American Nightmare: 5 Films that Expose the Dark Underbelly of Americana
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – While much of the focus on this thriller by Alfred Hitchcock is on the small town Americana setting (and rightfully so), the truly subversive element is the situating of the horror within the family itself. From a fairly
young age, we’re often told “don’t talk to strangers!” with the assumption being that our trust should lie with family. In constructing a growing cat-and-mouse relationship between the younger Charlie (Teresa Wright) – who begins to suspect that the visiting uncle (Joseph Cotton) who is her namesake – might be a sociopathic killer, Hitchcock recognizes and illustrates that it’s often those closest to us who can do the most harm.
Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter has built a career on terrifying us by revealing what lies beneath pleasing exteriors, whether it’s the grotesque alien disguised as a dog in The Thing or the horrors of capitalism hiding behind, well, the horrors of capitalism
in They Live. In helping to define the slasher film, Carpenter escalated the themes of Shadow of a Doubt (loss of innocence, the small town as a site of horror) and replaced the smiling uncle of that film with the expressionless mask Michael Myers. Many slashers have since sought to recreate this solitary killer, hacking his way through a collection of teens, but the best of them add a layer by taking places that were once safe (the home, an idyllic camp, the shower) and violating those spaces.
Blue Velvet (1986) – There is a shot near the beginning of David Lynch’s film where the camera pans down beneath the fresh-cut lawn (after the man mowing it has collapsed) and zooms in on dirt-covered insects attempting to devour each other. It’s the sort of on-the-nose symbolism that would be laughable coming from nearly any other filmmaker, but is comfortingly clear and understandable in a film from a man whose name has become an adjective which could mean “intentionally confusing” (it actually means “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very
mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter,” according to David Foster Wallace). In Blue Velvet, a college student (Kyle MacLaclan) returns home, and upon discovering a severed ear becomes drawn into a mystery - for which the term “psycho-sexual” might have been coined - beneath the surface of the small town. Lynch twists innocent boys’ mysteries, teen romance, and a perfectly nice song, while adding an extra layer of menace to the trope of the small-town thug with Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth.
Far from Heaven (2002) – Todd Hayne’s meticulous recreation of a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama is not a horror film. What it shares with the other films on this list is a
peeling-back of the façade of the nuclear family in the post-War 40s, 50s, and 60s to reveal the tensions and conflicts that were always there. Here, the focus is on Julianne Moore’s happy housewife - literally the model of white, suburban domesticity – who learns that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is having clandestine affairs with men. At the same time, she falls in love with the African-American landscaper (Dennis Haysbert) while the Civil Rights movement is raging well-outside of their quiet town. Haynes recreates the aesthetics of those earlier films, as well as the heightened emotional melodrama while contrasting the fictional reality they presented with the actual reality of race, gender, and sexuality.
Get Out (2017) – Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut tackles one of the most recent myths in American culture – that of a post-racial America. With the election in 2008 of Barack Obama as the first African-American president, along with his re-election in 2012, it may have been natural to think (or at least, hope) that America had finally moved beyond the racism and bigotry that marked, really, the entirety of American history. This clearly wasn’t the case. Part of the brilliance of Peele’s film is avoiding
the obvious targets when discussing race in America. Here, the villains are those who would never claim to hate black people. Peele points a finger at white liberalism as the most insidious threat. It tackles issues of cultural appropriation, tokenism, exploitation, and colonialism through a lens of sci-fi/horror in ways that stick with you long after viewing the film.