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Joseph Maddrey’s 2004 book NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE: THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN HORROR FILM has come to life as a documentary, directed by the author himself. Featuring interviews with horror legends such as John Carpenter, George Romero, Larry Cohen, Joe Dante and many others, as well as Fango editor emeritus Tony Timpone, the film (currently available across North America through Warner Bros. Digital Distribution; DVD follows September 28 from Lorber Films) will serve as a companion to Maddrey’s written look at domestic horror and its progression in relation to the changing social and political climates and phases of the United States.
Bringing the book into a visual format where it most likely will gain a wider audience may seem like an obvious idea; however, Maddrey had not originally planned to go further than its initial incarnation. “The book was published in 2004, and I was contacted out of the blue in 2007 by a producer who wanted to turn the book into a documentary,” Maddrey tells Fango. “I wasn’t planning on doing anything like that myself, so I told him to have a go at it.”
The project was begun by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3D director Jeff Broadstreet and scripter Robert Valding. However, the two exited the project during production to take on a new feature, though Broadstreet retains an “interviewer” credit. “About a year later,” Maddrey continues, “I was asked, ‘How about if we hire you to make the documentary yourself?’ I enlisted my friend Andrew Monument, who is an excellent editor and also a big horror fan, and we took the ball and ran with it.”
Although Maddrey discusses much of their work in NIGHTMARES, he had not previously been acquainted with many of the notable names interviewed in the doc. “I had met George Romero and Lance Henriksen at conventions, but other than that I had never been in a room with any of these guys,” he explains. “One of the first things I had to do was get over my own insecurities as an interviewer. I kept reminding myself that most people don’t get an opportunity to interview their personal heroes. I felt nervous, but also very fortunate. I prepared thoroughly for each interview and, for me, every conversation was like two old friends catching up. We may not have known each other, but we had a lot of the same interests and formative experiences, and that goes a long way.”
One common thread between interviewer, filmmaker and horror fans alike is the commitment and total devotion to the genre as something significant. “One of the things that came out of this process that I didn’t get from writing the book was a sense that people don’t choose to be horror fans,” Maddrey says. “Horror chooses us, usually pretty early in life, when we’re still trying to sort out our beliefs about life and death and our place in the world. For horror filmmakers and fans alike, it’s a serious genre that’s important to them. We don’t necessarily search for hidden meaning in every film, but we keep coming back to horror films for a reason. What I wanted to do with the documentary was to look at the genre in that light. These are films that, to some extent, help define who we are as individuals and as a culture.”
Looking into the social importance and commentary of these films requires a lot of critical analysis and heavy thought. In the book, Maddrey cites important film critic and theorist Robin Wood (HITCHCOCK’S FILMS) as a major influence. He doesn’t plan on overloading the brain with too much intellectual jargon, however. “I think Robin Wood is brilliant and, in general, I’m very interested in any intelligent analysis of horror film subtexts,” Maddrey notes. “But I also recognize that academic writing about horror films can stray pretty far from the texts themselves. I have a hard time watching Romero’s DEAD movies these days without considering the things Robin Wood has written about them. But as Romero himself says, you can’t afford to get too deep into that sort of thing or you forget that the movies are supposed to be fun.”
Maddrey adds, “With the book and the documentary, I tried to take the middle road, putting the films into a historical context without getting so elaborate that I forgot to have fun with them.”
That sense of fun just may be what differentiates NIGHTMARES from any of the recent crop of horror docs, most notably the standout, Adam Simon’s THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (not based on the Wood collection of essays with the same name). “First of all, I love Adam Simon’s documentary THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE and I’m more than happy to be associated with that,” Maddrey says. “For better or worse, NIGHTMARES has a broader scope, a more lighthearted tone and a much faster pace. Also, Simon’s documentary was rooted in the late ’60s and early ’70s—the turning point for American horror films. Our documentary starts with Lon Chaney and the Universal Monsters and goes straight on through to torture porn, charting changes in the genre, but also looking for what ties them all together.”
The fast pace of the visual component is right in line with its textual counterpart, which squeezes a lot of info into a surprisingly small book. The author/director shot for the same goal, saying, “The completed documentary runs 96 minutes and, yes, that is a very short amount of time in which to cover 100 years worth of horror films. It’s broken up by decade, with about 10 minutes going to each section, so it screams along.”
Maddrey is extremely proud of the documentary and has faith in its appeal, citing the one particular viewpoint of critic John Kenneth Muir. “In the documentary, Muir observes that there are really two types of horror fans. The dividing line falls somewhere around the late ’60s/early ’70s when traditional monster movies were overrun by what he terms the ‘savage cinema.’ That’s one way of looking at it. John Carpenter has his own take: one type of horror film is about the fear of what’s ‘out there’ and another is about the fear of what’s inside each and every one of us. These two analyses actually overlap. Popular horror movies trend one way or another depending on audience desires, which are often determined by what’s going on in the world at the time. A person’s interest in a particular type of horror film may depend on when they first became interested in the genre. In my experience, most horror fans can tell you what movie or group of movies made them a horror fan. Hopefully, this documentary will be a great conversation-starter.”
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