American Nightmares

Documenting Decades of Horror Films

Nov. 30, 2010
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According to the documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue (out on DVD), horror debuted in American cinema with the 1910 Edison Studio version of Frankenstein. The monster flopped at the box office. Not until the horror of World War I and the return of mutilated veterans did the genre—in the form of men-turned-monsters (Phantom of the Opera)—take hold in the U.S. Perhaps the old can-do Yankee optimism precluded an appreciation of horror by a mass audience? Come to think of it, weren’t the French the first to discover the virtues of Edgar Allan Poe?

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue is a fast-moving survey of the genre, which devolved from the Gothic shadowlands of Dracula to the carnage of suburban slashers. John Carpenter, one of the half dozen directors interviewed for the documentary, said of Jacques Torneur’s 1942 classic Cat People that in darkness we imagine our own worst fears. It’s not a rule that he or many other directors have strictly adhered to in recent decades, when severed limbs and oceans of fake blood have displaced the power of suggestion. Contrary to Nightmares’ perspective, many of those films aren’t actually horror at all. They’re just silly and gross.

The documentary is correct in identifying a subversive streak that often (though not inevitably) runs through the genre. Horror explores the metaphor of the past haunting the present and evil lurking behind respectable facades. Even Count Dracula seemed to be nothing more than a good real estate client. Virtually as old as literature itself, horror stories answer to the deep human need to contemplate mortality and ultimate questions about reality. Interestingly, Nightmares shows that seeds of interest in the genre for many 20th century children were planted by the animated classics of Walt Disney. Their brightly painted renditions of older fairytales intimated that the uncanny and unjust are a dimension of our existence. Horror helps us cope.


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