Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue

If you're a horror film buff, you should probably see the documentary Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, but mainly because it's a fun historical review of American horror cinema, and not for any especially profound genre insights. You'll see clips from a few titles you might not be familiar with, and you'll enjoy the convention-panel-like ruminations of legends like John Carpenter and George Romero, discussing their work in the context of their personal lives and their perceptions of American history.

I've never owned a copy of Fangoria, but I enjoyed this documentary on the above basis. Where it lost me was in some of its attempted connections between American history and the trends in American horror films. When those connections seemed legitimate, it was largely because the films in question were so beat-you-over-the-head-with-something-rusty obvious about it—e.g. the '80s consumerism satire The Stuff, whose creator Larry Cohen is among those interviewed (not to mention the wonderfully endearing They Live). When those connections were more strained, you feel like you're watching the audiovisual version of an undergraduate film studies essay, and a fairly insightless one at that.

The latter type of connection seemed to outnumber the former, and this fact would lead me to not recommend NiRWB at all were it not for a few things it does right. One example: the film's willingness to get directly and specifically political. Lots of great horror is political, after all, so had the film tried to steer clear of that, I'd have been much more disappointed. (Granted, the Scary Reagan shot was a little much, but on the other hand, that was a scary time and he was a scary guy, so.)

One other redeeming quality is the surprising amount of insight we get into the personalities of some of the directors interviewed here. I wanted more Corman, but we got lots of Romero and Carpenter, which was nice—and which confirmed my long-held suspicion that those are a couple of seriously, seriously jaded guys.

Significantly, I think NiRWB's focus on attempting connections with history underemphasizes the absolute fact that the lion's share of this genre is about cashing in, and more cynically than with other genres, I'd argue. I've seen a lot of the '50s B-horror/sci-fi discussed early in this documentary, and those films used the bomb as nothing more profound than a cheap plot device at least as frequently as they attempted to philosophize about mankind's destiny. Come the '70s and '80s, horror focused increasingly on tits and gore because that's what the kids would pay to see—but they would have done so just as readily in the '20s and '30s if not for the censors. If this documentary is right, and American horror cinema functions (purposely) to help us explore our anxieties in the same way that literary horror has since Wieland, then the American horror films of the future will be dominated by the sorts of really, really bleak endings that have heretofore been the domain of Romero and the like (and haven't been as profitable as those where somebody survives), because I don't think it's a reach to say that a lot of people feel the problems our society faces are without solutions.

Star Score: 2 out of 5

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