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American Nightmare   B+

Highland Myst Films / Monarch Home Video

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jon Keeyes
Writer: Jon Keeyes
Cast: Debbie Rochon, Brandy Little, Johnny Sneed, Chris Ryan, Robert McCollum, Kristin McCollum, Heather Haase, Kenyon Holmes, Rebecca Stacey, Brinke Stevens.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

When Scream infiltrated popular culture in late 1996, many horror fans rejoiced, hoping that its success might inspire another slasher film boom like the one in the late '70s and early '80s in the wake of Halloween. The thing is, such a boom often inspires half-hearted copycats that end up killing the movement, which is exactly what happened in the late '90s when movie studios decided to milk the newly revived -- and now hip and self-referential! -- teen slasher genre for all its worth. They gathered casts of pretty young faces from TV shows on the WB, slapped a few popular rock bands on the soundtrack, and it was a guaranteed hit.

With all the uninspired teen slashers brought to you by Neutrogena and the WB beginning to vanish from the Hollywood Assembly Line™, along comes a low-budget slasher film called American Nightmare from first-time filmmaker Jon Keeyes. While the film may please the same crowds that flocked to see I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend, I wouldn't be surprised if those fed up with the post-Scream slasher movement really dig it, too. Because here's a slasher film that playfully skirts the line between trendy and truly inspired. Could it be the best American slasher film since Scream? Well, I think that honor goes to Cherry Falls, but this one isn't far behind.

The film centers on a group of friends being stalked by a serial killer on Halloween night. They're hanging out at a coffee shop listening to a pirate radio show called "American Nightmare," which is taking calls from listeners willing to confess their worst fears. The friends are game and decide to call in. It sucks to be them, though, since not-quite-sane ex-nurse Jane Toppan (Debbie Rochon) is listening, and she'll use their fears against them as she picks them off one by one.

Unlike most slasher films in the post-Scream era, there's no mystery to the killer's identity. We know right from the bravura opening sequence exactly who the killer is. And, let me tell you, Debbie Rochon as Jane Toppan is far scarier than Jason Voorhees ever was. While a female serial killer could easily be played tongue-in-cheek, the film wisely takes its villain seriously, developing her character into a believable human being whose veil of sanity, for whatever reason, just happened to crack. Debbie Rochon (Tromeo & Juliet) tackles the role with a ferocity that's stunning. Whether she's beating the shit out of one of her victims while screaming, "You think you're better than me?" or gaining sexual pleasure from a little self-mutilation, she's completely convincing and absolutely unnerving.

The rest of the cast is fairly impressive as well. Johnny Sneed as Wayne, the Internet junkie who has a secret crush on his friend Jessie (Brandy Little), is solid and instantly likable. Brandy Little, as Jessie, is also memorable, playing a nice girl who, shades of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, is babysitting on Halloween night while her friends are out partying. The cast is easy to like, but I would have appreciated seeing some of them developed a bit more, so that their deaths might have had more impact. That's just a minor quibble.

Writer-director Jon Keeyes seems to come from the Hitchcock school of filmmaking, relying on suspense rather than shocks. During one almost unbearably suspenseful sequence I even shouted, "Get out of the fucking house!" at the characters on-screen, which I can assure you is not something I do often. Keeyes also infuses the film with just the right amount of wicked black humor, playing off audience expectations with the most discomforting scene of foreplay in recent memory, along with homages to Halloween, Psycho, and The Vanishing. The movie isn't perfect, of course. I could nitpick about the unconvincing Internet angle that comes into play or character actions that call for a real suspension of disbelief, but what's the point? Even if it's fairly predictable in some respects (you might be able to pick out the survivors during the first 10 minutes), it's surprising and very rewarding in other areas.

In a way, American Nightmare isn't as much of a slasher film as it seems at first glance. It's almost a psychological thriller disguised as a slasher, since it's not scary in the way many slasher fans are accustomed to; there's almost no gore and very few jump-out-of-your-seat scares. No, the horror in American Nightmare runs deeper than that. It's genuinely haunting, and Debbie Rochon's blistering performance as Jane Toppan plays a large part in why the movie works so well. I don't think I've ever been close to tears at the end of a slasher movie, but I've seen this movie twice now and each time I nearly broke down at the end credits. This, among other reasons, is why American Nightmare, despite its flaws, is one of the best American slasher films since Scream.

Review published 01.09.2002.

Read our interviews with Jon Keeyes and Debbie Rochon.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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