REVIEW You can judge a book by its cover when the cover is as scarily impressive as the one for Stephen Thrower's Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (Fab Press, 528 pages, $79.95). It's a map of the United States, with each state composed of a fragment from a low-budget horror film. Blood drips from the edges of the South. The entire top of the Midwest is blocked by a large image of someone in an asbestos suit. He's aiming a lively flamethrower directly at you and me.
Also sporting a pair of amazing inset spreads that showcase the title credits of 300 films, Thrower's tome deserves a spot next to Carlos Clarens's An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (Capricorn, 1967), Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws (Princeton University Press, 1992), Michael Weldon's The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (Ballantine, 1983), and Bill and Michelle Landis's Sleazoid Express (Simon and Schuster, 2002) on a healthily horrific bookshelf. Its closest relative in terms of loose format and interview content might be Incredibly Strange Films (RE/Search, 1986), but Thrower casts aside V. Vale's coolness for the passion found in Danny Peary's series of Cult Movies books.
More pointedly, Thrower's study of American exploitation film from the 1970s through the mid-'80s applies terribly to the current moment. For one thing, recent Hollywood torture porn owes a multimillion-dollar influential debt to the small-time labors of twisted love celebrated by Nightmare USA. For another, Thrower is flashing a spotlight or beaming a flashlight on the American death drive at a time when this country seems increasingly or wholly out of touch with, and idiotically clueless about, its violent id. It helps that this catalogue of what United Kingdom censors called video nasties proves as visually and verbally lively as the toothy title grubs in The Deadly Spawn (1982).
And for a book bathed in blood and drawn to depressing and despairing expressions of murder such as the infamous Maniac (1980), Nightmare USA is surprisingly and endearingly warmhearted. "Watching the materialistic beach babes and sexist volleyball hunks of Slumber Party Massacre 3 (Sally Mattison, 1990) driving down a coastal road in an open-topped car listening to awful AM pop-rock, I hug myself with excitement, treasuring my affection for these bubbleheads and jackasses," Thrower writes. "They are my friends and I can't wait to see them die." Themes of friendship also emerge from the book's profiles along with some equally unexpected juxtapositions. Deadly Spawn director Douglas McKeown now runs a storytelling group at New York's Gay and Lesbian Center. Frederick Freidel, the director of Axe (1974), says his assistant consulted with esteemed critic Manny Farber. Joseph Ellison, director of Don't Go in the House (1979), discusses jazz and watching Federico Fellini films and shares a photo of his film's producer with a beaming Frank Capra.
That photo couldn't be stranger, considering that Ellison's truly scarifying film provides Nightmare USA with the fire on its front cover. That man in the asbestos suit is grafted from an infamous scene, set in a steel room, that after decades of deciding it was beyond my threshold of experience I recently discovered (thanks in part to my brave cohort Cheryl Eddy) is both superior to and an obvious source for Eli Roth's Hostel (2005).