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American Nightmare

1983, Starring Lawrence Day, Lora Staley, Michael Ironside, Alexandra Paul. Directed by Don McBrearty (Manesco Films).

Guest Review by Rhett Miller

Widely considered to be the precursor to the slasher genre, the giallo was a type of mystery-suspense film popular in Europe in the early 1970s notable for its graphic violence, twisting plots, black-gloved murderers and outlandish finales. Giallo films gradually fell out of favor as John Carpenter's brand of stalk and slash took over in the early 1980sa boom that ushered in Canadian-lensed killer classics like Prom Night, Terror Train, Happy Birthday to Me and My Bloody Valentine. But amidst the slasher furor that dominated the tail end of the tax shelter era, one Canadian horror managed to stand out from the parade of power tool-wielding masked maniacs by adopting the conventions of the outmoded giallo a film known (naturally) as American Nightmare.

Made for a paltry $200,000 in the wintry streets of Toronto in 1981, American Nightmare sat on shelves for a full year before finally being released in 1983 just as the slasher cycle was winding down. It has languished on dusty video shelves ever since, but nevertheless remains notable not only for being Canada's sole giallo-styled effort, but also for the talent involved. The film features the screen debut of a barely legal Alexandra Paul (Christine, Baywatch), proverbial Canadian villain Michael Ironside in a rare good guy role, and an early performance by The Hitchhiker himself, Page Fletcher. Behind the camera is Canuxploitation king Paul Lynch as executive producer, writer John Sheppard, who would go on to pen two of Lynch's later films, Flying and Bullies, and (surprise!) composer Paul Zaza lending another melancholy piano score. Despite its low profile, American Nightmare actually has quite a bit going for it, and we haven't even gotten to the story yet!

The film begins in a seedy little motel, where topless young ingénue Isabelle Blake (Alexandra Paul) drinks and smokes pot on the bed, persuading her solicitee, whose identity remains veiled, to join her. As they start to get it on, Isabelle yells out some fairly provocative seductions (" I'm so wet!" ), before her throat is slit and she gets thrown alongside Marilyn Chambers in a Toronto dumpster. The killer removes his gloves, grabs a Beta videotape from the bedside table, and disappears into the shadows of the night.

A few days before her death, Isabelle sent an urgent note fearing for her health to her brother Eric (Lawrence Day), who soon arrives in town, unaware of her grisly fate. Eric's mother has passed away and he receives no help from his father (Tom Harvey), one of America's biggest media moguls, who has completely disowned his two children. Despite founding UNISAVE, a support program for underprivileged children, Mr. Blake is a cold and demanding man, and his brutal ways sent his two children rebelliously packing for more derisive career paths. Upon venturing to his sister's former apartment, Eric runs into flamboyant transvestite Dolly (Larry Aubrey), who points Eric to Louise (Lora Staley), Isabelle's roommate and colleague over at a nearby strip joint. It appears that upon moving away from her father, Isabelle became caught up in the seedy underbelly of the big city, first taking her clothes off for money, then prostituting herself in order to sustain her rampant drug addiction. Through passionate relations with Louise, Eric is able to get the name of Isabelle's pimp and drug supplier, who goes by the moniker " Fixer" (Michael Copeman).

Meanwhile, the killer continues to lurk within the shadowed streets, picking off female dancers and prostitutes one by one. Detective Skylar (Michael Ironside) is hot on his tail, but is having a tough time getting information from the other dancers. The strippers have suffered maltreatment from the police in the past, and they fear that opening themselves up to the cops will threaten their situation even more. With the police seemingly unable to help, Eric must rely on his inside connection with Louise in order to solve Isabelle's case once and for all.

American Nightmare was directed by Don McBrearty, an NFB filmmaker who went on to win an Oscar for his dramatic adaptation of Alice Munro's Boys and Girls (1982), a short which examined sexism as it tackled the social roles of men and women throughout history. Leaping from a depraved little thriller to a Canadian literary classic seems like an unlikely career move, but with American Nightmare, McBrearty was really exploring the same themes of Boys and Girls on an even greater national scope American Nightmare simply uses the elements of the giallo to address the very same issues of gender politics that McBrearty obviously had a great interest in. The film's America is truly a nightmareone where women are subjugated, even exploited, for empty male pleasures. The entire film is filtered through an unwavering male gaze: the men watch the girls dance at seedy bars, the men videotape their sexual conquests on video, and applicants for the UNISAVE program are even made to strip in front of the cameras.

Initially, the endless parade of disrobing scenes distracts from the narrative and the overall feel of the film. As Eric struggles to find the clues regarding his sister, one just wants to yell, " you'd be able to find her if you stopped spending so much damn time at the strip club!" After continuous striptease segments though, McBrearty's cold message does come through: seeing one woman strip may be erotic, but seeing that same woman remove her clothes night after night in a soulless routine is not. Like with most every other exploitation movie, McBrearty likely had a mandate to show nudity in his film, but with repetition he has stripped it of all eroticism, turning it into an attack on big business and All-American greed as the women in the film, lacking a voice and direction, become nothing more than disposable commodities.

Just as the guys at the strip joint hoot and holler at the bodies of the dancers, the America presented here is obsessed with surface appearances. The executives behind Mr. Blake's corporation care only how the media perceives them, and UNISAVE is really just a front to hide the decadence going on within the media corporation. No tangible help is really being done for every child in Africa that is being saved by donation, another one in America is reeled into a culture of drugs, prostitution and male dominance, and it is a testament to McBrearty's concept of America that the kingpin of the biggest media conglomerate cares more about his own public image than his own daughter. The film even ends with an ad from America's metaphor for the superficial, MTV. " It's all right here on MTV!" the closing sign reads, further solidifying the notion that many of the wrongs of American society are happening right out in public, either on or within media channels like MTV.

It's inevitable that tax shelter films rarely make mention of their Canadian origin, and American Nightmare is also set in a fictional American town, presumably Chicago. In this case, however, McBrearty is actually using his faux-U.S. setting to unleash a fairly joyless attack on the American way of life: gender roles, corporate culture and alienation. The film is overwhelmingly cold and impenetrable, much like all the superficial relationships in the film. Even the love scene, where Eric and Louise consummate their passion, is sheathed in the dreary off-key piano tunes from the Zaza songbook. It is probably the most depressing and numbing sex scene ever captured in such a picture, making clear that there is no release for any of these characters America has been robbed of its ability to feel.

Despite its title, American Nightmare is a uniquely Canadian perspective on the depravity of our southern neighbors. While the message may be a tad too pessimistic, and the overall feeling of the film may be gritty, dark and depressing, it is nevertheless a quality motion picture. The giallo film in Europe was a way for filmmakers to comment on the physical and moral decay of its city streets, and McBrearty has done something brave in reviving the fundamentals of the genre to offer a similar critique on America. If Canadians have to make American-based movies, they may as well flavour it with a little homegrown pessimism. American Nightmare, indeed!

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