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american nightmare

Wow, here’s another fantastic discovery from Scorpion’s Katarina’s Nightmare Theater line: the grim and grotty early 80’s Canadian slasher American Nightmare.

Featuring Truoro, Nova Scotia New Democratic Party politico Lenore Zann and a very sexy first film appearance from Baywatch starlet Alexandra Paul, the film is peopled with cult film royalty: lovely Claudia Udy of erotic classic Joy and fellow slasher Skullduggery; the Hitchhiker himself, Page Fletcher; and perennial cult standby Michael Ironside (Visiting Hours, Spacehunter, Prom Night II: Hello Mary Lou).

Leads Lawrence Day (no other credits worth mentioning) and Lora Staley, better known for 80’s teen sex comedies like Risky Business and Summer School, are less well known, but deliver strong and (at a stretch) believable performances expressive of the mistrust, cynicism and eventual terror of the situation.  Staley, flat chested but possessed of one of the most amazing derrieres I’ve seen onscreen since Bardot, provides a particularly appealing strip show for her man (not to mention a gaggle of sleazy drunks and delinquents) at the halfway point that spices up the proceedings to a pleasant temperature, while Day gives his best impression of George C. Scott in Paul Schrader’s Hardcore as the pianist brother of doomed prostitute/stripper Paul, searching for the truth about what became of his estranged sibling.

In fact, it is the aforementioned film, alongside such similar gritty fare as William Friedkin’s Cruising, Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper, Bill Lustig’s Maniac or Vigilante and Romano Scavolini’s Nightmare, which Don McBrearty’s film most closely resembles.  Despite its Toronto location shooting (which seems to be more or less limited to the same exterior shot of a parking garage and a few interiors (the hallway of Paul and Staley’s apartment, the strip club, the police station, the recording studio, and Harvey’s office), the film delivers a seedy New York City style atmosphere much akin to the films named, as well as such similar vintage classics as Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen.

WIthout giving anything away (yes, this film is that highly recommended that I’m quite reluctant to inadvertently reveal any real spoilers), there’s more than one villain to the piece, depending on what level you choose to read it at.  Yes, you read that right – a slasher that operates on more than one level.  What a concept.  Crazy, those Canadians.

Filmed in 1981 but shelved for whatever reason till 1983, the film bears all the hallmarks of the year in which it was produced, a true golden year for both slasher films and horror of all stripe – there are actually too many quality films produced and/or released in that year to list, the interested reader is recommended to peruse Phil Hardy’s classic and comprehensive Encyclopedia of Horror Movies for further explication on the subject.

Nonetheless, all the grimness and realism of contemporary existence is here in all its ugly glory, and without the now-standard whitewash job frightened parties, too shocked or repulsed by existential reality, choose to paint the world over with in the abject horror that the Nietzchean abyss may stare back into themselves for so doing.  And for that alone, if nothing else, American Nightmare comes very highly recommended.


On the other end of the filmic equation lies The Fantasist, a perfectly horrid Irish melodrama that wouldn’t be out of place as a particularly awful episode of PBS’ Mystery.  It cannot be overstated how boring and miscategorized this film is, whether marketed as either British horror or an 80’s slasher film; and how ill a fit it makes to the generally superlative Katarina’s Nightmare Theater line.

While Scorpion as a whole has proved somewhat untrustworthy as a brand, running the gamut from proto-Katarina cult classics like Girly, Doctor Death, Silent Scream and Cheerleaders Wild Weekend to mainstream dross like Dogpound Shuffle, Voyager, Follow Me or the Internecine Project, the Katarina line has remained almost unimpeachable for a uniform standard of taste and quality, with the sole prior exception of Double Exposure, a Joanna Pettet slasher which was ruined by both its unpleasant leading man (gruff and gravelly voiced TV bit parter Michael Callan) and the belated discovery that it had already been released on more than one cheapie BCI and/or Mill Creek set I owned for other features.

That and a similar if minor sideline in reissues of previously released if perfectly servicable titles (namely Satan’s Blood, Death Ship, Don’t Answer the Phone, Satan’s Slave, Devil’s Men/Terror, Ator the Fighting Eagle and House on Sorority Row) aside, Scorpion’s Katarina line has delivered a steady stream of long awaited (Humongous, Final Exam, Mortuary), obscure (Nothing But the Night, Mark of Cain/Thrill Kill, The Carpenter) and unexpectedly excellent (Revenge aka It Happened at Nightmare Inn, Day After Halloween, Whispers, The Survivor).  Taken in sum, this makes Scorpion’s Katarina titles the most consistent quality line of cult film releases these shores have seen in recent years – a lofty sentiment the titles and their presentation have fully lived up to, to date.

It is therefore quite a surprise, not to mention a huge letdown, to have spent a few hard earned dollars on this dry and predictable potboiler, apparently marketed at the same crowd who sits at the end of their rockers for the latest Inspector Morse or Taggart.  Hand me a clothespin to pinch off my nostrils, we have a stinker here.

Starring TImothy Bottoms, known best for such shudder-inducing stinkbombs of my past experience as The Paper Chase, and a particularly grotty looking Moira Harris, the wife of overrated Hollywood A-lister Gary Sinise, this Irish dirty bomb sees fit to spray its geriatrically approved PBS fallout like a mushroom cloud over the Katarina line, leaving horrified shadows on the wall of its unsuspecting purchaser victims.

With Harris’ sub-plain features and giant white underwear (I think I’ve been scarred for life by the scene where she flashes Bottoms in the kitchen, helpfully replayed during Kat’s intro for presumed comedic effect), she comes off less the perky Irish lassie than as two steps away from the bag lady you used to pass on the street before Giuliani began his police harassment and intimidation…I mean “gentrification” of New York’s once-colorful, now Disnified, suburbanized and subsequently rendered redundant climes.

It’s almost an intellectual game for viewers to decide who delivers the more neurotic performance between Harris and Bottoms, who is inexplicably described several times in the running time as a “romantic”, yet veers far more towards the unbalanced and sociopathic (well beyond the expected “red herring” suspcious, straight into bad acting central casting).

Christopher Cazenove of Zulu Dawn and overrated TV soap Dynasty delivers a perfectly obvious baddie performance…seriously, even with Bottoms chewing up the scenery like a rabid dog, was anyone out there unable to pick him out on first appearance as the poetically inclined phone call killer?, and the entire proceedings smack of utter lack of inspiration, if not a wholly bourgeoise sensibility.  Those not counted among the geriatric hordes who wait with baited breath for the return of Joan Hickson as Miss Marple are well advised to steer well clear of this emerald isle train wreck.

The only shock to be had is that this unflushable stemmed from the bowels of writer/director Robin Hardy, who had previously given us the nigh-unimpeachable pagan British horror classic The Wicker Man, which had the good sense to cast such strong personages as Christopher Lee, Edward (the Equalizer) Woodward, and a very sexy (and very naked) Britt Ekland, whose love spell sequence was implanted on my memory from an early age.  From that much feted, well beloved masterpiece to this trash represents a more than precipitous fall from grace, and it is no surprise to learn that it went direct to video, without a trace of a theatrical release.

In point of fact, the only scene that sticks out in my mind (beyond the aforementioned repulsion afforded by Harris’ impromptu flash of the granny drawers) is the early club scene, amusing solely for the shock of the freakishly dated New Romantic “Harry Halitosis” (as this plain jane has the sheer chutzpah to dub him) poorly working the dance floor.

Sure, it was the era for it (just – technically, all that sort of thing had gone by the wayside by the time of the film’s release in 1986), but this guy just looks like a waxwork figure of a Duran Duran wannabe.  Hard to describe, equally hard to forget.  And he backs down to Bottoms, which is absolutely unbelievable!

Here’s to ya, “Harry”…had you remained an important character in the film, it might have been salvageable for sheer camp value.  As it is, let’s do like the releasing company and call it a loss.  Walter Olsen, I want my money back.

Bag lady gets all "sexy"

Bag lady gets all “sexy”