American Nightmare (1983)

Author: Brett H.
Submitted by: Brett H.   Date : 2008-07-08 10:24

Directed by: Don McBrearty
Written by: John Sheppard
Produced by: Ray Sager

Reviewed by: Brett H.

“Give me a smile, it’s gotta be better than stripping!”
“If the last 48 hours is any indication of your lifestyle, then perhaps you’re right.”
“Nothing in the last 48 hours was any indication.”

The grindhouse era was in full swing during the late seventies and early eighties and the legacy lives on to this day. Cannibal Holocaust sent patrons spewing all the way to the bathroom and as the decade turned, slash became the way of the gun with Maniac’s success and it hauled along many trailers to its sleazy destination of greenbacks. One of the films latching on at the hitch was the Canadian tax-shelter slasher/giallo blend American Nightmare. Yes, you read that title correctly. For those uninformed, during a period of time in the eighties film investors in Canada would receive 100% tax breaks should they invest in a Canadian film. A guaranteed no-loss (and flashy) way to invest money, this era in Canadian film history would go down as a curse to everyone besides schlock fans like myself due to cheesy, poor to average movies and a few b-classics. Filmed in 1981 and shelved until a couple years later, this low budget effort from the snowy lands of Canada proves to be a worthy tagalong with its older brothers, Maniac and The New York Ripper.

As the credits roll, a phone rings and a voice informs a young lady to “get the hell out” because the videotapes are blank. As the man hangs up after the vague conversation, a young prostitute lies with a stack of (American) currency beside her on the nightstand and stares off in a pills induced haze before hurrying someone from the bathroom. She’s impatient… she’s on the job and she wants more of those bills. The man emerges wearing a towel after washing his hands carefully and even more carefully sliding on a pair of latex gloves. The prostitute makes sure to tell her John how wet she is, how good he feels against her and since there are no cameras this time, how everything is all right. Wrong, as the man pulls a razor from his towel and quickly slices her from ear to ear.

Eric’s (Lawrence Day) sister has gone missing, so he goes to investigate at her apartment building. He encounters Dolly (Larry Aubrey), a transvestite who informs Eric she hasn’t seen his sister, Isabelle, in days. Dolly tells Eric that he doesn’t know the girl in question by the name of Isabelle, but Tonya. With the aid of police (ha!), Eric continues to sleuth and learns that his sister has been working as an exotic dancer and worse yet, a prostitute. Along with his new more-than-a-friend, dancer Louise (Lora Staley), he begins tracking his sister through her friends, coworkers and dealers. More hookers begin turning up dead in a tangled web of murder, deceit, blackmail, sex… and worse. The unsympathetic police force is of little help to Eric and other ladies of the night, so they must solve the mystery of the murders and the videotapes alone. These New York prostitutes have been mingling with clients that were a little too big to swallow.

American Nightmare is some quality sleaze, although it’s not quite as graphic and intense as Maniac or The New York Ripper, it’s still a good 7 on the grime scale. The murders aren’t especially graphic or misogynistic, but the film still focuses on the greasier aspects of New York City along with portraying other, supposedly more “normal” types of New Yorkers as oily as the gutter rats. As a giallo, it’s quite good even if the suspense is a tad lacking and the camera work is a bit dull (until the ending, where it gets pretty good). The unravelling of the mystery is a fun ride considering when the film was shot, videotape was a new thing and it’s very nice to see it incorporated into the plot. The killer isn’t especially hard to figure out and there’s no question in your mind where the climax will take place at while you’re watching the film. It’s pretty predictable, but where the film excels is in the grease, of which there is no shortage.

I felt really sad when the hookers were killed. Not because they were superbly well-rounded characters, but because you know once they fell to the blade that you won’t get to see their breasts glisten on the stages of the slum strip joint again. God bless American Nightmare, it really keeps the knockers knockin’ on your television screen. I have no way to prove it, but I would be willing to bet that director McBrearty kept the sets mighty cold. Unlike Elizabeth Berkely’s character in Showgirls, these Canadian… errr… New York lasses have no problems keeping their nipples fully erect and butts shakin’. I swear during one of the sex scenes I thought Louise’s nipples were going to cut through the glass of my TV and she was going to jump out and ask me how much I had on me. All kidding aside, the film portrays the prostitutes and dancers under a clean light, they are generally very nice girls struggling with their positions in life and just trying to get by. Other than a lack of gore, it’s the one thing that holds American Nightmare back from being on the top of the trash heap.

Louise tries to get into a more stable lifestyle and when she auditions for a hosting job for a telethon, she is informed to take her top off if she wants the job! It brings forth the idea that although it’s easy to picture the slums as the beacon of all that is bad, terrible things happen right under our noses. It’s got that light at the end of the tunnel, but instincts make it easier to pay more attention to the slime than the sublime. It’s a very relevant theme, but when incest comes into this picture, it’s the used rubber on the dirty by-the-hour motel room rug. The culmination of a movie full of homophobia, broken families, suicide and every other aspect of riffraff one can think of. The cheesy acting and at times very funny dialogue only propels this. Sex is the catalyst for nearly everything in the film. Be it by frustration on the part of a nice guy trying to get his girlfriend out of the stripping scene, the videotape’s contents and every single strip club scene and stereotype.

As much as sex is looked down upon in the film, it again evens itself out (to an extent) by the relationship of Louise and Eric. The two really have feelings for one another and pulls the film out of the gutter for the briefest of moments. Still, enough elements are here to give grime fans what they want for at least one viewing. The low budget hinders most performances (I doubt they’d have been too good in the first place), but Canadian horror veteran Lenore Zann puts on a pretty good performance as the hooker who is being pressured by her boyfriend to get out of the business. Shot in Toronto, American Nightmare manages to mimic the gritty nature of New York well. Those who look hard enough will see the CN Tower in the background of one scene as well as the word, “Toronto” on a building to confuse the viewer of the actual setting. It’s too bad all the tax shelter flicks weren’t this entertaining as it’s surely one of the more enjoyable films to come of the era. As of this writing, the film hasn’t been released on DVD, so you’re going to have to do some digging through the dollar bins and hope for the best. American Nightmare will impress some and turn off others, but its decaying and seedy aspects are undeniable; she’s cheap, but worth a shot. Rent it!

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