Friday, November 17, 2017

American Nightmare + Visiting Hours

(R. Pan-Canadian Film Distributors, 88 mins., Canadian release date: Mar. 8, 1983)

(R, 20th Century Fox, 105 mins., U.S. theatrical release date: May 28, 1982)

I think it's aboot time I tackled some early 1980s Canuxploitation, including one which was a certified Video Nasty. And they do have a few things in common, particularly the presence of both Michael Ironside, the balding, scowling king amongst Canadian B-actors, and Lenore Zann, who managed to survive a career in trashy thrillers with ample amounts of voiceover work and Democratic representation for the government of Nova Scotia. There's also a lot of women being threatened with knives, if that happens to floot your boot.

If you remember that Black Christmas was a North American (read: north of the American border) production way before Halloween and Friday the 13th, then it becomes less peculiar that the slasher boom that was birthed by Carpenter and Cunningham was dotted by flicks which wore their maple leaves on their sleeve. My Bloody Valentine is at the top of my list, and David Cronenberg was undoubtedly a rising talent in the field. And then there was Paul Lynch, who was inspired by Halloween producer Irwin Yablans to make his own festive murder mystery with Laurie Strode herself in the cast, given that she was shooting Terror Train concurrently.

The result was Prom Night, the Canadian horror blockbuster of 1980 and the lynchpin for Paul Lynch's subsequent career as not only director, but also as a producer. So in addition to helming 1982's Humongous, Lynch financed American Nightmare in 1981 with Anthony Kramreither, producer of Humongous, to the sum of CAD $200,000. The film's producer, Ray Sager, was Lynch's assistant director on Humgongous and many of the other big Canadian horror films at the time, including Terror Train and My Bloody Valentine. Its screenwriter, John Sheppard, would be employed by Lynch again when it came time for Olivia d'Abo vehicles Bullies, featuring Bernie Coulson from The Accused, and Flying, which starred some kid who was in a lot of forgotten Canadian films from the mid-‘80s. I think his name was...Keanu?(!)

Composer Paul Zaza, the workhorse that he was, tinkled this out between My Bloody Valentine and whatever Bob Clark project he'd go on to score. And in addition to Ironside and Zann, I noticed the rapist from Humongous, Page "The Hitchhiker" Fletcher, playing Zann's moralist fiancé who gets interrogated by Ironside at the moment his girlfriend is prime killer bait. American Nightmare, which is often trumpeted as a Canadian giallo for those in the know, is an exploitation film whose topic is essentially exploitation. When the brother of a missing 18-year-old prostitute seeks police assistance, Sgt. Frank Skylar (Ironside) decides to let her closest friends die without any hope for protection. When said hooker's closest friend tries out for a hostess gig on a fundraising telethon, the producer demands she drop her skirt and snap off her blouse. And the truth of the girl's disappearance involves so many skeletons in the family closet that one of the more repulsive is preserved on Betamax.

The opening scene leaves us no doubt that Tanya Kelly (Alexandra Paul: Christine, Baywatch) the street name of teenage runaway Isabelle Blake, was brutally murdered by her last client despite a phone call warning her to get the hell out. So despite the Hardcore similarities when Eric (Lawrence S. Day: How Sleep the Brave) comes investigating based on a frightened letter from his estranged sister, this isn't Schrader. Tanya's slayer conveniently stalks about her squalid, graffiti-strewn apartment waiting to pick off her roommates as they return home from the strip joint they all perform at, the Club 2000. The cops are hardly concerned with the girls' safety, preferring to see them as the dregs of society, so they're easy pickings. Even the friendly transvestite next door, Dolly (Larry Aubrey: The Vindicator), inadvertently helps by not only leading the killer to the strippers' place of employment, but returning to the apartment even after one girl has been murdered there and the heroine, Louise Harmon (Lora Staley: Risky Business, Summer School), has fled after discovering the killer broke into Dolly's own room.

Eric, taking time off from his famous lot as pianist, comes to Louise for answers regarding his sister, but they are resentful of each other to melodramatically defensive extremes. Louise is such a hardened cynic, she blows off the fact that Tanya/Isabelle has been missing for 48 hours by saying "They come and they go." She assumes the blandly concerned Eric is another prudish scold and indignantly blows him off. When he tries to reconcile following the framed-as-suicide murder of Andrea (Claudia Udy: Joy), it's Eric who gets offended by Louise's decision to audition for his father Hamilton Grant's (Tom Harvey: Strange Brew, Scanners II: The New Order) telethon. Mr. Grant runs a charity program for needy children called Uni-Save, yet drove both Eric and Isabelle out of their childhood home.

Such a pussycat is Eric that he has to say he's sorry to Louise twice ("You come to a funeral to apologize?"). It isn't until Eric rips a mugger's ear off in self-defense that they both cop to feeling scared. Louise even treats him to one of her routines at the Club 2000 as well as something much better than a lap dance in a motel room. Now Eric has the sack to confront Tanya's hotheaded pimp, Fixer (Michael Copeman: The Fly, Gnaw: Food of the Gods II), for possession of the videocassette revealing what became of his sister that the killer is trying so viciously to conceal.

American Nightmare is the proto-Stripped to Kill, developing an endangered community of erotic dancers including a topless juggler as well as Lenore Zann's memorable Tina, who straddles a pitchfork as she absorbs the leery energy of the red lights. Zann, it has to be said, may have beaten Amanda Wyss to the punch as a blonde damsel-in-distress. The movie threatens to establish her as the female star by offering us an intimate argument with Page Fletcher's Mark, who hopes to marry her out of this seedy environment. Louise doesn't factor until the first scene in the ladies' dressing room, and even then she seems like an ancillary character. Zann has a tremendously fragility on her face when she scrambles for eyeshadow, ignoring Mark's further points of lovesick contention. And Tina's showdown with the killer in the empty bar, set to gleefully taunting whispers as she pops the safety corks off her stage prop, is easily the film's sterling moment.

Lenore Zann gives the film's most sensuous, compelling performance. It's no surprise director Don McBrearty (Coming Out Alive) recycles her devil-may-care stage show for a brief reprise once he's exhausted all other avenues for T&A. Second best is Larry Aubrey's Dolly, who play-acts as one of the girls without going the full monty and whose panic is the least pharmaceutically-induced and the most endearingly humorous. Lora Staley is charismatic enough, but poor Lawrence Day (not to be confused with Lawrence Dane) dredges up memories of Scanners' lead Stephen Lack in that all of his screen presence is contained within his eyes. As for the eternal Darryl Revok, "Mike" Ironside, he cuts his dependably imposing swath largely because the make-up crew have left untouched that blister-like scar above his left cheek. Playing the insensitive if gritty detective without that fanatical menace, Ironside doesn't steamroll over the rampant sleaziness of the rest of the film. 

American Nightmare was shot on 16mm in late 1981 but didn't surface on the Toronto streets where it was filmed until March of 1983. Its U.S. release the following year was straight to video via Media Home Entertainment. Michael Ironside didn't get to capitalize on his Scanners infamy until a full 16 months later when Visiting Hours premiered theatrically with major distribution clout from 20th Century Fox. By that point in 1982, a Canadian import called Porky's became the studio's biggest success story and, as Roger Ebert once put it, the era of the "Dead Teenager Movie" gave way to the "Horny Teenager Movie," equally low-rent and just as heavily criticized for sexism but with different aims.

Produced by the same team behind Cronenberg's splodey-head sleeper, Filmplan's Pierre David and Victor Solnicki, Visiting Hours corralled Oscar-winner Lee Grant (Shampoo) and returning Star Trek captain William Shatner and marked the English language debut of French-Canadian director Jean-Claude Lord (The Vindicator, Mindfield). It was part of a brief blip of body count films located in hospitals (Halloween II, X-Ray) and an even bigger trend involving adult female celebrities in jeopardy (The Howling, The Fan, The Seduction). But what gave Visiting Hours its everlasting charge is the fact that it was seized by those limey gatekeepers of morality and tacked onto that notorious list of 72 allegedly obscene Video Nasties.

Turns out they just didn't like protracted scenes of knives being swept up against the half-naked bodies of pretty girls. Go figure.

Grant plays Deborah Ballin, a firebrand telejournalist who is rebuking speculation that a woman who shot her husband in self-defense faked her own tokens of domestic abuse. Shatner is her pushover producer and lover, Gary Baylor, who considers pulling the heated debate to avoid a libel suit. And Ironside's Colt Hawker apparently works as the studio's janitor and is not too pleased with Ballin's crusade for women's rights. Ballin comes home to find Hawker dressed in her jewelry and mad with homicidal rage, having already slaughtered her maid. He delivers one nasty knife wound and jettisons her out of a dumbwaiter, but she is saved when Baylor arrives to find her crawling on the floor in agony.

Thus sets up, to quote Frank Cotton from Hellraiser, "the cat-and-mouse shit" to come, with Colt Hawker taking time out from his fitful pursuit of bedridden Deborah Ballin, who is awaiting surgery in time for her follow-up interview concerning the battered wife on trial, to assault Lenore Zann's frizzy-haired Lisa after picking her up at a diner. He also endeavors to menace overworked nurse and single mother of two Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl: Crazy Mama, The High Country), who catches Hawker exiting the building after claiming two more victims, including an old woman whom the resentful psycho subjects to first-degree euthanasia, snapping photographs of her asphyxiating face. Screenwriter Brian Taggert throws in plenty of pat psychology for the burly misfit, from framed letters spewing vitriol at every minority to an ignoble father who was scalded with hot oil when Hawker was a boy and now lives in a rest home.

American Nightmare and Visiting Hours are indeed similar films not just in the pairing of Michael Ironside and Lenore Zann. They are both painfully outside attempts at sensationalizing social pathologies, courting those patrons of the arts who smuggle liquor in their raincoats whilst catcalling the nubile actresses on screen and cheering on their vile tormentor. They aren't developed enough for subversion or lingering criticism, kind of like the race-baiting Fight for Your Life. American Nightmare threatens to undo itself with every strip club interlude Don McBrearty serves up, but it does have small moments like the ones with Zann's Tina and Dolly the scared transvestite that humanize the deviant casualties. And the murder mystery plot outline affords it curiosity and anticipation.

Visiting Hours, meanwhile, is like a glossy rehash of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain with elements of Peeping Tom and The Fan mixed in. The post-Psycho swath of disturbed loner bloodbaths seem to run together if you dwell on them too much, and whatever earnestness the film conveys about "repressed hostility" (which another pundit talks about within ear's reach of the antagonist) is moot given that every woman Colt confronts is reduced to whimpering docility by his sick, self-righteous vengeance. Michael Ironside is a fine actor who can freshen up a routine villain with some welcome sarcasm (Watchers) or playfulness (Total Recall) or guilt (Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) or glazed hamminess (Destiny to Order). But with one fleeting exception where he cracks in the hospital's basement, Colt Hawker is basically a human bogeyman, the Shape of Halloween II without the costume, allowed unfettered powers of access and infiltration not limited to Ms. Ballin's operating room. Nobody at all can deduce his overwhelming presence save for Lisa, who trashes Hawker's room in retaliation and notices Sheila's face enshrined in his closet hit list.

Hawker's methodical prowess, epitomized by his self-mutilating last ditch effort to gain entry into the hospital, is stretched to the breaking point even further thanks not only to incessant stretches of pronounced victims creeping along unsafe houses, but also the bumbling way in which he fails to finish off Ms. Ballin every time he gets into that hospital. It's worth noting that he fails to kill Ballin, Lisa and even Sheila because these combined blunders drag the movie out to 105 minutes, during which time Taggert offers a few inconsequential lambs Hawker does successfully butcher, such as a meddling nurse and a gabby fellow with gallstones (R.I.P. Harvey Atkin: Meatballs, Funeral Home).

American Nightmare, for as shoddy as it gets, has the courage of its guttural convictions, whereas Jean-Claude Lord and the name cast he shepherds are a professional lot who seem to be squandering their talents. Lee Grant becomes more shrill with every scene, William Shatner seems like a complete and total afterthought and Michael Ironside coasts on his remorseless death‘s head glare. Lord is a more competent cameraman than either Rick Rosenthal or Boaz Davidson, but his occasionally tense set pieces would've had more power were they not attached to Brian Taggert's redundant, rudderless script. Taggert would go on to write the cheeky man vs. rat flick Of Unknown Origin, which was far more assured and also boasted richer contributions from director George Pan Cosmatos and star Peter Weller, but he's also responsible for Poltergeist III, another by-the-numbers spook show ripe with nefarious plot holes and teeth-rattling repetitions of character's names ("Carol Anne! Carol Anne!") where a decent story should've been.

Putting aside its memorable one-sheet poster art, Visiting Hours should itself be hooked up to a life support machine. And after having reviewed it twice in my lifetime ("Lenore Zaan?" "Video Nasties last?" Jay-sus!), I suggest we pull the plug.

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