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WRITTEN REVIEW: Nightmares in Red, White & Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film

I've always been intrigued by the subtext of horror films. It seems that horror movies are more able to address some of the fears and anxieties of the world than other genres of film. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to watch the documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue because it is all about the social subtext of horror films.

Hosted by Lance Henricksen, the film is a journey through almost a hundred years of the darker side of American history and how the popular horror movies of the various ages represented those troubled times. We begin in the 1920s and chronicle how German Expressionism addressed the physical and psychological torments of the people returning from World War I. In the '30s and '40s, the classic monster movies provided some escapism from the realities of the Great Depression. After World War II however, horror films took on a darker, more sinister edge. The Red Scare of the 1950s heralded the popularity of giant monsters and alien invaders. The Vietnam War and the increasing cynicism of the '60s and '70s gave rise to more brutal, violent horror cinema. In the 1980s horror became spectacle again, but there were still subversive films satirizing the Moral Majority of Reagan's America. The 1990s were a more carefree time, and horror directors started introducing us to more realistic, simpler monsters as well as making hip, self-referential slasher flicks. The film ends with the post-9/11 climate and how horror films responded to that by becoming more aggressive and violent than ever before.

John Carpenter sums up the appeal of horror films best when he says that they are a continuation of the old tribal campfire tales. When times were troubling, the old shamen would explain that the enemy is out there. He's the other tribe beyond the forest. The enemy is the people who aren't like us. But when the tribe was enjoying a more content time, the shamen might tell them that the enemy is inside us. Its the darkness in our own hearts. Our stories today are no different. Some tales talk about an "Us vs. Them" doomsday scenario, while others express their moral by telling us "We have met the enemy, and he is us".

I really haven't even begun to scratch the surface about all the ideas presented in this documentary. It is full of interesting interpretations of horror stories that you may not have even thought of. My absolute favorite occurs in the 1980s section where they explain that even though the religious right crusaded against the Friday the 13th movies, they represented an Old Testament world better than any other film of the era. If you do wrong, you will die. This is interspersed with quick shots of all of Jason's kills. Check this documentary out for that scene alone.


★ ★ ★ ★