Have you ever encountered a well-made film but don't know how to handle it? This is my situation with the horror film documentary Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. This is not a bad documentary at all. The production values are solid, the interview subjects are strong choices, and the presentation of horror film history in the context of American politics, social movements, and economics is a strong one. My issue is my own knowledge of the subject.
Director Andrew Monument films Joseph Maddrey's adaptation of his own book. The 200 page book from McFarland and Co. is condensed to a 96 minute documentary that seems to zip through space and time in its quest to be everything for everyone. By the one minute mark, we've already jumped from Edison's Frankenstein in 1910 to the silent people-driven horrors of the 1920s. Just when it feels like you're going to get into something really compelling, the film chases after the next trend.
This is not necessarily a bad thing for someone interested but not well-versed in horror. There is absolutely a place for a more general overview of the genre. Just because I prefer using books like Fear without Frontiers for long articles on individual filmmakers does not mean someone else isn't better served by a more cursory glance at the big picture.
What Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue does well is connect the big points to each other. The 1920s silent horror features are just as influenced by the carnage of The Great War as the more esoteric works of the Modernist movement. Val Lewton was producing pictures that played off the paranoia and fear of what was happening in the years leading up to World War II. Some of the monster movies and B-Pictures in the '50s were a response to the Red Scare and McCarthyism. All of the horror films and filmmakers mentioned in the film tie in nicely with their place in American history.
This is not to say that this style of analysis isn't a bit dry. The film uses a lot of stock footage of historical periods. This is combined with tiny excerpts of film advertisements and the occasional clipping of a scene to prove a point. The points are expressed in a horror context by filmmakers like John Carpenter and Mick Garris, providing a believable sense of authority to the documentary. It's just the film winds up playing like a TV special on the History Channel. It's factual, but by the numbers and with minimal variation in technique throughout.
As a primer to the horror genre in America, Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film is an excellent resource to use. As a documentary film, it's a little bit dry but well-produced and tight. But for someone who knows his Boris Karloffs from his Vincent Prices, his Roger Cormans from his Wes Cravens, this film is just a bit too simplistic and predictable to be satisfying.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.