I think the entire nation was just repeatedly traumatized by the events of [the late Sixties and early Seventies]....There are so many mysteries about all of those murders and assassinations and historical events that just left you feeling completely at the mercy of this drunken fate that had blood in its eye year after year.
--director Wes Craven, interviewed in The American Nightmare
My editor, who flatly refuses to see horror movies, reminds me that the question "Why do you love this crap?" is a valid one. Indeed, how does anyone in his right mind sit down to watch something called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre--much less admire it? Me, I'm still a little baffled as to what combination of teen rage and rebellion, routine thrill seeking, and psychosexual retardation encouraged my friend and me to spend entire weekends poring over tapes of Blood Feast and Maniac; paging through back issues of Fangoria (the "makeup FX" equivalent of Hustler); and, eventually, producing our own Super 8 splatterfests. One of these, a minor masterpiece called "He Never Knew Love," climaxed with its titular teenage geek--played by yours truly, age 15--taking a butcher knife to his left wrist before bleeding to death in the bathroom. (High school romance being what it is, the motivations behind this narrative atrocity are perhaps not so difficult to explain.)
But I digress. Twenty years later, my adult defense of the genre I still hold dear is that horror is cinema in extremis: the mode that most fully collapses the barrier between the screen and the spectator, the point at which the notion of "entertainment" (or the viewer's sanity?) is called most compellingly into question. And great horror--like Texas Chain Saw (1974), The Last House on the Left (1972), and Night of the Living Dead (1968)--goes even further to challenge the tenets of the society that spawned it. The subject of a trenchant new documentary called The American Nightmare, the screen-ripping aesthetic of these films isn't unique to the 1970s. In a sense, the history of horror goes all the way back to the birth of cinema: Those early audiences for the Lumière brothers' "Arrival of a Train at a Station" (1895) actually believed the goddamn thing was going to run them over--and they loved it. (In The American Nightmare, Halloween director John Carpenter describes the similar thrill he felt as a kid watching a "meteor" head straight at him in the Fifties 3-D schlocker It Came From Outer Space.)
Still, we've never had American horror as we did in the decade between Night of the Living Dead and Halloween (1978)--no doubt because we've never had American history like that. What comes out in Nightmare's interviews with the now-fiftysomething makers of an unprecedentedly savage series of independent shockers isn't how these directors were neglected as kids or went hunting too often or spent their allowances on comic books and beer. Rather, their creative source material was the culture. In 1968 Richard Nixon is elected president by a narrow margin, the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution are progressing apace, MLK and RFK are assassinated, the Democratic convention turns into a spectacle of police brutality, and 29-year-old George Romero releases Night of the Living Dead, a doc-like zombie epic shot on a shoestring with his buddies in Pittsburgh. The American Nightmare's studiously assembled montage makes plain the connection between images of the war at home and those at the drive-in: Romero's zombie-busting sheriffs toting rifles and pulling German shepherds (and shooting the film's black hero between the eyes) cannot be mistaken for anything but Southern riot cops.
Treating both news clip and slasher flick alike as social document, Nightmare's seamless editing conflates the My Lai massacre and The Last House on the Left, gas shortages and Texas Chain Saw, NOW rallies and David Cronenberg's (Canadian) Shivers--mirroring the manner in which American nightmare and reality become indistinguishable in the films themselves. Nixon's televised comment that "North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States--only Americans could do that" is its own punch line, but director Adam Simon drives it home with a cut to Chain Saw's Leatherface bringing a sledgehammer to the head of a high school grad who falls limp as fresh beef. Let's face it: The vision of 1970s America as slaughterhouse isn't far off, and could only be rendered faithfully in the form of bludgeoning horror. The reassuring belief that "it's only a movie"--ironically issued as mock comfort on the Last House ads--is no doubt what allowed such searing social criticism to pass without censorship, even though these weren't only movies but mirrors. The cloak of metaphor has always allowed horror to be more daring than documentary--and therefore more true.
Even in the pre-pomo Seventies, teenage kids understood the anarchic pleasures to be had in films where normality bites the dust--not to mention the realism in the notion that true evil can't be vanquished so easily. When Wes Craven's Last House culminates in a retribution scenario more vicious than we could have hoped for, the point is that bloodlust is universal, tainting everyone, right and left. In the year of Arthur Bremer's assassination attempt on George Wallace, and Kissinger's pre-election "peace is at hand" speech, Craven had made a highly critical statement. But by 1979, as Romero's Dawn of the Dead so explicitly noted, the radicals had gone shopping. And now the zombie megamall is a global phenomenon, encompassing everything from Craven's smug Scream trilogy to those truly terrifying Nike spots that turn Leatherface into a rubber-soled pitchman--and the fabled Final Girl into a fashion victim. At this point, what real-life horrors would be required to return the genre to its former glory?
The American Nightmare airs Friday at 9:00 p.m.; Thursday, October 19 at 10:30 p.m.; and additionally throughout October on the Independent Film Channel (cable channel 56B in Minneapolis, 73 in St. Paul). Other films airing throughout the month as part of the IFC's "Indie Screams" festival include Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Last House on the Left.