Directed by: Adam Simon
Premise: A documentary about the horror films of the 1970s. It connects the turmoil in the culture with the violent and horrific images found in movies of that time.
What Works: The late 1960s and early 1970s were a tumultuous period in American history but it was also the most interesting period in American moviemaking, distinguished by titles such as Easy Rider, The Godfather, The French Connection, and Dog Day Afternoon. But this era also produced groundbreaking horror films, many of which reflected the instability and anxiety of the time. The documentary The American Nightmare concentrates on a handful of films including Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Shivers, and Halloween. The American Nightmare doesn’t put much emphasis on the making of these films and that’s fine because those behind-the-scenes stories have been well documented elsewhere, usually on supplementary features included on the disc releases of those films. This documentary is about what those films represent and what they reveal about the times in which they were made. It includes testimonials from filmmakers but also academics whose comments allow The American Nightmare to connect the specific historical context with deeper psychological issues and explore how horror cinema uniquely stitches the two together. The American Nightmare is also distinguished by its poetic style. A lot of talking-head documentaries tend to be a bit stiff but there is a finesse to The American Nightmare’s images and editing as well as in its music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The style elevates the documentary and gives it an elegiac tone.
What Doesn’t: The narrow focus of The American Nightmare allows the documentary to go in depth but it also limits the film. The 1970s was a fertile period in American cinema and many great horror films were produced during this decade. The American Nightmare only focuses on a handful of titles, favoring smaller and independent films like Last House on the Left and Shivers to the exclusion of Jaws and The Exorcist. It’s a tradeoff that ultimately works for the documentary. The American Nightmare has only been issued on DVD and the presentation doesn’t quite do the documentary justice. The film was released in the early years of the DVD format and it suffers some technical defects that are specific to its presentation on disc.
DVD extras: Trailers.
Bottom Line: The American Nightmare is an outstanding documentary about the horror films of a particularly influential moment in American cinema. While the focus is narrow, the documentary has a lot to say and it is made with a great deal of craftsmanship.
Episode: #871 (October 3, 2021)