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Oh, the horror 

American Nightmare examines how societal fears inform horror movies

Horror films are scary.

Time and again, sense and censors try to purge the genre, or good taste will temporarily trump the perennial appeal of gore and violence, or the PTA will quash this or that movement or movie, but somehow, the horror film always comes back with a vengeance.

Whatever we might, as individuals or a culture, think about the themes and forms of the horror film, however we might belittle it as junk or juvenilia, the fact is that horror movies are one of the most popular and powerful manifestations of the cinematic medium. Seldom celebrated by critics, often reviled by pundits and rarely seen as art, the horror film has nevertheless remained for the better part of a century very close to our collective, chilled, staked, stabbed and stopped hearts, and few genres have had as lasting and profound an influence on American popular culture.

American Nightmare, an original documentary produced by the Independent Film Channel, seeks to understand this paradoxical passion by looking at the key films and filmmakers of the last three decades -- what documentarian Adam Simon calls the golden age of independent horror cinema. Simon looks for the roots of horror not in Victorian Penny Dreadfuls and gothic novels, nor in the childhood pathologies of a few demented directors, but in the historical experiences shared by the men and women behind the monsters and the audiences that flocked to their films to get their pants scared off.

To this end, Nightmare interviews some of the biggest names in screen terror -- Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, George Romero and John Carpenter, to name a few -- inviting them to give a sort of cultural account of their watershed frightfests. Some of those directors prove to be both insightful and articulate in their analyses of their own roles and that of their films within the big picture. As it turns out, the architects of fear, far from the sneering dysfunctionoids we might imagine based on their unseemly subject matter (choice cuts of which we see), are professionals all, and they have all had to adapt to new markets and new nightmares. Horror here is not some primal, unchanging psychological closet out of which our boogeymen jump but a dimension in which an artist by inclination or vocation can work, a dimension delineated as much by events in the world outside the theater as by the shadows lurking inside our, or the filmmakers', heads.

Hardcore goreheads and newcomers alike will find some surprises in how the creators of such Vietnam-era double-baggers as Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre see their own work today. And Wes Craven, whose long slumps and sporadic acts of indelible horror genius (Last House on the Left, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) perhaps best embody the repressible but ultimately irresistible force of the horror film, is a particularly astute observer of his relationship with his changing audience. The teenager who swoons for Scream today, after all, isn't thinking about the draft, but then, the wayward children of the Baby Boom never conceived of a Columbine.

It is true that American Nightmare probably won't change the way you see horror films, and as documentaries go it is best described as competent; filmmakers infatuated with their subject matter tend to some degree to sacrifice control for enthusiasm, and occasionally Simon lets a Living Legend wax a little long-winded -- a flaw shared by his otherwise excellent 1995 debut doc The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, a profile of exploitation master Sam Fuller. But fans of scary movies will certainly appreciate their pet genre getting some of the respect it deserves, and as industrial and cultural history, it is an invaluable contribution, giving a forum for some of the most important voices telling our most unspeakable stories.

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