American Nightmare (1983) Review

What do you get when you disguise a Canadian movie as an American slasher flick when it’s really more like an Italian giallo? You get American Nightmare, a 1983 stripper-stalker directed by Don (The Haunting of Lisa, Mrs. Ashboro’s Cat) McBrearty.

A concert pianist searches for his missing sister. His search leads him first to his estranged father – a rich and influential TV station owner who cares little for his offspring – and then into the nighttime world of strippers, hookers and pimps. He meets and falls for his sister’s roommate, a stripper, and together they continue the search for the missing woman, only to discover that she was involved in a blackmail scheme that’s been going seriously… and bloodily… off the rails.

What American Nightmare does best is to somewhat subtly explore the gap between those considered successful and therefore socially acceptable, and society’s outsiders. Without stopping to preach, it indicates that the traits we associate with one group are sometimes better attributed to the other, and only when the two factions work together can things get better.

That’s all great and good, I hear you say, but does it deliver the goods? The answer is a qualified sort of. Swapping the black leather gloves traditionally found in giallo for the latex medical variety, there are a couple of extended stalk scenes that generate some suspense. The attacks are a bit bloody, but they are of the blood-tube-down-the-back-of-the-prop-knife sort, rather than a Savini-style magic trick. The killer’s identity is about a 7.5 out of 10 on the easy scale, but much like a romantic comedy, it’s how you get to the obvious end that counts here. Despite that, the killer’s reveal is a satisfying one.

Lawrence Day is a bit bland as the piano-playing hero, but Lora (Risky Business, Freddy’s Nightmares) Staley as the stripper turned sleuth is a standout with definite acting chops and a likeable personality that comes across onscreen. Also a standout is Lenore (Happy Birthday to Me, Visiting Hours) Zann in a stripper-who-can’t-quit-the-biz red herring subplot. Zann is an actress who is adept at getting the viewer to care about her wounded though likeable characters. Michael (Scanners, Starship Troopers; here billed as Mike) Ironside is also on hand in a thankless and plot-padding role as a cop assigned to the case. He and Zann memorably appeared together in Visiting Hours, though here the two don’t share any screen time. Genre vet Paul (Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine) Zaza also delivers another effective though early score.

Produced by Paul Lynch who would go on to direct Prom Night and Humongous, American Nightmare was made in 1981, and didn’t see release until 1983. Despite the title, its Canadian roots are given away by the “aboot”-for-“about” accents, and I swear you can see Toronto’s landmark CN Tower clearly in the background during the film’s climax. Overall, it’s more of a thriller than a straight-ahead slasher flick; it also bares more breasts than blood. But American Nightmare is interesting as a hybrid of slasher and giallo with a couple of key characters (Staley, Zann) who make you care about what’s going on, and a thoughtful subtext (that’s right, you heard me) that adds meat to the mystery.

American Nightmare is coming to DVD from Scorpion Releasing between September 2011-March 2012.

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