Top Five Halloween Movies #4: AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (2002)

This series of reviews counts down some of the best Halloween films of all time – not just scary movies, but ones that feature Halloween as a central theme. The entries will be counted down each day, with the number one pick published on October 31st. No star ratings, just consider all these films highly recommended.

It’s not that nobody has seen AMERICAN NIGHTMARE. It actually received a lot of attention and acclaim when it was released, scooping up several awards. It’s just that being an independent film, it hasn’t gotten the exposure of many other films offering more in budget but less in content. This is a shame because AMERICAN NIGHTMARE is a truly chilling, incredible horror film perfect for the Halloween holiday. It is also anchored by one of the most amazing powerhouse performances ever seeb within the genre.

A group of friends are hanging out in a coffee shop on Halloween night. They listen to a pirate radio show, which asks listeners to call in and share their greatest fears. For something to do, they call into the show. What they don’t realize is that someone else is listening. A mentally disturbed woman named Jane Toppan (Debbie Rochon) has something planned for the evening. Toppan is a serial killer, one with a very specific connection to this particular group. Most of the group split up to reconvene at a Halloween party. Jane forces the friends to play her sick game, as she encounters them one by one and forces them to confront their greatest fears.

One of the few not planning on partying this Halloween is Jessie (Brandy Little). She is instead, like a classic horror heroine from years ago, going to babysit the neighbor’s kid while her friends have a good time (Yes, the film does have the good sense to call out this reference to HALLOWEEN). But Jane isn’t about to let Jessie rest either, especially since Jane is responsible for the disappearance of Jessie’s sister one year prior.

There is a lot that separates this from your typical horror film. But the biggest asset is undeniably Debbie Rochon. This is an actress with over two hundred films to her credit. She is also a frequent contributor to Fangoria Magazine and co-hosted their radio show on Sirius XM. Back in the days when I edited Horror Express, I used to call her the Ubiquitous Debbie Rochon, because it seemed like she was everywhere. This should not be taken to mean I’ve ever been less than happy to see her. With this many credits, it would be foolish to assume all of them are good. What is remarkable is that Rochon herself is always good, more than good in fact.

Rochon creates something we rarely see – a character who is fascinating, mysterious, seductive, sympathetic and absolutely terrifying. She is pain and rage, swirling and simmering until she unleashes it all with a vengeance. This is not someone who’s crazy in any one-dimensional manner. Rochon shows us a woman who is genuinely mentally ill, and whose evil probably comes from a very dark, tragic place. It is an outrageous and fearless performance.

This was the first feature from director Jon Keeyes, and with just $56,000 to spare, he has created a moody, atmosphere that always seems to tiptoe back and forth between reality and nightmares. Once again, Keeyes uses the Toppan character to do this. They exist in their world, not exactly happy but certainly safe. She reels them in. And then they are lost.

Keeyes places several points of action just off-screen, or hides them in shadow. At times, the action occurs so suddenly that it’s easy to become disoriented. He seems to know that the less we are sure about, the scarier things are. At times, logic itself it turned on it’s head. Don’t be surprised if you have a lot of questions throughout AMERICAN NIGHTMARE. Many characters want to know the age old question – why is this happening? Keeyes delivers answers, but they just lead to even more questions. This seems to be a conscious decision on his part. I don’t know if he ignored anyone’s advise against doing this or just wasn’t aware that this breaks several cardinal rules of filmmaking. Regardless, I’m glad he did it. The effect is unsettling.

Another interesting facet of AMERICAN NIGHTMARE is the gender role reversal. Typically, we are given a male slasher, one who does not speak very much. He is pitted against a misunderstood male hero. If we do get a woman, it’s usually some naïve innocent who could have never foreseen the events about to occur. But instead, we have a very talkative, very charismatic female serial killer. Her main focal point in the group is a young woman (Brandy Little) , but one who is intelligent, cautious to a fault and has already seen way too much evil in the world.

Like any independent film, there are going to be a few rough spots, an edit here and there that makes things less than pristine. Personally, I like a little wear on my films, tell-tale signs of a few bumps along the way. They give the film character as long as they don’t overwhelm the finished product. Taking the film as a whole, one sees a brilliantly crafted, truly harrowing experience.

Though it was shown at various film festivals, AMERICAN NIGHTMARE is a small film and of course never secured a theatrical release. Back in 2002, there was already a lot of straight to video films out there. Ten years later, there are even more but the reputation of straight to video has improved considerably. Bypassing theatres is rarely seen as a commentary on the quality of the film itself. Nor should it, since mostly it’s simply a roll of the bones that gets indie films in theatres. Nevertheless, since there is such a glut of product, not all of it good, it’s easy to let a gem like AMERICAN NIGHTMARE slip through the cracks.

You are all missing out. AMERICAN NIGHTMARE is a legitimately chilling film that stays with you for a long time. I urge everyone out there to track it down and give it a chance.

– Rated R for violence/terror, language and some sexuality and nudity.

– Running Time: 1hr 31mins.


Categories: Reviews, Scott W. Davis

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