Thursday, April 14, 2011

What the...a GOOD Slasher Flick? Huh?!?: "American Nightmare" (2002)

American NightmareGive credit where credit is due. Jon Keeyes' creepy direction overcomes his own flawed script in a slasher film that dares to be different and succeeds.

Shot on location in my birth state of Texas, the opening features a potentially old school gathering in the woods of two couples. There is no mystery about the killer's identity, as former nurse Jane (Debbie Rochon) kills three people and kidnaps Trisha (Kimberly Deanne Morgan).

Fast forward a year later, and Caligari (Chris Ryan) is hosting the pirate radio show "American Nightmare," asking callers to phone in and tell him their greatest fears. A group of friends sitting in a coffeehouse all call in, having some forced fun, except Trisha's sister Jessie (Brandy Little). Good thing, too, since Jane is keeping a barstool warm just a few feet away.

The other friends scatter to a Halloween party, leaving computer nerd Wayne (Johnny Sneed) alone with his laptop. Jessie goes to babysit Deanna (Hayden Tweedie), daughter of a cameoing Brinke Stevens.

The rest of the film consists of Jane killing Jessie's friends according to their broadcasted fears. Jessie and Trisha's sister Misty (Rebecca Stacey) has a fear of showers after "Psycho." Tony (Robert McCollum) is afraid of that voodoo that you do so well. Hunky Bruce (Kenyon Holmes) don't like the rough sex. Melanie (Heather Haase) hates the whole buried alive motif.

Jane is a busy gal, dispatching the sometimes cluttered cast, then putting the info online for Wayne to see. She also has time to make menacing phone calls to Jessie, and breaking into the house. No one can call the police or else Jane will murder the already thought dead Trisha, and Wayne and Jessie go to their old abandoned high school to finally have it out with the murderess.

First the negative. Keeyes' dialogue was sometimes very stilted and unnatural sounding. The cast of friends is huge, and I lost track of relationships and names quickly. For an unconventional slasher flick, Keeyes does take an obvious step into convention here and there: the villain makes a little killing shrine, showing her planning for the night's festivities and the victims are not the brightest people around, letting this weird woman do things for them that even good friends would be leery of trying. Also, and maybe this was budgetary, but the gore here is nonexistent. I am a huge fan of "Halloween"'s scares over gore, but a little blood would have been lovely.

Keeyes' direction, however, did remind me of John Carpenter's, pre-1990. The film's music is totally appropriate. The editing is crisp and professional. Keeyes camera placement shows a lot of thought and maximizes the suspense. He does not resort to jump cuts, or cats leaping onto the set and scaring everyone. No villain dies, then magically comes back to life long enough to bore the audience. The video I saw was letterboxed, and Keeyes certainly fills his screen with interesting things. Jane is bathed in cold blue light for a number of her scenes. Caligari's radio setup is different.

The cast is good across the board. Sneed is refreshingly normal in his role, no bulging biceps and action flick heroics. Little is very good as the damaged Jessie, showing actual emotion when it comes to talking of her lost sister. Rochon is different as Jane in that she is not some masked and mute superhuman killing machine. She is certifiably nuts, never offering an easy motive for her killing spree. The surprise ending is expected, but still works.

"American Nightmare" is a dream come true for all of those serious horror fans who are tired of hearing how the "Scream" series is the end-all-be-all of the modern slasher flick. I look forward to more from the promising Keeyes. (* * * *) out of five stars.