A stupendously detailed beast of a tome, Stephen Thrower's `Nightmare USA' is an utterly indispensable read, especially for any lover of the gory glory that emanates, radioactive glow-fashion, from the American cinematic underground of the 70s and early 80s. In this weighty volume, Thrower first creates and explains the context of the era, exploring precisely why America from 1970-1985 proved to be such a fertile climate for low-budget exploitation films. He goes on to chronicle the various trends and themes that pervaded the genre, before getting to the guts of the book - around 300 pages covering 23 different directors and their work, sometimes an in-depth look at a single worthy film, other times an examination of their whole oeuvre. These fascinating chapters are followed by over a hundred pages of reviews, which, if you're anything like me, may end up as a virtual shopping list for the lover of nasty obscurities.
So what makes this such a superb piece of work? Well, there's the scale and scope of it. A proposed second volume is apparently on the way, which indicates just how much fascinating, previously untouched information Thrower has unearthed. In fact, Thrower himself admits that even he was taken unawares by just how much material he was capable of mining from his beloved topic. And what material! Even in regard to films that have never crossed your path (and I defy even the most illuminated of underground cognoscenti to read this and not encounter a film previously unheard of), Thrower's enthusiastic, savvy, delightfully opinionated writing will spark fascination and possibly obsession for the films he lovingly looks over. In fact, Thrower's writing and approach to the exploitation underground in general is characterised by both intelligence and jaw-dropping dedication. 5 years in the making, the amount of painstaking research the man has undertaken has to be seen to be believed. Lengthy interviews abound, and from an aesthetic point of view, the book is filled to the brim with wonderful, lurid images both from the films themselves and associated advertising material such as posters and lobby-cards. Not simply a feast for the mind, this book is very importantly a feast for the eye too.
What is particularly refreshing about `Nightmare USA' is seeing films like these discussed with a level of insight and analysis which they deserve. Thrower is keen not simply to wallow in the sometimes morbid worlds he discusses, but to present his own insight into what he feels the films are trying to say, or are saying without trying to! But his analysis, while intellectual and often highly psychological, is not the stuff of dry academia - Thrower feels too much personal connection to the films he discusses for that, allowing him to strike a neat balance between passion and erudition.
Some personal highlights include chapters on `The Child', `Death Bed', `Messiah of Evil' and `The Strangeness' (complete with its perverse looking monster, now gracing a Code Red DVD near you!) For me, however, one the most interesting sections concerns Robert Endelson's ultra-controversial study of prejudice, `Fight For Your Life', a film which, at the time of writing I haven't seen, and I'm still not sure if I want to, but to which Thrower devotes a fascinating chapter, exploring the film's notoriety in a measured manner.
Further reading? Well, the Thrower-edited Eyeball Compendium is well worth a look, a fine compilation of articles from Thrower's influential magazine. Then there's `Beyond Terror' for Thrower's enraptured take on the Italian master, Lucio Fulci. But overall, `Nightmare USA' is a godsend to anyone willing to get grimy on a trip to the uncharted depths of American cinema - trust me, once you're in, you won't want to emerge, and if you do, you'll never be the same!