Photograph by Robert Zash.
The American Nightmare, to be broadcast this fall on the Independent Film Channel (IFC), is an uncommonly intelligent documentary by filmmaker Adam Simon that traces the relation between the emerging horror cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s and developments in our wounded national consciousness at the time. Starting with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and ending with Halloween (1978), Simon shows that these works and others, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Shivers (1975), held a mirror up to society a mirror that reflected the deep, hidden secrets of a nation in transition from a questionable war to unquestioned prosperity.
Simon, whose previous documentary, The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera, focused on renegade director Samuel Fuller, has made The American Nightmare a treat for genre aficionados and an entertaining comeuppance for those who think horror begins and ends with masked killers knifing screaming virgins. Referencing some of the last two decadess most provocative theoretical writing on horror, such as the work of Robin Wood and Carol Clover, Simon supplies thoughtful answers to difficult questions while simultaneously making the claim for independent horror filmmakers as the forerunners of the independent film scene today.
Scooter McCrae: What were the circumstances that allowed you to make this film, and what was your interest in the subject matter?
Adam Simon: Jonathan Sehring, one of the prime forces behind the IFC, shares with me a passion for all kinds of horror films, particularly from this period. Hes wanted to do this documentary for a long time. I said I would be interested if I could focus on a more narrow period; I knew there was no way to do the entire history. And, as you can see from the documentary, I was interested in a very particular angle on these films the period when I was just coming to consciousness, the years 1968 to 1978, ages six to 16 for me. So its very much about my childhood, although it doesnt necessarily appear that way.
I grew up absolutely needing horror films. And thats a key interest to me: Why does the culture need a horror film? When I was growing up, there was a rediscovery of the 30s and 40s Universal Pictures classic horror monsters at the same time that all these other films were coming out that were truly terrifying to me. Theres a distinction between being comfortably afraid and uncomfortably afraid, and I think that [distinction] goes right to the heart of [my interest]. Like many kids I felt both afraid and safe in the gothic universe of Frankenstein, Dracula and traveling gypsy carnivals and then to suddenly be wrenched into a horror film that provided none of those tropes for comfort ...
My older brothers and my mother and father were very active politically in the period of this film. They were always taking me to demonstrations, and I was horrified by them; I thought, this is chaos! I didnt know who to be more afraid of, the line of blue-helmeted cops holding their batons or these crazed demonstrators. The first time I saw a movie like Night of the Living Dead, which dropped you in the middle of this kind of situation, I saw these two things as being connected. So now here was a chance, 30 years later, to look at [these horror films] and go, "Oh, well maybe there was a reason why these things were connected in my mind."
McCrae: When you started out, did you have certain ideas you specifically wanted to illuminate, or were you formulating strategies during the interview-gathering process?
Simon: I would prefer to think of it as a film essay. I did have certain hypotheses I wanted to test, none of which are particularly startling or original, and many of which had already been articulated by Robin Woods essays in the 1980s and Kim Newmans wonderful book called Nightmare Movies. At their simplest, [these theories hold] that horror films [of the late 60s and 70s] somehow had a profound relationship to the social chaos out of which they emerged. So I went in sort of knowing that but became interested in the specific details. For example, I had read interviews with [makeup artist] Tom Savini, who had been in Vietnam and was potentially close to combat, which fascinated me. Hes one of those people who has had an impact on the medium that goes much further than the number of people who actually know his name. He brought anatomical correctness to the depiction of death and violence in a medium that had always had a romantic approach to death and violence. Other films of the late 60s that were breaking boundaries of how violent you could be like Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch if you go back and look at those films, theyre still highly romantic in their depiction of acts of violence and its results. The use of slow-motion and quick-cut editing is a romanticization. A body hit by 150 bullets ends up doing this lovely ballet dance in the air before crashing to the ground. But Savini and and other f/x creators and many of these filmmakers changed that, making death and violence ugly and real. They made it look like what it really looks like. The question in my mind was: What happened in Tom Savinis head that gave him the idea, the audacity, to show acts of violence in that way? And I hope thats one of the most emotionally affecting parts of this film.
McCrae: Were there films that were left out because they didnt fit into the thesis properly? It must have been difficult to narrow down the field to just these filmmakers and just these particular films.
Simon: God, yes; absolutely. I mean, in the end you have to be careful with these things, because what I didnt necessarily want to do was create a canon, in effect. I dont want people to look at this film and go, "These are the five best North American horror films of that period." Thats not the idea. These are the ones that for one reason or another tell the story that I wanted to tell about that period. Before I started the project, I thought I would have spent more time on David Cronenbergs The Brood, for example, than on Shivers [also known as They Came from Within]. I was going to discuss [Wes Cravens] The Hills Have Eyes as much as, if not more than, Last House on the Left. Although I had originally written my outline and done all my conceptual thinking on the piece in terms of breaking it down thematically, with sections on the family, race, the body and all the other big issues that come out of this, I found to my surprise when I started working with Paul Carlin, my editor, that it seemed to naturally tell itself if we followed the chronology and just walked through the time period. And that started to dictate the structure. In fact, I created a whole sequence on The Brood that I really miss, that was called "Divorce, American Style" about the divorce revolution. The Brood is a movie very much about divorce.
McCrae: The documentary begins with an extraordinarily evocative montage of archival footage from Vietnam and of the Kent State University riots, seamlessly intercut with scenes from Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies, among other films. I thought it worked wonderfully, but I could also see how some people might not have found it "tasteful," for lack of a better term.
Simon: Believe me, a big fear on my part has been that we would just simply offend people, or that they would say, "How dare you take these images of national tragedy, that are in some sense the most emotional and traumatic moments in the political history of our nation, and juxtapose them not only with movies, but with the kind of movies most people utterly revile!" But I was determined to begin the film with a sequence like that, because I was also determined to try to do a film, a nonfiction essay, that did not have a voiceover, or a presenter, someone to walk you through it and spoon-feed you information.
The expectation that many people bring to a documentary is that everything is going to be explained to them. For example, somebody appears in the movie and their name and professional qualifications appear onscreen. Now, we have to do that, because otherwise people become lost the audience doesnt know who theyre listening to. But there is a part of me that hates that. Because when youre watching a narrative film, the film doesnt stop to tell you who [the characters] are. You have to attend to the film to understand who they are and what their position in the story is. Whenever any one of us sits down to watch a narrative film, we become detectives; we pick up clues through observed details, and thats part of the pleasure of watching movies. But when we watch a documentary, were no longer the detective were the judge or jury, and all the facts are just going to be presented to us. And we go, okay, now Ive arrived at the truth. Its more interesting for me to put [documentary] viewers more into the kind of position that theyre in when watching a narrative film both willing and happy to interact with the film and figure it out for themselves. I had to compromise [this idea] somewhat in terms of identifying people and the films, but if you were to compare this film to a conventional documentary about movies you will see that our treatment of clips and archival material is really different. We rarely label what youre seeing because I didnt want to do that. I wanted you to have to figure that out.
McCrae: Unlike a documentary about Hollywood musicals or screwball comedies, where just presenting scenes from those genres presents obvious charms through the sheer spectacle of the production numbers and the comic timing between the clips, trying to create a documentary about horror films that is actually scary seems like a daunting, if not impossible, task.
Simon: Thats interesting. If there is a major failure, its that I dont think the film is scary enough. The real test was that my girlfriend is exceedingly squeamish and cant watch this kind of stuff, and I was disappointed when she finally saw this film and was not frightened by it. I thought, "Oh my God, Ive taken some of the most horrifying films of all time and managed to make them not scary!" On the other hand, I also wanted to reach an audience that does not share my sense of the pleasure of being scared but who might be curious as to why anybody would.
Traditionally, horror is a reactionary genre, in the sense that it does not believe in progress or have much hope for humanity and views the intrusion of "the outsider" with utter revulsion. These horror films are radical precisely because they take that attitude and turn it on its head. I mean, the questions to ask during this period are: What happened to the monster? What is a monster? What is the meaning or function of a monster? These questions didnt get invented by these films. They had been percolating for a while. And, of course, if theres one film that is alluded to constantly but never mentioned, its Psycho. Much of whats in this film is really the flowering, eight years later, of the impact of Psycho the horror may be right next door. The outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona, could be as frightening as Transylvania. A chintzy roadside motel could be more terrifying than Draculas castle.
If you were a young filmmaker just starting out back then and you were not somehow connected with the system, the one and only way you could introduce yourself to the film world was to make a horror film. One of the reasons it made sense that this documentary should be done for the IFC is because [these films are] the roots of American independent filmmaking. This may sound crazy, but I would say that there would be no Sundance if there hadnt been Night of the Living Dead. There would be no indie film scene in Austin, Texas, today if it werent for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. People reacted with surprise when The Blair Witch Project, which I have a lot of respect for, took the whole indie thing and did it in a horror movie. Well, hang on thats where it all came from! Sex, lies and videotape was to filmmaking in our time, in a funny way, what Night of the Living Dead was in its day. And Clerks was the equivalent of, lets say, Last House on the Left. In each case, somebody came along and had an enormous success making a film independently and then inspired other filmmakers to do the same thing.
McCrae: Did you encounter any kind of censorship problems as you were putting this project together? You were dealing with footage from films, many of which had gotten in trouble at one time or another with the MPAA. Here you are creating a highlight reel, as it were, of what once got these guys in so much political hot water and for television broadcast no less!
Simon: Everyone says censorship is bad, and of course thats true, but one of the lessons that we learn as filmmakers is to get a little theoretical. The Foucaultian notion is that power doesnt just repress, it produces. Censorship doesnt just prevent you from doing x, y or z, it also forces you to think in new ways. It forces you to get wily and sneaky and create differently than you might have otherwise. Especially if your imagination takes you into strange territory. Whats interesting is that I think filmmakers respond to that, and I did the same thing in this film, frankly, by upping the stakes creating images that you know will be taken out to protect the ones that you dont want to lose. You raise the whole tone, so theyll have to take out [one shot] and maybe they wont notice this other bit. Part of the irony here is that it was television, not movies, that broke the censorship barrier when it comes to these types of images. Initially, it was the Vietnam War, Chicago in 1968 and the assassination images that were showing up in our homes. These images were showing up on television, and yet these very same images could not be purposefully put into the movies at that time. So [television news] really contributed to a total breakdown of what was or wasnt permissable. If there was something that I learned from going into [documentary], it was that in some ways, politically, particularly in terms of the press, we live in a less free society than we did 30 years ago. We will never see a war or a political event covered with the honesty that the Vietnam War and the protest movement were covered with. Today, the media accept that they receive only censored images of wars, only censored images that, in effect, the police, the army or the government wants you to see. And I think nobody 25 years ago would have thought that in the year 2000, given the revolution that seemed to be happening in the late 60s and early 70s, that we would have a less free media than we had then. And thats the saddest, scariest message of this movie.