If there's one thing that immediately strikes you while watching Joseph Maddrey and Andrew Monument's Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, it's that Lance Henriksen has got a future in voiceovers. The haggard actor's grim, resonant baritone instantly captivates as he takes the viewer on a journey through the history of the American horror film, from Edison's Frankenstein right to the present day.
And what a journey it is. Based on Maddrey's 2004 book, this as-yet-undistributed doc, produced/written by Maddrey and directed/edited by Monument, is a potent, jam-packed study of the fright flick in the context of the United States' evolution over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Obviously, a movie can't cover all the material that a book can, but Maddrey does a fine job of condensing the most important stuff into a little over 90 minutes, which is no mean feat. Ideally, a project like this could have been expanded into a three-part miniseries, as it feels rushed at times. But in fairness to Maddrey and Monument, an impressive job is done of covering as much ground as possible within the time limitations.
More than a century of cinema is discussed, and there were bound to be some omissions. I was surprised to see The Shining get almost completely glossed over, and was expecting a bit more on Vincent Price, the genre's most iconic star. Due to the American focus of the film, you won't find much on stuff like Hammer or the Italians, although there is a discussion towards the end of the rise of foreign horror as a powerful alternative for U.S. fans.
What is covered is handled quite well. We get a series of titled chapters, a la Kevin Burns, covering everything from the golden age of the Universal monsters to the post-9/11 torture porn boom. Engrossing commentary is provided by the likes of George Romero, Roger Corman, John Carpenter, Darren Lynn Bousman, Larry Cohen, Brian Yuzna, Tony Timpone and the ever-engrossing John Kenneth Muir, who gets so much screentime, I was expecting his name to be above the title (I kid John, I kid!).
As in his book, Maddrey's script attempts to match up the development of the American horror movie with the history of the country itself. At times, this works quite well, such as when Carpenter rails against the evils of Reagan's 1980s, and how that was reflected in the films that he and others were making at the time. At other times, however, it feels like Maddrey is trying a bit too hard to establish an ongoing narrative from what are often unrelated and random events, such as when we are told that horror in the 1940s was headed in a softer, less serious direction, and then the next stuff we see is the incredibly intense films of Val Lewton, which contradict this thesis.
Due in part to the interview subjects chosen, the movie is weighted a bit toward the movies of the 1970s and 1980s, which for many fans represents something of a modern-day golden age anyway, so I was happy to see the narrative slow down a bit during this period to provide a more detailed discussion. We get a hilarious slasher movie montage that spells out the moral ground rules upon which that subgenre operated. There's also a direct comparison of President Reagan to Freddy Krueger, which is sure to send conservative horror fans into fits.
I've often wondered why no one had stepped up to do a really comprehensive, all-encompassing history of horror in documentary form, and so I'm grateful to Maddrey and Monument for being the first to give the genre this kind of treatment. It's a fascinating watch for both passionate and casual fans, made by people who really seem to care about their subject matter. It's a travesty that it has yet to find a distributor, as this is easily something I could imagine airing on networks like Bravo, SciFi or AMC, followed by a spiffy DVD release full of extra interview footage.
Hopefully, that problem will be changed soon, as this is a compelling piece of work, with a lot to say about our culture and how it's reflected in how we choose to entertain ourselves.
"QUITE SIMPLY, THE BEST HORROR-THEMED BLOG ON THE NET." -- Joe Maddrey, Nightmares in Red White & Blue
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