10/5/12

The American Scream (1988) Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Slasherness

One of the only things that are more authentically American than Mom’s apple pie is the horror comedy. I now you don’t hear them mentioned in the same sentence as often as one should, but it’s true never the less. All the way back in 1820, American author Washington Irving founded the subgenre with the slapstick tale of Ichabod Crane “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” which featured as many laughs as screams. Flash forward to the 1920s, and while horror films were some of the first made, horror-comedies were not far behind with 1922’s Ghost Breakers and 1926’s The Cat and the Canary leading the pack. In the 1940s and 50s, Abbot and Costello brought about a new realm of horror comedies with the 1941 film Hold that Ghost, and thus began a franchise which would see the comedy duo meet everyone from Frankenstein and Dracula to The Invisible Man and Boris “The Killer” Karloff. The sixties saw such titles as Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors and Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. However the real heyday of horror comedy was the 70s and 80s which saw diverse films such as Theater of Blood, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Love at First Bite, Motel Hell, Evil Dead, Gremlins, The Stuff, Vamp, and many, many more combine laughter and nightmares. So when I ran across a VHS copy of a horror comedy called The American Scream, from 1988 right in the thick of the sub-genre’s boom, I knew this could go one of two ways, I could be standing up to salute when the credits rolled or wondering if Homeland Security had a toll free number.

The Benzingers are your typical American family looking for a little winter vacation time in the mountains. Father Ben (Pons Maar) packs up the clan including wife Barbara (Jennifer Darling), son Brent (Matthew Borlenghi), daughter Bridgette (Riley Weston) and their two friends Larry and Roxanne (Kevin Kaye and Jeanne Sapienza) into their orange Bronco and heads out for a mountain resort. The town’s brochure touts the holiday spot as a “Great Place to Bring the Kids”, but when they arrive, there are no other kids in town. In fact, everyone is kind of creepy, gross, and old. Enduring eerie guys with their stuffed dogs (George “Buck” Flower), Polka parties full of seniors, and a weirdo preacher that keeps hanging around (Blackie Dammett), the kids soon discover there’s more to the town than meets the eye. While the outside of the brochure shows a happy family with the legend “A great place to bring your kids”, the insides shows the parents all alone with the caption, “And leave your worries behind forever.” So the teens do the only thing they can think of to save their skins and get out alive, they become adults.

The American Scream is the kind of movie that if I had seen in it 1988 when I was twelve years old, it would have been one of the funniest best movies I had ever seen. What can I say? Standards are lower when you’re twelve. First off the film kicks off with the teen boys looking though a telescope at the naked, very 80’s looking lady across the street, and that alone would have been enough to make me watch it again when I was a pre-teen. (Though I would like to say that they say fashion trends come around again. So when are high cut panties, big hair, and natural boobs coming back because I want to mark my calendar?) It then moves right into corny jokes. Someone suggests they pick up a hitchhiker to which the dad replies, “What kind of clown would be hitchhiking a ride out here?” The answer, an actual one with a red nose and big shoes. This is basically the kind of humor you can expect in The American Scream. For me, that meant I was entertained and smiled a number of times at hokey jokes. For others, that would be the make or break moment where either you keep going or groan and turn the movie off. In another example, two rednecks in a bar are fighting because one of them called Charlie Pride, the African-American country singer, black. Yeah, not a good joke, but amusing on a level in the moment. The American Scream traffics in lowest common denominator jokes, and in a low budget, love brow kind of way it succeeds.

On the whole, for the entirety of The American Scream, the acting is between sub-par and plain awful, but that kind of gave the film a charm that I wouldn't have expected. Really it feels like a spiritual brother to Troll 2, but unfortunately nothing here is as quotable as “You Can’t Piss on Hospitality.” The standout performances in the film all come from character actors who turned in performances beyond the norm. Blackie Damett a.k.a John Kiedis a.k.a the daddy to Red Hot Chili Pepper Anthony only appears in a few scenes as The Preacher (who looks extraordinarily like the WWE’s Undertaker), but his over the top menace amuses every time he came on screen. The same can be said of legendary character actor George “Buck” Flower as the town nut Ed. There’s one shot of Flower menacingly eating pancakes that I ran back and watched three or four times. The family themselves are interesting to watch with Pons Maar getting laughs from his general goofiness and Jennifer Darling making me smile as the stereotypical 80s mom.

While the teens themselves are not all that amusing, one of them at least has a great story behind her. Riley Weston, born in 1966 as Kimberlee Seaman (which is how her billing is actually listed here), making her 21 when she appeared as the Benzinger’s teen daughter would later write for the popular 90’s show Felicity, when she was 19. Well, at least she said she was 19. Weston actually was 32 at the time, and after making a near half million dollar deal with Disney and being called a “wunderkind” in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, she was eventually found out. She has still written and acted since then so I suppose it didn't ruin her career, but I can see how she got away with it. I would never have thought her to be drinking age in The American Scream, and in the brief scene where she was topless, I found myself debating the legality until I read this story.

The American Scream was the one and only film directed by Mitchell Linden who would go on to work on the crew of such films as Lone Star and The Grifters. While his movie certainly wasn’t the best stab at horror-comedy, I’m surprised he didn't ever make another film. The American Scream kind of feels like someone took a straight up 80s slasher, removed the blood and guys, had a light re-write by the Zucker Brothers third cousin twice removed and called it a day. What I had to decide was would I put The American Scream up there with Mom and apple pie? Well, if it had been a movie about “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes killing off rival wrestlers, then yes I absolutely could have. As it stands, I have to put this lower on the pecking order of horror-comedies. The same year The American Scream was released also saw the debut of Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Night of the Demons, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. So even in its release year it couldn’t stand up to competition. Well, The American Scream still languishes on VHS with no future releases in sight so I doubt many folks have to worry about stumbling across this one, but if you do, know this. When the founding fathers of our country wrote out the immortal words of the Deceleration of Independence, there’s a reason they didn't put in a fart joke. Addams just wouldn't let them.

Bugg Rating

There's no trailer out there, but I did find a couple of clips including the diner scene which was my favrorite moment in the film
It's Slamdancing!

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