Jon Keeyes’ “American Nightmare” is a low-budget horror movie that is surprisingly better than most. Keeyes, who also wrote and directed, falls into that category of horror filmmakers who wears their adoration for the genre on their sleeve. He knows his genre intimately, which explains why he spends so much time paying homage to them in the dialogue and in the background noise. There’s something to be said about saluting your inspirations, but there is also such a thing as overshadowing your own original work.
Our movie concerns psychopath Jane (Debbie Rochon), who, as the movie opens, slaughters four campers in the woods one week before Halloween. Fast-forward to yet another Halloween, where Jessie (Brandy Little), our Traumatized Fair Hair Lead, is doing a “Friends”-ish thing by sitting around a coffee house with her friends discussing their favorite horror movies. While listening to a Halloween-themed talk show, the friends decide to call in and tell the DJ their greatest fears. Unfortunately for them, Jane is in the background taking notes, and she has a strange obsession with punishing Jessie.
Soon, Jessie’s friends are dying one by one according to their fears. This, while Jessie is babysitting and her would-be beau Wayne (Johnny Sneed) is still at the coffee house monitoring the Internet because, you know, he’s sort of a wuss. As it turns out, one of those four kids involved in the massacre in the woods last Halloween was Jessie’s sister, and her body was never found. So why is nutty Jane stalking Jessie? Why is she killing off Jessie’s friends? Or better yet, how many times do you think Jon Keeyes has seen “Halloween”?
If anything, “American Nightmare” probably pays too much homage to John Carpenter’s groundbreaking film. Even so, there are plenty of good moments to make the film worthwhile on its own merits. Take the sequence involving a character that has confessed her fear of the shower scene in “Psycho”. Later, the woman takes a shower, and you just know the killer will appear — Well, you would be wrong, because Keeyes knew that’s what we were expecting, and he pulls a fast one. That’s the kind of creativity so lacking in these low-budget horror films.
Like Carpenter’s genre-defining film, “Nightmare” elects to highlight style over substance. The killings almost always take place offscreen, offering genre fans little to no gore for their visit. This could very well be what Keeyes had in mind all along, or it could just be because of budgetary constraints. After all, the correct path to take when one is lacking in resources is to insinuate what can’t be produced rather than lamely attempt to produce what you obviously can’t afford. (And no, that last sentence wasn’t complete gibberish. Honest.)
The star of “American Nightmare” is Debbie Rochon, who has carved out quite a busy career in the realm of B-movies. (She was in 20 movies in 2002 (!) but has fallen off with just 10 in 2003.) Rochon has elected to play the killer as creepy and sadistic rather than intimidating, which is a good idea because Rochon is not physically imposing at all. Also proving that she has a sense of humor, Jane creates a website called “I’m killing your friends dot com” just to taunt computer nerd Wayne. While Rochon is generally good in the role, from time to time she overreaches, and that’s when the film gets a bit silly.
But if Rochon spends her time playing psychotic on the down low with spurts of raving lunacy, Fair Hair Lead Brandy Little (“Hallow’s End”) spends her time fishing for Impact Moments — i.e. every scene is played with dead serious method style acting. Johnny Sneed, as the Loyal Boyfriend, couldn’t win an arm wrestling contest with a fly. Needless to say, you wouldn’t want him watching your back in a scrap. Although the premise has a killer killing her victims according to their fears, there’s not enough follow-through in that regard. The friends come and go, and you’ll be hardpressed to remember their names.
“American Nightmare” is almost entirely bloodless where it matters, and gorefiends will be greatly disappointed. At the requisite 90 minutes, “Nightmare” is better than your average low-budget Teen Slasher, and that’s probably the biggest compliment I can give it. The film moves at a good clip and, as with all Teen Slashers, it doesn’t work that well if you start questioning things. Then again, if you wanted to be that cerebral about your moviegoing experience, you wouldn’t have chosen a straight-to-video Teen Slasher to begin with.
Jon Keeyes (director) / Jon Keeyes (screenplay)
CAST: Debbie Rochon …. Jane Toppan
Brandy Little …. Jessie McClain
Johnny Sneed …. Wayne Holcomb
Chris Ryan …. Caligari
Robert McCollum …. Tony Collins
Kristin McCollum …. Cynthia Collins