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Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film

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The Exorcist

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film

Lux Digital

THE MOVIE: One of the many villains of Eli Roth’s gorno “classic” Hostel: Part II, Stuart, the guy that gets his genitals sliced off at the end, winds up being one of the more meta characters in recent horror flicks. Entering the movie as a meek and squeamish hanger-on, suitably horrified by all of the over-the-top fucked-uppedness, he transforms into a torture superstar. The idea is that the most repressed, those that avoid or, better, deny the darkness and violence and general badness of the world, are those that wind up the darkest and most violent in the world.

And so the interpretation behind the horror genre itself: an outlet, a release of the real world’s dark energy and contemporary worries into stories on-screen. A collective therapy for people living in a time and country where you can see actual real-life torture on the evening news and can’t get through breakfast without a good dousing of fear and paranoia. “It’s the people that repress [this badness] that you have to watch out for,” says horror B-movie legend Roger Corman just a few minutes into the thoughtful, if not particularly groundbreaking, documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film.

It’s a simple thesis that’s explored throughout the documentary: American horror, since its inception, has played out as a reflection of that part of the psyche with cinder blocks tied to its feet sby all of the awful stuff. That’s what drives horror—or even what horror is.

Mutated monster shrews, giant leeches, and other post-nuclear accident/apocalypse creatures populate the movies of the ’50s through a lens of Cold War conservatism and xenophobia. (The aliens always want to kill you, for example.) The Reagan Years: crass consumerism—via movies such as The Stuff, Gremlins, and Ghostbusters—and excess, via Sam Raimi’s over-the-top, waterfalls of blood, horror meets pure satire. The 1970s: Sixties liberalism gets coded into the emergent horror trope of vice leading to getting sliced and diced (sexy party teens getting slashed, for example) while, at the same time, powerful women enter horror movies (think Carrie) and you can’t even really tell what that means (see also: Jamie Lee Curtis’ Halloween heroine).

Many of these ideas are fairly old hat for dedicated horror fans, but Nightmares serves as a concise introduction to the idea and a decent interpretive primer. The movie does please horror junkies, though, as it dishes a mammoth helping of clips and montages—via some pretty ace editing—including one fine gem consisting of juxtapositions of sex and gruesome murder in the Friday the 13th series. It’s worthy of a standalone short even. Directors George Romero, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Roger Corman, and Larry Cohen all get turns talking and, bonus, Lance Henrikson narrates. Bonus features: nada.

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