Thursday, October 29, 2015

There's a Killer in Texas


American Nightmare (2002)

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (2002): Debbie Rochon as Jane Toppan

My favorite movie theater was doing a Hammer double-feature, THE HORROR OF DRACULA and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, so I went with Marie Janisse. It meant facing the unholy army of hipsters that have invaded downtown like a particularly condescending unnecessary headband-wearing zombie apocalypse and parking royally sucks, but where else can you find that level of quality entertainment for only nine bucks?

"C'mon, Marie, let's go get Hammered," I said.

Not only did we brave the expected deadly swarm of hipster douchery, Friday night traffic and an impossibly long line at the concessions stand but quickly discovered that going to the movies in America now involves a security checkpoint. Does the ticket taker really have to know that I haven't cleaned out my purse in a decade and that I keep an inordinate number of mini-Snickers in there? I think that's purse shaming and purse shaming is wrong.

"Do you think they'll let me go in with these?" Marie asked, referring to the mini-bottles she always smuggles into the movies.
"Sure, if you share," I said.

What has this country come to when honest, hard-working people can't even exercise their God-given right to go to the movies and chow down on some overpriced Milk Duds and a bladder busting extra large Cherry Coke without fear of having their head blown off by some maniac? What kind of sicko shoots innocent people engaged in the holy past-time of watching movies anyway? I miss the good ol' days when gun-toting lunatics went on rampage on college campuses because at least then they probably deserved it. More then the economy, increasingly narcissistic selfie culture, and alliance of corporation and government, I think that's a sign right there this country's going to hell.

And speaking of random acts of violence, it's time for the seventh film in my 31 Days of Halloween review-a-thon, AMERICAN NIGHTMARE written and directed by JOHN KEYES and starring DEBBIE ROCHON as Jane Toppan the killer nurse and BRANDY LITTLE as the tragedy-stricken babysitter who must put a stop to her Halloween mayhem.
The film opens on Halloween night where some beer-guzzling lunkhead college students who haven't seen FRIDAY THE 13TH are camping out in the Austin woods. Student nurse Trisha reveals she's been questioned by the police about her supervisor, Jane Toppan, who is suspected of murdering patients. Right on cue, Jane unleashes her knife-wielding fury and turns the co-eds into cold cuts.

"You fuckin' bitch!" Jane screams as she bashes Trisha with her bare fist. "Who do you think you are? You think you're fuckin' better than me!"
An enraged scream rips from her lungs.
Hell hath no fury like a homicidal nurse scorned deep in the heart of Texas.

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (2002): Jane Toppan (Debbie Rochon) screams with rage

Several Halloweens later, Jane sashays into a coffee shop where a group of happy-go-lucky twenty-somethings sit around listening to a pirate radio show hosted by a snarky DJ named Caligari. Unaware a violent psychopath is listening in, the friends call into Caligari's Halloween show in which guests confess their worst fears. Well, all of them except Final Girl Jessie, who is still grieving over the Halloween murder of her sister, Trisha, and prefers to spend the night baby-sitting for BRINKE STEVENS.
Jane begins stalking and murdering the friends one by one, in ways that use their own deepest, darkest fears against them.

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE is a surprisingly enjoyable shot-on-video slasher, ripping more than a few pages from HALLOWEEN (a TV-enraptured Lindsey Wallace type even watches Carpenter's film) and SCREAM. The cast is likable enough and BRANDY LITTLE, apart from one lame crying scene, is a pretty good Final Girl. She's down-to-earth and vulnerable, but still conveys the inner-strength that will allow Jessie to fight and survive. Most low-budget movies shot on video end up looking amateurish and cheap -- but this one doesn't. The photography is professional and the film manages some striking visuals. My biggest complaint is that it starts to lose steam in its third act and the characters start doing things that would be considered boneheaded even by '80s slasher standards.

But the jewel of the film is undeniably DEBBIE ROCHON as Jane. MS. ROCHON has dedicated her career to playing tortured, troubled and usually violent women and therefore deserves the Descent Into Madness Crown. She has commented publicly about her own tragic childhood filled with abuse, abandonment and living on the streets of Vancouver as a teenage runaway; I think she is remarkable in that rather than become one of the Manson Girls she has channeled her demons into her art and plays them instead.  Able to empathize as a wounded person herself, ROCHON delivers a powerful, emotionally raw performance.

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (2002): Misty sees Jane is lurking behind her in the mirror's reflection

Jane, based upon and even named after a 19th-century serial killer in Boston, carries her demons with her wherever she goes. She is driven by an uncontrollable rage, and when she finally has the opportunity to unleash it she is like a woman possessed, emitting the kind of screams that only emerge from festering wounds and deep reservoirs of anger. Jane is on more psychiatric medication then Butch McGill's law partner on a weekend bender, but it doesn't soothe the pain inside or quell her compulsions to kill. In fact, she is infuriated by the fact that she doesn't understand her impulses. "Why?" she shrieks. "I wanna know why! Everybody wants to know why!" Like her male counterparts in MANIAC and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, she has been deeply wounded by past trauma and compelled to hurt others as badly as she has been hurt.
Why else would someone direct that much rage and violence at Jessie's largely forgettable friend Melanie?
She is flirtatious and sensual, but she despises being touched, implying a history of sexual abuse. In fact, Jane's anger turns inward too as self-mutilation is a masturbatory act for her.
The morning after her homicidal spree, Jane lies on her bed and sobs uncontrollably. She's vented her emotions through violence, but she still feels no relief. She will continue until her demons consume her.

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (2002): Jane (Debbie Rochon) threatens to slit Jessie's (Brandy Little) throat

Though she has targeted Jessie because she is the sister of her perceived betrayer, Jane really resents the friends because of their carefree lives and the warm bond they have with one another. Those are the things she has been deprived of by no fault of her own.
There were times in my life I could relate to Jane. As someone who had more of her fair share of hurt, rejection, abuse and abandonment, I often felt possessed by rage. I didn't trust anyone who was normal or happy and I resented the judgmental people who went out of their way to be horrible to me but still seemed to have better lives then I did. I wished I could give it all back to them, but ultimately what good would that do me?

I actually wish the film featured more of Jane's character and less of the by-the-numbers slice n' dice aspects (as much fun as those are). This is one of the few times I would welcome a sequel to a no-budget shot-on-video-direct-to-DVD post-SCREAM slasher. C'mon filmmakers, I wanna see Jane Toppan rampaging because she's pissed off and withdrawing from numerous psychiatric meds in AMERICAN NIGHTMARE 2!

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE: newspaper article about Jane Toppan's hospital murders


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