I see you there, scratching your head. “American Nightmare?,” you’re thinking, “but I thought these ‘International Weirdness’ posts of yours were about — ya know — international flicks? Hence the title and all that?”
I understand your confusion, my friends, I really do, but rest assured — the 1983 release American Nightmare (it was filmed in ’81 but languished around for a good long while before finding a distribution deal) is, in fact, a Canadian film, shot on the dirty streets (well, as close as you’re going to find to dirty streets) of Toronto, and the film’s decidedly non-American origins are readily apparent the moment most of the actors go abewt the business of delivering their lines. As a matter of fact, some genre fans have even gone so far as to proclaim this movie to be the nearest thing to a Canadian giallo.
It sort of makes sense, really — the plot is definitely reminiscent of some of the great Italian exploitation efforts, centering as it does around a bitter heir to the throne of a media empire (Lawrence Day), whose relationship with his father is — uhhmmmm — distant, at best, as he searches for his estranged sister, who has gone missing in the drugs-and-prostitution underworld of whatever major American city this is supposed to take place in. Our erstwhile amateur sleuth is joined in his investigative efforts by his sister’s one-time roommate (Lora Staley), who also plies her trade by night at a strip club and later at night at — well, wherever her “clients” take her. There’s just one other wrinkle to add to the proceedings — there just so happens to be a knife-wielding killer on the loose hacking and stabbing his way through the city’s practitioners of the world’s oldest profession (the film even opens with a classic giallo-style hooker murder, with the unfortunate victim in question being portrayed by future Baywatch beauty Alexandra Paul). Needless to say, there’s more going on with these grisly murders than meets the eye, and the entirely unofficial investigations of our intrepid duo, as well as the official police investigations led by a young, and already awesome, Michael Ironside, lead into some very uncomfortable, and very powerful, territory.
Really, though, it’s the style and tone of this gritty — and often quite brutally nasty — little piece of business that make the giallo comparisons apt : the killings themselves don’t shy away from the blood (or misogyny); veteran Canadian composer Paul Zaza’s score is icy, clinical, and entirely memorable; director Don McBrearty gives the proceedings a very sleazy “street-level” feel while also having an artist’s eye for the grislier aspects of his script; and the heady mix of sex and violence that forms the beating heart of the whole affair is played up for all its worth and then some. Throw in a terrific cameo appearance by exploitation favorite Lenore Zann as a hooker/stripper trying to “go straight” and a hilariously, and stereotypically, pathetic cross-dresser neighbor and what’s not to love here?
This largely unknown Canuxploitation tax-shelter rarity, produced by veteran hand Paul Lynch, has recently seen the light of day on DVD under the auspices of Scorpion Releasing’s “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” line hosted by former WWE “diva” (whatever that means, but she does a decent enough job as presenter of these flicks) Katarina Leigh Watters. Full-frame picture and mono sound are both far less than perfect but entirely passable (although you’ve gotta crank the volume way up), and extras include an interview with Lynch about his entire career as a whole and a full-length audio commentary with him and Watters that is, thankfully, a bit more specific to this film itself. A nice little package that will hardly knock your socks off but is probably more than fans of this movie ever had any realistic cause to hope for.
Definitely a product of its time, and with groaningly lame dialogue in parts, American Nightmare is nevertheless a pretty powerful, and surprisingly well-done, slice of cinematic nastiness that lingers in the memory fairly strongly after viewing. Treading the line between exploitation nastiness and “quality” arthouse-style filmmaking, it mostly manages to blend the best of both worlds together fairly successfully without giving into the excesses of either. One of the more pleasant —even if the film itself is pretty damn unpleasant — surprises I’ve popped into the DVD player in quite some time.