No New York (actually, make that Toronto) hooker or stripper is safe from a razor-wielding psycho in Scorpion Releasing’s AMERICAN NIGHTMARE, an obscure Canadian thriller from the makers of PROM NIGHT and HUMONGOUS!
Answering a desperate letter from his younger sister Isabelle (Alexandra Paul, JOHN CARPENTER’S CHRISTINE), successful concert pianist Eric Blake (Lawrence Day, THE RUNNING GUN) learns that she left home at sixteen and has been working as a prostitute for the last two years. Their domineering father Hamilton Blake (Tom Harvey, FORTUNE AND MEN’S EYES) – president of anti-filth organization Unisave, so you know he’s gotta be corrupt – seems unconcerned with her Isabelle’s disappearance, as does her stripper roommate Louise (Lora Staley, THIEF) until her other roommate Andrea (Claudia Udy, SKULLDUGGERY) is murdered and an attempt is made on her life. Sergeant Skylar (Michael Ironside, VISITING HOURS) looks among the workers and denizens of the strip club, but Eric and Louise believe Isabelle’s disappearance and further murders – including transvestite Dolly (Larry Aubrey, THE VINDICATOR) who believes he ran into the killer after Andrea’s murder – are the work of some random madman; and there are plenty of suspects including Isabelle’s pimp Fixer (Michael Copeman, THE FLY), Mark (Page Fletcher, host of TV’s THE HITCHHIKER) – who wants his girlfriend Tina (Lenore Zann, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME) to quit stripping – Isabelle’s father Hamilton since her line of work could embarrass him, as well as Hamilton’s dedicated assistant Shaw (Neil Dainard, FAST COMPANY)… come to think of it Eric is a little suspicious himself…
Executive producer Paul Lynch had previously directed PROM NIGHT and HUMONGOUS, co-executive producer Anthony Kramreither had produced the latter film (and would later produce the direct-to-video films MARK OF CAIN and THRILLKILL, available on a double bill DVD by Scorpion Releasing), producer Ray Sager had served as assistant director on HUMONGOUS as well as TERROR TRAIN, FUNERAL HOME, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, and composer Paul Zaza had worked on a couple of the aforementioned Canadian slashers (as well as CURTAIN). Despite the film's slasher pedigree, and a handful of stalk-and-slash sequences (mainly of nude or scantily-clad women), AMERICAN NIGHTMARE isn’t really a slasher; it’s more of a gritty thriller, like one of Brian De Palma’s early 1980s thrillers but without the camera and editing flair. Despite the title, there doesn’t really seem to be much that is “American” about the film, be it the setting – Toronto has stood in for a number of American metropolitan cities in other films, but here it’s just a perpetually overcast anonymous metropolis (the accents are an even bigger giveaway) – or specifically American about the kinds of corruption being indicted by the screenplay. The killer is pretty obvious from his first scene; although the middle of the film seems to subtly cast suspicion on another character, including a nice – if slightly perverse – imitation of the Pieta (which of course makes it all the more annoying when the obvious killer reveals himself and goes through the usual “why I did it” spiel).
The hero (and the actor) is dull as dishwater, neither sinister nor sympathetic when required. The usually good Ironside has little to do here but he was probably cast in this obligatory detective role as a working actor rather than the exploitation film presence he would later become (although he had already had effective turns in the Canadian VISITING HOURS and SCANNERS). Harvey’s corrupt rich guy is one-dimensional, as is Dainard as his assistant. Interestingly, the only characters portrayed with any sympathy and depth are the film’s dregs of society. Staley’s heroine comes across as more guarded than cynical (with good reason since she gets humiliated at an audition for a legitimate dancing job), and Zann and Fletcher – who also appeared in the prologue of HUMONGOUS – also acquit themselves well in an emotional subplot (Aubrey’s transvestite is also an exception to the usual comic relief caricature). Although his career has spanned over thirty years and continues to this day, AMERICAN NIGHTMARE is only the second of three features director Don McBrearty; like many a Canadian director of non-mainstream work who didn’t move to Los Angeles, his career from the mid-eighties onwards has consisted of a prolific string of TV movies (mostly Lifetime) and series episodes.
Like Lynch’s HUMONGOUS, Scorpion was unable to secure film elements for AMERICAN NIGHTMARE and had to utilize a tape master (not a VHS tape, but the 1” format from which the pre-records are created), which opens with the nice Pan Canadian logo. Unlike HUMONGOUS, Scorpion has not degraded the quality further by doing an anamorphic crop/upscale of the full-frame transfer. There are some rare tape glitches (the splice line that edges into the bottom of the screen on some of the cuts early on is more distracting), but the bulk of the presentation is undamaged. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is clean, but some dialogue is softly recorded.
Producer Paul Lynch appears on a commentary track moderated by KATARINA’S NIGHTMARE THEATRE’s Katarina Leigh Waters and Scorpion’s Walter Olsen. He reveals that associate Anthony Kramreither took on AMERICAN NIGHTMARE in order to exploit the home video boom (when most smaller video companies were only re-releasing older movies). Lynch was not able to direct the film because he was contracted for a Universal television series. He attributes the film’s title to the subject matter being the bread and butter of sensationalist American newspapers of the period. Alexandra Paul was cast here in her first film role because she was the girlfriend of actor Lawrence Day, and the provincial Canadian unions were not so much concerned about the nudity as the character’s dialogue during the scene. Waters also conducts a phone interview with writer John Sheppard (19:26). Although he would collaborate with Lynch on a handful of TV and film projects from the mid-eighties on, Sheppard only wrote the first draft of AMERICAN NIGHTMARE and confirms that it was polished by a more experienced screenwriter (although he says the finished product is close to his concept). He is complementary of what the director brought to the suspense scenes. He draws comparisons between Lynch and David Lynch in their interest in the seedy underbelly of America, and the sympathetic portrayal of the seedy characters. When asked about the film’s giallo-esque qualities, he mentions having been hired around the period to write a script for an Italian director, but provides no specifics. Waters also asks Sheppard about MARK OF CAIN, which was adapted from a “mystery dinner theater” stage play.
Waters also hosts another one of her “Kat’s Eyes” on-camera interview segments, this one with Lynch (23:40). The director was working as a cartoonist for the Toronto Star but was interested in movies. He was particularly impressed with THE IPCRESS FILE and learned that director Sidney J. Furie was a Toronto native who got his start with a short film. Learning that Kubrick was a photographer before he became a director, Lynch took up photography in order to save up money to make his own short film. He took the resulting film to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where he got a job as a documentary filmmaker before making his feature debut with BLOOD & GUTS (which is similar in plot to the recent award-winning THE WRESTLER). While working in Hollywood, he designed a one-sheet as a pitch for a horror film to Irwin Yablans. Yablans, fresh off from HALLOWEEN, told him to think of holidays as a concept for a horror film, and Lynch came up with PROM NIGHT. Before he could make the pitch to Yablans – who was out of town – he made the acquaintance of producer Deanne Judson who introduced him to producers Peter and David Simpson (Peter Simpson would also produce the PROM NIGHT sequels). Lynch was offered the opportunity to direct TERROR TRAIN by producer Sandy Howard, but Lynch was not enthusiastic about doing a repeat performance of the same concept in a different location. Lynch also offers some anecdotes from HUMONGOUS which he had previously related on the commentary track for Scorpion’s DVD release of that film. He also describes his arduous experience on the film CROSSCOUNTRY which MGM Classics greenlit but then rejected when the management changed (the producers eventually sold it to New World who gave it a limited release as promotion for the video release). The extras also include trailers for HUMONGOUS, DEATH SHIP, THE PYX, DOUBLE EXPOSURE and THE INCUBUS. (Eric Cotenas)
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