murdered.

Bodycount: 6, 66% of which belong firmly to the 99%.

Themes/Moral Code: Though thoroughly Canadian in every aspect of its production (including the requisite Michael Ironside cameo), American Nightmare manages to engage with patented American issues, ones that are still nagging at us today, though it's more than fair to say that the film's picture of America in the 1980s is a smidgen bleaker and more nightmarish than reality. It's a film about the divide separating the wealthy and the poor of America, and the attitudes towards the other that each group holds. It's a film where cops make lists of "known degenerates" and persecute them indiscriminately. The film makes it apparent that its sympathies fall on the side of the poor, who despite their willingness to sell their bodies (in various ways) to survive, still have limits and moral codes that they live by (for instance, we hear some strippers discuss how they draw the line at mud wrestling while they talk up the merits of their union). Plus, the film also takes pains to show these members of the lower class as both being amiable despite their lowly nature (like Dolly (Larry Aubrey), a very pleasant transvestite) and having aspirations of upward mobility (like Louise (Lora Staley), who auditions to be a dancer for a telethon despite being a stripper by night). Regardless of the film's sympathetic portrayal of slum living, the film's wealthy class, represented by Eric's TV mogul father Hamilton (Tom Harvey) and his assistant, view the lower class as no-good "degenerates" who need to be purged from the system. Yet (irony strikes) these high class bastions of society are even more degenerate than those pimps, strippers, and prostitutes they're railing against: we see the wealthy engaging in murder, incest, exploitation, and profiteering, without a second's thought to the hypocritical nature of their deeds, as if their wealth and privilege justify their actions. Eric is our intermediary between the two classes, being a rich boy who falls among the lower elements due to circumstances and discovers their hearts of gold. American Nightmare (it's title being the opposite of what it's go-getter lower class would hope for) paints its wealthy characters a bit too broadly wretched and its poor characters a tad too noble, but perhaps this exaggeration cuts to the still-beating heart of the issue after all.

Killer's Motivation: The killer is Hamilton's grinning maniac of a right-hand man, who hates gays, strippers, prostitutes, transvestites, and poor people because they're "degenerates" taking up the oxygen reserved for the wealthy. He's killed his boss' daughter and all of her "lowlife" friends to protect said boss from the shame and bother of being blackmailed. Our killer gives a lengthy rooftop monologue on how his boss, a man who freely admits to carrying on an affair with his own daughter and creating an organization for underprivileged children that only lines his own pockets, is a "great man" with "a vision" who is "worth saving." Before plummeting to his own demise among the filthy, degenerate streets, our killer succinctly sums up the position of the upper class: "We count-- We matter."

Final Girl: Louise, the happy stripper, is our heroine. She's very cool. She's an independent, sexually liberated woman who doesn't mind taking her clothes off to make money because she's in control of the situation-- as she tells Eric, men don't touch her unless she wants to be touched. When she eventually sleeps with Eric, she's the dominant partner, deciding that he's an alright fellow in spite of his wallet's heft. Because she's a strong woman, it's inevitable that someone tries to tear her down: when she auditions for the telethon role at Eric's father's TV studio, the faceless producers (represented only through loudspeaker voices) demand that she take off most of her clothing so that they can scrutinize her (and of course they then curtly dismiss her for consenting to exactly the sort of objectification they request of her: "If you get this job, we'll expect you to wear a bra," they sneer). But all is well because Louise makes it to the end, despite the killer's direct targeting of her. It's a shame that, momentarily, Louise lowers herself to the demands of those "who matter," but it's certainly understandable. I think it's through experiences like these that we all learn the value of living in the gutter.

A quick note on the film's portrayal of women generally: so while most of them are strippers and prostitutes, and almost all of them are objectified by the male gaze (both cinematic and diegetic), I think that Louise's mantra holds firm: these are strong women who are only touched when they want to be. Does the film objectify them? It's tough to say for certain, but the string of stripteases we're allowed to glimpse never seem aimed towards titillation. Instead they're showy yet perfunctory-- something to pay the bills.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese: Considering its year of release and country of origin, you'd be tempted to label American Nightmare as a slasher and leave it at that. I'd argue that this is a thoroughbred Canadian giallo instead, from its sleazy sheen down to its seedy rind. Let's consider all of the giallo staples that the film employs: it takes place over several days (rather than the slasher's usual frenzied evening); it follows the stories of adults (rather than horny teens); it involves both the poor and wealthy of the city (and so features both opulent and dingy locales); it follows our leads as they uncover the central mystery (slashers prefer to keep their leads oblivious of the mounting bodycount until the conclusion); it places more emphasis on mystery and suspense than regularly-paced bloodshed; and its killer is fueled almost exclusively by moral judgements (and is also a character who is secretly, rather than outwardly, deranged; slashers tend towards the outwardly deranged type). But this is nitpicking-- slashers and gialli are close siblings, and American Nightmare's giallo leanings are probably more a grab for semi-legitimacy (at least in comparison to the then typical teenage bloodbaths) than a conscious alignment with its Italian ancestors. Regardless of what we call it, American Nightmare is a solid little thriller. It has likeable characters, competent suspense sequences, a delightfully (but still somewhat innocently) sleazy atmosphere, and some enjoyable (if way oversimplified) thematic concerns. Despite the cold and merciless nature of its narrative's world, I found its characters' and message's innate humanity a warm spot in this chilled October landscape.

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