Horror film documentaries are quickly becoming a dime a dozen. Be that franchise retrospect docs like His Name Was Jason or Never Sleep Again or the Starz genre series, which has covered everything from Bloodsuckers and Zombies to the men who make them. But with the exception of IFC’s The American Nightmare, very few filmmakers have tried to encompass the critical heart and soul of horror cinema.
In 2004 Joseph Maddrey published his book, Nightmares in Red, White & Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. This book was printed under the pretext that it would define how horror cinema has changed with the social and political culture in the United States, from the birth of the cinema, to the Great Depression, to the Atomic Age scares in the 1950’s, to the post 9/11xenophobic terror of films like Hostel and Turistas. However successful the book was in linking the cultural zeitgeist of any given post-war age to the content of genre cinema at the time, the documentary winds up as little more than a rambling collection of clips that would be better suited for a Chuck Workman Oscar night highlight reel.
For genre geeks, and any horror fan that has done any serious research on their beloved cinematic segment of ill-repute, this film isn’t going to break any new ground, and will probably just beat into your brain another batch of “after Vietnam, films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reflected America’s growing concern with the war at home” mentality that you’ve already heard a million times before. Now, I’m not saying that this is an inaccurate reflection of the time, I’m saying that it is such a well known truism that it has become gospel and therefore reiteration is irrelevant without monumental new insight. And, insight is where the film fails. It’s collection of interviewees is simply the same batch of horror film directors that you’ve seen talking about this stuff a hundred other times (but now with the inclusion of Saw series regular Darren Lynn Bousman). It’s not like these guys don’t know their shit…they do. But, with the exception of John Carpenter (who provides a few zingers here and there) this is Horror Film Psychology 101–and your professors in this class have been giving the same lecture for so long, it’s boring even to them.
Where the film excels is in taking film history back to the days of Edison’s Frankenstein and giving some semblance of respect to Tod Browning and Val Lewton. But better studies of those filmmakers have been done already (just see Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy). If the project is just going to be a quickie overview of American Horror Cinema (and let’s face it, a true study like this, would have had a more scholarly approach and would have been 4 or 5 hours long) then I suppose it might succeed in pushing the uninitiated into searching out a few titles that were made before 1970. But what is the point? The film never makes a profound case for the importance of the films that were made before the 70’s. It many ways it looks at them as relics–even while it tries to point out the battlefield horrors of WWI and WWII (including the effective use of clips from non-horror films like All Quiet on the Western Front) to show how popular culture began to acknowledge the shock of war. Of course, since the Civil War predates he birth cinema, the films ignores the fact that thanks to photographers like Mathew Brady even those who didn’t see carnage first hand, already knew very well what bloodstained bodies strewn across battlefields looked like. This is a shame, since Civil War films were being created at the outset of the invention of the motion picture camera as well. Remember, that when Edison started shooting films in 1889, the Civil War had only be over for 25 years.
Still, even with these minor errors and omissions or glittering generalities, what really bothers me about the film is that it still plays to horror’s 70’s and 80’s heyday–further fueling the notion that generations of fans feel that horror films begin and end with Slasher icons, and that (outside of the Universal Monsters) little can be learned from watching movies like The Old Dark House or Freaks. What is even more surprising is that the film glosses over the mid-90’s cynicism cycle that begat films like Scream and that was directly reflective of the rise of Grunge music, White House sex scandals and pop culture over saturation as well as the Reality Television wave that the 2000’s brought about–birthing additional entries like Halloween: Resurrection. In the end, the filmmakers try to touch on the “reboot” mentality of the studios today and the broad collection of foreign filmmakers that are leaving their mark. However once again, the documentary falters–ignoring France, where for the past 5 years, a new wave of horror (one also often predicated on cultural and ideological contexts) is sweeping across the Atlantic and slapping American genre fans with an unbridled brutality.
Like most documentaries, the viewpoint of the film is skewed by the filmmakers behind it. To be all encompassing, they have spread themselves too thin. They have missed the opportunity to employ actual scholars on the subjects, in favor of famous faces. The project is laudable in its intent, but inclusion of filmmakers like David Cronenberg (ahem….Canada is not America) show a modicum of incompetence (or at least laziness) on behalf of the crew.
Nightmares in Red, White & Blue is not all bad, it’s just uninspired. Newbie gorehounds who need a few lessons in the past, will hopefully find something inspiring here, but those of you that already have the movies and documentaries mentioned above are going to have to settle for checking out the clips and smiling–there’s nothing new for you to see or learn here.