I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The American Scream (1988)

From the cover, THE AMERICAN SCREAM (not to be confused with the documentary about people who make haunted houses) looks like a straight up comedy. It does indeed have some goofy performances, ’80s-teen-sex-comedy style jokes and what seems like a loose, sloppy swing at some kind of mild satire, but I believe it’s genuinely trying to be scary too. I don’t think it’s successful at any of those things, but it has kind of a likable vibe to it that made me at least not hate it.

It’s about a suburban family, the Benzigers, but playing off the phrase “The American Dream” for the title is kind of an odd fit. It’s about them taking a vacation to some small, snowy mountain town around Christmas time. The parents, Barbara (Jennifer Darling) and Ben (Pons Maar) are goofy comedic characters, because the actors playing them are a couple of hams. Darling is primarily a voice actor (The Dukes, Poochie, Centurions, New Kids on the Block, the computer in DEMOLITION MAN, etc.) and Maar is kind of the opposite – a puppeteer and costume performer (he played Saurod the snake-man in MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, the lead Wheeler in RETURN TO OZ, best friend Roy on Dinosaurs, and the title dino in THEODORE REX).

The Benzigers take their teenage kids, Brent (Matt Borlenghi, Police Academy: The Series) and Bridgett (Kimberlee Kramer, “Classroom Kid,” SISTER ACT 2: BACK IN THE HABIT), along with their friends Larry (Kevin Kaye, “Fight Announcer,” TEEN WOLF TOO) and Roxanne (Jeanne Sapienza, “Shopper,” GOING SHOPPING) on this trip which involves going to the local diner and dance hall but not much specific vacation activity. The locals all act very friendly and welcoming, but weird to the kids, especially when the parents briefly leave them alone in the diner. There’s a long, intense sequence of close-ups of people staring at them and eating food loudly until a local weirdo (George “Buck” Flower, THEY LIVE) comes over and touches one of the girls’s hair. They don’t say or do anything but there’s a closeup of Brent’s furious eyes.

The hair-touching is a weird and creepy thing to do, but we should note that Larry already looked up Bridgett’s skirt and Brent has a telescope for watching a neighbor lady have sex with the mailman. And when Larry tries to tell Brent he saw a woman being chased through the woods he says “Nice tits I bet.” So their hands aren’t exactly clean either. This was the PORKY’S decade.

To be honest, they should’ve had their guard up before this incident. While driving into town, the kids all witness a woman being murdered in a car behind them. They scream and then it cuts away and everyone acts like they forgot about it. They don’t even say anything about it after they start hanging out with a police officer (James Cooper, “Transient,” Alien Nation: Dark Horizon).

Later, Brent brings “what we saw on the road” up as evidence that “something strange is going on here.” His argument is also supported by an incident where a guy stares at his dong in the restroom and then tries to break in when he hides in the stall and they beat his head in and, again, don’t tell anybody.

The movie’s most spectacular highlight is a complex suspense sequence involving the boys banging on the window at a strip club (a thing that doesn’t exist) trying to warn the girls as the officer walks across the club in slow-motion and meanwhile some guy is running at them with a baseball bat but the hair-toucher knocks them over and swings an ax and beheads the baseball bat guy, whose head flies up in the air and then sort of floats down and impales itself neatly on some spikes. And then Roxanne looks out the window and sees the head smiling at her and screams, but nobody else seems to notice. It’s like an awesome Brian DePalma sequence with no context and none of the pieces fitting together quite right.

There’s also a long flashback sequence done in shaky handheld found footage style (Super-8?), so this is definitely made by people with some directorial ambitions. They just weren’t ready to live up to them.

Urban vs. rural tension is a common horror theme, but even when the country folk are straight up inbred cannibals there’s usually a sense that the city kids are intrusive tourists who almost deserve what they get. Not so much here. The townspeople seem to represent a backwards lifestyle in hostile opposition to these teens from the suburbs bringing very slight cultural changes. For real, one of the standout scenes involves everybody being outraged by Brent playing a (actually pretty decent) rock ‘n roll guitar solo at the place where everybody polkas. “Why can’t he play like everybody else?” asks one of the disgusted band members.

The most menacing person in town is a long-haired rock star looking preacher (Blackie Dammett, 52 PICK-UP, LETHAL WEAPON) who sort of stalks them and grimaces at them. In the climax, Larry (who looks kind of like a younger Miles Teller) pretends to be a Baptist minister, but the pastor seems to know he’s lying, and they go to church together and then have a fight to the death. And Larry, though basically the nerdy comic relief sidekick, seems immediately okay with having murdered somebody.

I’m unclear on what the ending means. It seems like they decide to stay and live in the town pretending to be adults. Brent wears a uniform stolen from a dead cop and seems to take on his job. Larry wears the dead pastor’s hat. I don’t know if they’re still undercover or have been doomed to replace the dead people in their roles or let’s be honest nobody really cares that much anyway, let’s forget about it.

I do sort of respect the idea of making a horror premise about being stuck around only adults. If done well it could be an appealing teen movie. It’s kind of sad to keep using the faint praise “I’ve seen worse” for Slasher Search reviews, but it does apply here. I really ought to make a chart of the different levels of slasher movie professionalism. At the top is a beautifully executed piece of art, at the bottom is completely inept swill made by clueless amateurs. This is at one of the lower levels where it’s professional enough to be watchable, but awkward and incoherent enough in the writing, staging and editing to take on a sort of outsider art weirdness. You want it to work better but you also have to appreciate the accidents that make it unique. Pretty much every piece of action, from dropping a suitcase down the stairs to all the murder scenes, is completely disorienting. Its lack of coherence almost constitutes a style.

Like many Slasher Search auteurs, writer-director-producer Mitchell Linden was a one-timer. He at least stayed in the business, working as a grip through the ’90s. In 2008 he produced the acclaimed music documentary THE WRECKING CREW!.

The cast is much more interesting. I didn’t realize while watching it, but the pastor is the father of Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And here’s a weird thing for you. As is common in these types of movies, the Benziger kids look a little older than they’re supposed to be playing. Still young, but old for the way all the adults are treating them (repeatedly offering them hot chocolate). And then they decide that this is a conspiracy against kids, and they thwart it by taking on fake adult personas (“I’m going for their cultural centers,” Brent says, meaning he will wear a fake mustache and play guitar.)

Nine years later Kimberlee Kramer, who played Beth, went the opposite direction in real life. Though she was in her early thirties, she found herself still auditioning for teenager roles, and she didn’t like the material so she started trying to write better roles for herself. But they were still teenager roles. Reinventing herself as an 18-year-old home-schooled wunderkind named Riley Weston, she convinced HERCULES IN NEW YORK director Arthur Allan Seidelman to shop around the script for a pilot called Hollimon’s Way, which she wrote as a starring vehicle for herself. That landed her a six figure development deal with Disney-Touchstone and a job writing for the television program Felicity. Entertainment Weekly bought into the gimmick of a teen writing for a teen show so hard that they put her on the 1998 It List of “The 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment.” “In many ways, I am Felicity,” she’s quoted as saying. “So I hope I portray this generation in a realistic light.” I am not familiar with the show but I think it was generally considered to have done a good job despite the huge disadvantage of being written by grownups.

According to the magazine’s follow-up “whoops” article, Kramer/Weston hung a TITANIC poster in her office, pretended to have a crush on Jonathan Taylor Thomas, allowed the crew to celebrate her “19th” birthday on set and even got her mom to play along, going to meetings with her like a chaperone.

Weston contributed to seven scripts, receiving credit for the second of a two-parter about Felicity’s friend being date raped by a Tarkovsky fan, in which she also guest starred as a prospective new student (i.e. younger than Felicity). During filming of the episode, Entertainment Tonight was supposed to come to the set to do a story on her, but an ex-friend ratted her out to them. Years later, in a 2007 interview, Weston still seemed bitter toward the outer and the journalists, and continued to justify her actions as an “accepted practice” of actresses lying about their age. Reportedly her scripts were pretty good (and she has continued to work as a screenwriter and novelist), but she doesn’t seem to have a writerly self-awareness about the outlandish stunt she pulled.

In all the articles I read, I could not find any quotes attributed to Felicity co-creators turned Hollywood bigshots J.J. Abrams or Matt Reeves. But keep an eye out for a plot twist in STAR WARS EPISODE 9 where Rey turns out to be way older than she represented herself as. That would be a sign that Abrams was traumatized by the deception.

Anyway, I thought you should know about all that. THE AMERICAN SCREAM is a not very good horror movie, but it’s a not very good horror movie that stars Theodore Rex, a voice from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Anthony Kiedis’s dad and a lady that pretended to be a teen to get a job on Felicity. So it has its place in cinema history, that’s for sure.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 17th, 2017 at 11:45 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “The American Scream (1988)”

  1. Damn, now I wonder if that FELICITY scandal was a reversed inspiration for the “Maeby goes to Hollywood” subplot in ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

  2. Everything about this review makes me want to see this immediately. Vern, you are indeed a national treasure.

  3. “And then they decide that this is a conspiracy against kids, and they thwart it by taking on fake adult personas”

    The teens’ plan seems to make about as much sense as the characters in HARD ROCK ZOMBIES suddenly deciding that the zombies are afraid of heads, so they make giant cardboard cutouts of heads and carry them around on sticks.

  4. Crushinator Jones

    October 17th, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    This whole fucking thing…did I just read this? A Felicity scandal, a nonsensical plot, that cover poster? it’s already slid from my mind like a dream upon waking…I think I need to lie down.

  5. Vern, I like how Felicity keeps haunting your psyche (getting discussed at length in your reviews for M:I3 and THE FORCE AWAKENS) despite your tireless assertion that you’ve never watched it.

  6. Weird coincidence how FELICITY keeps cropping up in these reviews. Never watched the show myself. Certainly don’t have any opinions on how much Julie sucks or Ben vs Noel or that tacked-on time-travel arc. Nope, none at all.

  7. I’m 28 and I couldn’t imagine trying to pass as a teenager now, let alone when I’m in my 30s.

  8. FELICITY is my favorite of your running gags. And, holy shit, it has got to be fifteen years old by now.

  9. My family has good genes. My mother is 70 and look like early 50s. I’m 35 and could pass for someone in his mid to late 20s. And my sister is 40 and still has to show her ID when she buys cigarettes for our mother! (But her hair started to turn grey, so who knows how long that will last.)

  10. Sorry to mention Felicity without more research, I don’t even know for sure if it is a real show

  11. A friend of mine who didn´t know my age and when he found out he said I looked like an unusually old 25 year old. I don´t know what to take away from that. I am 38.

  12. A friend of mine who didn´t know my age and when he found out he said I looked like an unusually old 25 year old. I don´t know what to take away from that. I am 38.

  13. I got carded on my 40th birthday.

  14. Pons Maar is interviewed in Return To Oz – The Making of on YouTube at 7:20.

  15. When people find out my age (43) they always react with big surprise, but they don’t say how old they think I am and I never get carded, so it must not be that young.

    And while I know I look younger than I am, I’m also a little paranoid they’re surprised at my age because I’m a failure at adulthood. By that I mean I don’t have the usual markers society wants me to have – a husband, kids, a house, a successful career.

  16. True to my word, I watched this last night, and holy cow, it’s a fucking weird movie. I would swear it was Italian if it wasn’t so obviously American, because it’s fucking rare to see an American slasher this full of crazy nonsensical dream logic.

    Most notably, the film ends with the “kids” (it’s unclear how old they’re supposed to be, but one of them gets naked and fucks a police officer in the front seat of a pickup truck, so presumably they’re over 18) murdering four adults and basically adopting their identities, and then the parents just pick up and leave town, presumably forgetting they brought four kids with them. It’s so utterly bizarre it just screams that it’s gotta be a metaphor for something, but for what I could not possibly tell you.

    Maggie — I’d still steer clear of the town in AMERICAN SCREAM if I was you. The “kids” in this movie are at least 30, and they’re not even close to passing.

  17. Also: the scene Vern describes at the strip club has to be seen to be believed. It really is super-ambitious, arty, and fucking bugnuts insane in the best giallo tradition.

    And thankfully you CAN see it, because the whole thing is streaming on youtube! Normally I’d feel bad about posting a copyrighted movie, but since the only legal option is a 40 buck VHS from amazon, you should probably feel OK about enjoying it free. If you want to just see the scene in question, you can start right at 35.55 (which is the link I’m posting here). You may think you should skip back and get some context, but trust me: there is absolutely no context for any of this. Please note: there is possibly some nudity, so Not Safe For Work (NSFW!)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APaKcX6swy4#t=35m55s

  18. Maggie – Me and most of the people in my life have similar insecurities about our lives and other peoples’ views of them. I have nothing wise to say about it except that there are many of us out there, and that’s okay.

  19. I imagine it is worse for women as they are expected to keep up some form of an appearence. Makeup etc regardless of age. I can go down to the market looking like absolute shit and nobody cares. But when a woman leaves a house looking the same……… I don´t know. Maybe I am wrong. I just imagine it is not the same.

    Maggie- you don´t need to worry about not being carded. You also don´t need to worry about adult failure. I think we all around here feels some form of failure in that regard

  20. I still have trouble to realize that I’m actually an adult and therefore on eye level with other adults. It still feels to me like I’m a teenager and they are my teachers or parents, which makes them more powerful than me. Okay, it might have something to do with me not exactly known for acting my age*, also being unemployed more or less since I left school, not owning a driver’s licence, not being married or having kids. And recently I had the 19th anniversary of my last haircut.

    I don’t know. Life is complicated. I’m not sure if being a married father with a car and short hair, who thinks of adults as part of his tribe, would make me happier. A job would be nice, though.

    *In all fairness, when it comes to shit like drinking, drugs or breaking rules, I’ve always been more of a grumpy old man who wants the kids to get off his lawn, even when I was a teenager!

  21. As a former Catholic from a big family that’s still growing, I’m proud of never having kids. Too many fuckin’ humans on this planet already.

    That said, you guys would not believe what a loser I’ve become in the last few years, based on any and all societal standards. Mostly, I judge my situation by how practical and pleasant it is for me personally, but every now and again I take a look at myself from an imagined outside perspective and I feel like a total waste of DNA. That can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks. Most of the time, though, I’m fairly content with my low-overhead, low-risk, even-lower-reward approach to life. I know I can do better and I probably will someday, but I’ve never wanted a “normal” life—kids, a wife, a house, a career, a riding lawnmower—and that means I have to figure out as I go what kind of life I do want. Sometimes I get lost and turned around. That’s what happens when you venture off the path. But the truth of the matter is, I suspect that’s just as true for most people who’ve always stayed on the straight and narrow. At some point, anybody with any self-awareness looks at their situation and wonders how the hell they got here and why the hell it isn’t somewhere better. I think that’s just being human.

  22. If it makes you guys feel any better, I’m living the heteronormative dream and still think I’m a huge failure. Plus I’m jealous of all you single fucks who can go see a movie whenever or sit at home and watch BLOODFIST movies all day.

  23. I feel somewhat uplifted of this. The terrible realization of not confining to conformity is as daunting and terrifying because you lack direction and purpose. But there is a fantastic freedom to find in all of this. You have less expectations, less struggles, you have less to live up to. All you have to do is live up to yourself. But that in itself is daunting.

  24. Crustacean, not to rub it in or anything, but I do get immense pleasure out of things like eating an entire package of Oreos for dinner. Still probably won’t make up for not having kids to take care of me in my old age, though.

  25. Grimgrinningchris

    October 18th, 2017 at 6:46 pm

    I was trying to be an adult. I’m about to turn 42 after all.

    I saw this store and figured it might help so I stopped in for some supplies.

    Turns out the place with the big sign that says ADULT STORE isn’t what I thought it was.

  26. Maggie: With rising housing prices, a stagnant economy and looming spectre of automation, I’ll be lucky if my kids aren’t sponging off me for the rest of my life. Assuming Trump doesn’t tweet us all into a nuclear apocalypse first. That said, cramming a whole package of Oreos down my throat is one of the few pleasures I can still enjoy, providing I do it out of eyeline of the kids. Mostly I miss sleeping past 6:30am.

  27. I’m 28 and I honestly do not feel like a full grown adult at all, I feel eternally frozen at age 19.

  28. I have discovered a movie that I’m currently watching and I had to tell you about it even though there is still an hour left. There is a movie that exists called Wacko. Like Student Bodies, it’s a slasher parody. It’s not funny except for they school the movie takes place is the Hitchcock’s and their rival school is the DePalma’s. It has quite the pedigree though.

    1. Film debut of Andrew Dice Clay
    2. Julia Duffy of Designing Woman fame
    3. Joe Don Baker is the alcoholic detective. It has a scene of him dressed in drag being whipped by a dominatrix for no reason.
    4. George Kennedy in what has to be the creepiest role he’s or most people have ever done. He spends a good portion of the movie trying to see his own daughter naked.

    The film is directed by Graydon Clark who directed Skinheads (which I believe Vern reviewed), Without Warning and Satan’s Cheerleaders.

    The movie has four writers. One of them is David Greenwalt who was a writer/producer on Buffy and Angel, Jim Kouf who created Grimm and wrote Rush Hour, The Hidden and a whole bunch of other well known things.

    Just a weird thing this thing exists.

  29. That cover art is genius. Had there ever been a NATIONAL LAMPOON’S HALLOWEEN VACATION I’m sure it would’ve had similar poster art.

  30. I’ve read the comments in this thread with considerable interest and come to the conclusion that we have all in one way or another made choices in our lives that are analogous to That Time Felicity Cut Her Hair And Ruined Everything. The world may never embrace us for our choices – it may in fact abandon us – but, speaking for myself, a world without at least a few pixies running around in it is no world I want to live in.

    Question for you Vern: Ben or Noel?

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