Movie Review: NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE, AND BLUE: THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN HORROR FILM (2009)
By Michael Arruda
Let’s shake things up a bit and look at a documentary for a change.
NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE, AND BLUE: THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN HORROR FILM (2009) is a documentary directed by Andrew Monument and written by Joseph Maddrey, that examines American horror movies from the silent era up to the 2000s. It’s now available on Streaming Video.
The film definitely takes a psychological and sociological approach to looking at American horror movies. It attempts to explain why Americans love horror movies so much, what the filmmakers were trying to say with their movies, and how horror movies are tied into the times in which they were made.
NIGHTMARES begins with the silent horror movies of the 1920s, and it makes the argument that horror movies of the 1920s, especially the films of Lon Chaney Sr., were interested in deformities because after World War I soldiers were returning home maimed and injured, often without limbs, and these injuries were a large part of the American consciousness.
Horror in the 1930s picked up steam and most of the horror movies made during this decade, specifically the Universal monster movies, were true classics of the genre. These movies struck a chord with audiences and heavily influenced future filmmakers. I loved the comment made in one of the interviews about why boys loved the Wolf Man, because he was the perfect adolescent and they related to his problems: he got hairy and lost control of his emotions. Yep, the Wolf Man does remind me of some teenagers I know.
The movie argues that horror was toned down in the 1940s because of the real-life horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Budgets were reduced as well, and people like Val Lewton had to do more with less, and as a result he made his movies much more artistic.
Into the 1950s the movies reflected Americans’ fears of the Cold War and atomic bombs, and thus we had giant atomic monsters like TARANTULA (1955) and the giant ants in THEM! (1954). Americans also feared UFOs, which gave us movies about alien invasions like THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) , and THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951).
Alfred Hitchcock changed things with PSYCHO (1960), and suddenly audiences had to expect the unexpected, such as lead characters getting killed early in the movie, and the most sympathetic character in the whole movie turning out to be the villain. As the 1960s went on and the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War and race riots at home, films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) emerged, mirroring the horror and disillusionment Americans were feeling at home.
In the 1970s, horror went through a movie boom again, with films like THE EXORCIST (1973) and JAWS (1975). As a big budget movie, JAWS made horror mainstream, and had it been made in the 1950s it would have simply been a B movie.
In the 1980s, NIGHTMARES covers George Romero’s zombies and some of John Carpenter’s movies. It was interesting to listen to Carpenter as he explained that he made THEY LIVE (1988) out of anger and frustration with the Reagan administration.
NIGHTMARES definitely runs out of steam as it moves into the 1990s and 2000s, and only briefly covers the movies from this period, with fleeting mentions of THE SIXTH SENSE (1999, )and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), the SAW movies and HOSTEL (2005).
The film was narrated by Lance Henriksen, and he does a good job, as his voice is a natural fit for the subject matter. Some of the people interviewed in the movie include Larry Cohen, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, George Romero, and Roger Corman, among others.
NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE, AND BLUE: THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN HORROR FILM is an enjoyable way to spend an evening, but it does have a couple of drawbacks. Since it covers so many years in just 90 minutes of running time, it moves quickly and never really provides an in-depth look at the movies it covers. As a result, while entertaining, NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE, AND BLUE is rather superficial. It might have worked better as a TV series, where the filmmakers could have given the films and the people they interviewed more screen time. Personally, I would have loved to have listened to John Carpenter or George Romero go on for thirty minutes or so.
NIGHTMARES is definitely interested in how American horror movies are connected to American audiences, and how American filmmakers were influenced by their times. Now, this is an interesting angle, but I have to admit, I prefer stories about how the movies were made. I find the historical backgrounds of the people and events behind the movies much more interesting, but that’s not what this documentary is about. You won’t be learning how Willis O’Brien created King Kong, or about the thought processes of James Whale when he made FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). You won’t hear John Carpenter talk about how he filmed certain scenes in HALLOWEEN (1978).
There really isn’t a whole lot of new information in NIGHTMARES. It’s not an eye opener filled with fascinating facts and tidbits about horror movies. But it does do a good job selling its angle, that American filmmakers and their movies are tied into the American experience. Based on the material presented in the film, I bought this argument.
NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE, AND BLUE: THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN HORROR FILM is a mildly entertaining documentary on American horror movies, mostly because it contains interviews with some of the greatest horror filmmakers who are still with us today. Hearing what they have to say is always a rewarding experience. But in terms of new or insightful information, especially regarding the older movies, NIGHTMARES is lacking. Sure, you’ll get to see lots of neat film clips and see snippets of neat interviews, but it’s definitely a movie in need of more meat on its bones.
It’s a tasty appetizer rather than a satisfying meal.
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda