Apr 4, 2014


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time. 

Dir. Adam Simon
United States

“I think there is something about the American Dream…the sort of Disney-esque dream, if you will, of the beautifully trimmed front lawn, the white-picket fence, Mom and Dad and their happy children, god-fearing and doing good whenever they can…that sort of expectation, and the flip-side of it – the kind of anger and the sense of outrage that comes from discovering that that's not the truth of the matter. I think that gives American horror films in some ways kind of an additional rage.”

Horror genre documentaries have become all the rage as of late. Whether they focus on one horror franchise (Crystal Lake Memories; The Psycho Legacy), or one particular sub-genre (Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film), their aim is to break down and scrutinize this thing previously and often described as dark, threatening, unwarranted, unnecessary, and wrong. Horror, the least respected genre of all, is often misunderstood and condemned for the simple fact that sometimes a head gets cut off or a girl is fed to a lawnmower. A critic unwilling to shed his or her self-righteousness couldn’t sit down with a film like The Last House on the Left without dismissing it outright, labeling it pornographic and void of purpose.

This 2000 documentary from filmmaker Adam Simon (also responsible for the Bill Pullman head-scratcher Brain Dead), perhaps the first to openly discuss and celebrate a specific period of the horror genre (the 1960s/70s), might also be the first to let America’s most culturally significant filmmakers explain their thoughts and motivations behind their earlier work. The 1970s, perhaps the last truly celebrated decade of film, saw an uptick not just in quality storytelling, but also in anger, frustration, and sometimes hopelessness. Filmmakers like Frances Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Sydney Lumet, and so many others ran rampant, free from the type of studio constraints that have today become commonplace. And this kind of independent mentality naturally found its way into the horror genre.

Kicking if off was George A. Romero with his antecedent Night of the Living Dead (1968), to be followed by Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), David Cronenberg’s They Came From Within aka Shivers (1975), Romero's Night follow-up Dawn of the Dead (1978), and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Supporting these filmmakers’ highlighted bodies of work are director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), special effects maestro Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead), and professional film historians/professors Tom Gunning, Carol J. Glover, and Adam Lowenstein.

Director Adam Simon has not only managed to gather together the modern age’s greatest horror minds for the definitive interview, but he’s also managed to create, hands down, the best examination of modern horror in existence. The previous horror documentaries earlier mentioned are all certainly well made in their own ways, and for the approaches that have been taken, they could certainly be viewed as definitive. But at the end of the day, they are just novelties – impressively expanded versions of IMDB trivia and Fangoria Magazine. Going to Pieces, for instance, is a hell of a lot of fun, and introduced me to films I hadn't previously seen, but beyond that, it doesn't have much to say – certainly not about our culture. It never feels “important” – it never makes the horror films we love feel like anything more than 90 minutes of titillation.

The American Nightmare lets its subjects do all the talking, in their own uncensored, unfiltered, and uncompromising voices. Their words will be tinged in anger, melancholy, and even disbelief. And you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into with the opening of the doc: A scary montage of the films being discussed, intermingled with real news footage of the Vietnam war – of chemical weapons, soldiers with completely brainwashed expressions, and presidents telling us the war is a worthy endeavor. But Vietnam is just one of the several issues discussed here, and whether the inspiring events be damnable (political assassinations, economic collapse) or commendable (the sexual revolution, economic rebirth), all have had their part to play in this collection of high horror cinema watermarks.

"I loved this idea of a revolution… It's a new society devouring the old, and just changing everything."

You all know this one – this story of a group of strangers barricaded inside a Pennsylvania farmhouse as they try to defend themselves from a growing army of the living dead. Since 1968, this concept has been appropriated literally hundreds of times for thousands of films, books, comics, video games, and now television shows – and they all owe it to one man. Shot and released during the height of America’s racial conflict, it had the gall, the audacity (read: the balls) to cast a black actor by the name of Duane Jones, not just prominently, and not just as the lead, but as the hero. And it has perhaps one of the most soul-crushing endings of all time.

Though Romero is quick to dismiss with great modesty anyone's commendation for him for having cast a black man as the lead in his seminal film by simply saying that Jones was the best actor they knew, filmmaker John Landis (interviewed here as a participant, not a subject) recalls having his mind blown at his young seventeen years of age, in awe that he was seeing a black hero on screen during one of the most turbulently racial times not seen since the Civil War. "I just went 'Wow!' because there's this black guy...and he's the lead. The movie was hitting me from all angles."

Complementing NOTLD's footage of lynch mobs assembling with their shotguns, and dogs on leashes barking furiously and pulling men across a field are Lowenstein's thoughts: "[As you watch NOTLD] you can’t not think of lynchings; you can’t not think of freedom marches in the south; you can’t not think of the Civil Rights struggle."

As for the why of it, Romero offers: “Obviously what’s happening in the world creeps into any work. It fits right in, because that’s where the idea comes from – where you get the idea in the first place.”

In a fit of awful irony, insofar as what the film would eventually go on to mean culturally, Romero somberly shares that after having completed the film, he threw it in the trunk, and he and his co-producer took a road trip to New York to try and sell it. On the way there, on the radio, they learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

“All of a sudden, you really don’t know – it certainly shatters your faith in what’s going on at the top. It really gives you a sense of fragility of things – not just your life, but the nation’s life.”

In the NOTLD sequel of sorts, Dawn of the Dead (also explored in the doc), the character of Fran peers down at a crowd of zombies and asks, "What the hell are they?"  But Romero has the answer this time: "Us. We know we're going to die, right? We're the living dead."

"It just seemed that there was nothing to be trusted in the establishment and everything to be trusted in yourself, and that was the context in which Last House was made." 


Likely the most infamous film in Wes Craven’s filmography, The Last House on the Left is an angry, disturbing, and at times vile reinterpretation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Two young girls on the way to a concert run afoul of three convicts, who proceed to kidnap them and drag them into the woods, where they are then tortured, raped, and unceremoniously killed. Thinking they are free and clear, the convicts, through complete dumb luck, end up at one of their victim's houses, and are then slaughtered one by one by the girl’s revenge-seeking parents. The attack waged against the unsuspecting killers by the dead girl's parents comes close to (and perhaps successfully achieves) a reversing of the protagonists and antagonists roles, presenting a set of parents so bloodthirsty for revenge against their daughter's monstrous killers that they become monsters themselves by film's end.

Craven further explains the film’s tie to Vietnam: "Those kids running down the road, just screaming, naked, after the napalm attack; that was kind of my coming of age to realizing that Americans weren't always the good guys, and that things that we could do could be horrendous and evil and dark and impossible to explain." Examining the film and the young man who had made it, he remarks that it was "made by a man who had a lot more rage than [he] ever realized."

Though the infamous tagline of Last House was the reiterated "it's only a movie..." Lowenstein shares, "What's going on here isn't only a movie. It has everything to do with Kent State, the Vietnam War – that this kind of pain isn't a sick isolated episode. It has everything to do with the world I live in."

This segment is likely the most powerful of the entire documentary, especially after the talking heads somberly recount the war, how they say if you were growing up during that time, you were a veteran of Vietnam whether you were directly involved in the war or not. Even after discussing the film’s inspiration in broad strokes, Craven adds one chilling detail: You will know why he chose to have Krugg execute Marie in such a particular way at the tail end of Last House’s horrific rape scene. It wasn’t just posturing, or what looked good on camera. Instead it was reactionary; it was a real anger transforming into a cinematic one.

Capping off the Vietnam segment of the documentary is a brief but mesmerizing interview with Tom Savini, and there’s really no recounting it. His words are extremely powerful and raw. His remembrance of the awful sights he experienced and captured (as a war photographer) are incredibly difficult to process, but deeply affecting. He explains that, as a child, he would go to see the vintage monster movies – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man – and try to recreate them using his effects materials. And so in 1969, in the midst of Vietnam and mere feet away from dead bodies, and as a way to separate him from the reality of the conflict, he would instead study them, and concoct in his head what materials he would use to eventually recreate the piles of the dead around him.

As far as his eventual approach to special effects, he said, "If Vietnam did anything, it was: If it's going to be horrible, then it's going to be horrible the way I saw it. But you will never see it the way I saw it, which is [with] absolute fear; that if someone walks out of the jungle, he wants to kill you. He has a gun and he's going to try."

"My Wisconsin relatives told me about this guy [Ed Gein] that lived about twenty miles from them. [They told me stories of] these human-skin lampshades and I think maybe hearts in the refrigerator...but really the image I came away with, almost my entire life, was there was someone out there making lampshades out of people."


Perhaps kicking off the whole “kids in the middle of nowhere who run out of gas” plot device, Tobe Hooper’s Ed-Gein inspired film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, though we wish were plucked from someone’s imagination, was instead plucked right out of real life. Borrowing elements of the Gein case, along with a personal anecdote in which a medical colleague of Hooper's once wore a cadaver's face to a Halloween party, scenes from Chain Saw of a van rolling up to an out-of-gas fueling station is meshed with real-life footage of the 1974 gas shortage that occurred in America – of gas station officials and police waving off the lines of cars stretching down the street that were hoping to fill their tanks. How something as innocuous as a lack of gasoline could throw society into such disarray and instability directly compares to these kids whose van runs low on gas and forces them to pull over, thus throwing them into the midst of a cannibalistic nightmare. Normal, middle-class, and pretty kids (and Franklin) soon cross paths with a den of cannibals, starving, out of work, and improvising simply to stay alive.

“I was really scared at that time, and I had to find a way to work that out,” Hooper explains. He goes on to add that his film contains “…the stuff in the darkness, in the shadows, and in particular, the stuff we don't open the door on. And those doors start cracking open a bit, because you're forcing them open with images that really blow into the nightmare zone."

And he's very correct. Chains Saw feels more like a nightmare than any of the other films. Its documentary approach gives it the appearance of a well-staged snuff film, where a "real" family of cannibal deviants pray on and decimate a group of kids one at a time. The film takes the elements borrowed from real life and combines it with the anecdote in the next paragraph, and what we end up with is not just a seminal film or the beginning of a still-going-strong franchise, but about the collision of social classes bathed in the blood of middle-class kids traipsing where they ought not be traipsing. Still relevant today due to the current economic climate, it's easy to forget that a lack of good, high-paying jobs affects everyone, from the well-to-do rich right down to the lower class cannibals who rob graveyards late at night and dwell somewhere within the bowels of Texas.

Hooper’s interview segment ends with him explaining, "Mothra didn't scare me. Godzilla didn't scare me. It's people I'm afraid of." Hearing this, following the genesis of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – in which he was at a Montgomery Ward’s hardware department store and slowly being surrounded by more and more shoppers, finding himself standing directly in front of a rack of chainsaws…and realizing, if he really wanted to get out of there, he knew he’d found a way – becomes deeply unsettling. That “normal” people have thoughts like these is scary enough…but there are people out there who don’t have the mental capacity or the emotional barriers to make them realize that doing something like that would be wrong. So you take that, and then take away their job stability and their right to make a home for themselves, then disaster can happen. “It’s people I’m afraid of,” indeed.

"That seemed to be where we were then, in the '70s. It was a different decade, it was a different time. Beginnings of prosperity. Major crises seemed to be over, and everyone was just dancing away."


On the run from a chaotic and bloody Philadelphia, four individuals from different walks of life somehow come together, commandeer (steal) a chopper, and get the hell out of dodge as the city burns behind them. They soon find themselves at a shopping mall, originally only stopping to find fuel and regroup until they can come up with a plan. But the longer they rest there, the quicker they realize they're sitting on a potential bounty of every necessity, and every comfort and convenience, they could ever need or want: gourmet food, top-of-the-line electronics, the finest fashion and jewelry – even an arcade! With one member among them pregnant and all of them exhausted, it seems like the most obvious choice to make. The plan is simple: Bed down, fortify a living area, and then clean-house, ridding the mall of the walking dead threat and securing every entrance. But, what begins as simple survival soon devolves into a life of opulence, and when danger comes their way – in the form of both looters as well as zombies – they refuse to give it up.

I've been to one public and several private screenings of the original Dawn of the Dead, and without fail, every time our survivors fly over Monroeville Mall and say, "It's one of those shopping centers; one of those big indoor malls," it always gets a laugh. And that laugh signifies: "Well, no shit – of course it's a mall." What the people who react that way don't realize is that, yes, granted, malls are part of every day culture now and have been for decades, but they were a new phenomenon in the late 1970s. During this time, the reign of mom-and-pop shops and corner stores had begun their decline in popularity while huge corporations moved in and constructed gigantic monstrosities filled with every specialty store you could imagine. What we take for granted as always having been part of American culture was a newborn back during Romero's second zombie film, which many would argue is his masterpiece.

"My zombies have gotten a taste of McDonalds and the good things in life," Romero notes with a grin. "And they can't figure out why it's not happening anymore. They're just sort of lost souls."

The materialism and consumerism aspects of Dawn of the Dead have been discussed ad nauseum over the years, by Romero et al. as well as film critics and film fans. While The American Nightmare's discussion of it is brief, it is discussed perhaps with the most openness from Romero that I have seen yet.

He sums it up rather well:

"Domesticity is not what it's cracked up to be and having all that 'stuff' winds up meaning nothing. There's always that underlining realization of how synthetic this is. 'I have this and that'...without thinking much beyond that."

"There really was [a sexual revolution]. The '60s were unprecedented in terms of openness and experimentation, and it was always political. The sex that you were engaging in had strong political overtones... Sex had meaning beyond sex... beyond the physical realm."


A Dr. Frankensteinian scientist is out to prove that humanity has lost its instinct, and so he begins a series of experiments in which he purposely applies a parasite of sorts into willing living hosts in hopes that the afflicted will begin acting on impulse rather than their rationale. The test patients' sexuality is suddenly awakened with an animalistic fury, leaving them acting strictly on impulse. Soon a sex plague of sorts begins to spread and it threatens to tear down society as a whole. In continuing with the Frankenstein theme, the scientist's experiment is ironically and unfortunately a success.

It's strange to think that the sexual revolution of the '60s, which continued into the '70s, actually took place in this, our country. Founded on this artificial ideal about wanting to live free of oppression, and with the freedom to pursue our own religious beliefs, our country has been terrified of sex since we first set foot on this continent. Funny, since we use sex to sell every imaginable product, service, food, or anything else you can think of. Sex sells films, television shows, books, music, make-up, underarm deodorant, and yep, even kids' clothes. Further, it's perhaps not widely known that John F. Kennedy's win over Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential election is attributed to the nation's first ever televised presidential debate, and the American people got their first mass glimpse of the handsome and distinguished Kennedy versus the sweaty Nixon. But when it comes to our own sex – something private, shared between two consenting adults, it suddenly becomes a dangerous and ugly thing. Homosexuality, sodomy, polygamy – these things are suddenly looked down on, preached against, and even outlawed.

Leave it to David Cronenberg to attack this hypocrisy head-on with his first wide-release film, They Came From Within, in which he turns sexuality into an inescapable tangible and intangible force:
I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble you see, because he's old... and dying... and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully. 
While showing real footage from feminist and political rallies, angered verbal prose on abortion rights, as well as scenes from Cronenberg's infamous "body horror" portions of his filmography (They Came From Within, Videodrome, Rabid, The Brood), Cronenberg explains, "Biology is a course destiny... From beginning to end, biology is destiny. But it's a very human thing to want to derail destiny. Therefore it's a very human thing for us to want to derail biology. And many of my characters are in the process of trying to derail biology in order to derail their destiny as well."

Perhaps most tellingly, Cronenberg states that his own personal goal for They Came From Within was not only to avoid filtering out his ambivalence about his belief system that inspired the film, but to let that guide its events. He states that he believes things can be both dangerous and wonderful at the same time, disgusting and beautiful at the same time. Therefore, it's only appropriate that the parasite in the film that spreads from host to host is both an aphrodisiac...and a venereal disease.

Cronenberg says, "I, on a very very basic level, am afraid of revolution. I don't want to have to experience that. And yet I recognize that there are times when those things are absolutely necessary, because there's no other way to change things."

"My father came up to me and said, 'Look, if you hear the [air raid] sirens, I want you to go down this museum building into the basement. And if you see a flash or something, cover yourself up.'"


Halloween night, 1963. The parents are away, the little brother's supposedly out trick-or-treating, and the big sister is sneaking a quickie with her even quicker boyfriend. Someone, you – the audience – sneaks alongside the house, in through the back door, grabs a knife from a drawer, climbs a set of stairs, slips on a clown mask, and stabs that big sister to death. You hurry back down the stairs and out the front door, when you're accosted by the big sister's parents. You, the audience, the killer, are a six-year-old boy. You've just murdered your own sister, and no one will ever know why.

Halloween has long been thought of as the ultimate morality tale. John Carpenter's second film, shot independently, went on to make back its budget nearly 150 times. It created a sub-genre, kick-started the idea of the movie maniac, and established all the rules that are still adhered to in films today. Fuck and die, drink/do drugs and die. If you're the virginal type who prefers schoolbooks and quiet nights to sexual escapades and reckless teen behavior, you might not only survive, but perhaps help put an end to a Halloween night of terror created by that masked man Michael Myers.

This segment of The American Nightmare, and the last film to be discussed, eschews cultural and societal discussion in favor of a psychological one. After all, in all the other films discussed previously, each had its own political inspiration for existing – each came about as a reaction to something awful occuring in our world. Therefore it's only appropriate that Halloween – the most innocent film in the bunch – does the heavy lifting of explaining the why. Why do we like to be scared? Why do we come for this? What can be derived from seeing the innocent (and not so innocent) torn apart, vivisected, their life ended with a thick blanket of red stuff?

"People often say a horror movie is a roller coaster ride," Professor Carol J. Glover questions, "but what is a roller coaster ride?"

Professor Tom Gunning might have the answer, equating an audience's entertainment by a horror film to a protective membrane – something we use to screen out the real horrors of the world. If we invest ourselves in terror on the silver screen, it helps us to deal with the actual terrors that await us on city streets, suburban backyards, or in our own homes.

This was never more relevant than during the 1950s, when our filmmakers were just kids, trying to eke out a life in this nasty world bequeathed to them by their parents. And ironically, they were more scared than the audiences whom they would soon terrify with their bodies of work – a direct result from a period of international unrest known as the Cold War.

"There was a sense that we weren't going to make it," Carpenter remembers."There was a sense that all of us were going to die in atomic war."

"Every fourth Friday – every Friday of the month – we heard the air raid sirens," Landis adds. "And we did drop drills. We were told 'face away from the glass.'"

"If the bomb falls in the center of Manhattan, here's complete devastation, here's partial devastation, and here was radiation poisoning," Romero recalls, using his hands to emphasize how glibly the different devastation zones were discussed back then. "I think we were somewhere in the partial devastation zone."

"I started asking my mother and father, 'Is the world going to come to an end?'" Hooper recalls. "I didn't know if death was going to fall from the skies at any time."

So, after all has been said and done, why horror films? Why present these terrible ideas and images to audiences? Why challenge them and scare them, especially in a world that needs no help in causing fear and helplessness?

"[Horror films are] boot camps for the psyche," says Craven. "It's strengthening [kids'] egos and strengthening their fortitude... That's something the parents never seem to think about... Even if [the films] are giving them nightmares, there's something there that's needed."


  1. Really well-written. I'm going to have to check this out.

    1. Thanks, friend. And yeah, I cannot recommend it enough.