Now, a trio of what could charitably be called “rock ‘n’ roll films” for Worst or “Worst”. It’s gonna get weird.
It is a crying shame that the slasher film and heavy metal music, the two most iconic cultural forms of the 1980s (in my mind at least, but that may say more about me than the cultural forms of the 1980s), crossed paths so infrequently. Perhaps because slasher films were more about making the quickest buck imaginable, the sort built on cheap budgets and profit-cost margins mind you, and metal may be the most self-consciously grand genre in all of music, the two just didn’t meld well (metal and giallo on the other hand…). They just seem such natural companions for each other, though, and the opening ten minutes of Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare proceed to do just about everything it can possibly imagine to destroy the legitimacy of this melding of minds.
Where do we begin? With the film, I suppose. A hyper-naturalist, deliberately mundane, even impressionist house positioned somewhere between the ever-mundane suburbs and the lonelier rural regions of the world. Someone behind the camera fancies his or herself a Nicolas Roeg or a Terrence Malick, it would seem. After we waft in the depressed scenery and the faux autumnal dread for a second or two, we ingest the melancholy and prepare ourselves mentally for a critique of the longing human spirit in the modern era. And then, a woman is devoured in her oven by a puppet skeleton ghoul face that looks more than a little like the Crypt Keeper before the Crypt Keeper was cool again. What contrast! Ladies and gentlemen, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, already confounding expectations with prescient cinematic thought and a style of impressionist/ anti-impressionist filmmaking wholly out of place in the entirety of the 1980s. In other words, it is a film looking to the past and to the future in equal measure.
Then we get more of the impressionist dread. Like, a lot of it, more than you would think for a film that just pulled off that incredibly lame-brained bait-and-switch opener whose idea of suspense was as elemental and childish as “wait and do nothing before something unexpected happens”. As in, we watch a car move down a road for a really long time, never glimpsing the passengers, maybe presuming that the car has attained a mind of its own and needs to venture off to the simpler regions of the rustic world to take some time off away from the hectic chaos of city life. We just wait and watch, rolling along with the car and confronting this limbo-like dread all around. If, of course, the people making the film (I believe they call them directors, cinematographers, and editors, but I do not believe this film has heard of any of those), actually had any idea of how to build up autumnal dread other than pointing a camera at everyday-looking places for a few minutes and hoping that they filmed in the right month and it was autumn outside.
Eventually, we arrive at that same farmhouse that opened the film in all its majesty and discover that the car was one of those packed-to-bursting clown cars, except here the clowns are a metal band of sorts. They are using this house as an excuse to chill out for a while, or, as they put it, to “rehearse”. Their arrival scene also treats us to the tremendously unearned, self-promoting line “Toronto is where it’s happening man. The music, the film industry, the arts”. Now, this line may seem perfectly inept to the point of almost breaking the fourth wall (this is a Canadian production, after all), as though the character speaking the line ought to look at the camera and wink for a second. In reality, however, it is utilitarian line, managing any film’s most Herculean task of telling us where the film takes place without actually scratching the celluloid itself and ending the film early. See, these filmmakers were actually up to something smart in all this. Orson Welles ain’t got nothing on them; when he let us know that Citizen Kane took place in the US of A, the film ceased to exist, after all.
That line now ingrained in our minds with elegant style and passion, everyone in the production only needed to pack up and head home, having already completed their duties as moral citizens and intelligent filmmakers. Once they cleared the hurdle of Canada existing and being cool apparently, they were so noble that they decided to continue, however. So shall we, cautiously I might add. The film does manage to prove to us that this is actually a band here and not a group of coke-addicts pretending to be one (although I am still not entirely sure). For a while, we basically watch as they do band stuff, with no hint of horror other than the multitude of what are I suppose POV tracking shots of nothing wandering the halls of the farmhouse that really only tell us someone saw Halloween and The Evil Dead and felt that this gardening show should follow in the footsteps of actual grown-up films. At this point, some sort of, well, what I can only describe as a penis monster happens upon the screen and …spits in a cup? All of which makes this just about as confusing as any number of Italian giallo films, although without the stupendously baroque visual energy and playful understanding of perspective that made those films out to be experiments in color and space.
Soon enough, a horror film in the broadest of strokes emerges, and a slasher film at that, but Rock N Roll Nightmare cannot but keep confounding minute after minute. What, exactly, the slasher entity is here is never particularly explained, for instance; all we get is the knowledge that something, presumably the spit, is slowly transforming the twentysomethings into versions of themselves that spontaneously erupt into vague demon-beasts who then kill the others who in turn become beasts themselves, I think, apparently. The state of what exactly is happening to these characters is obtuse at best, and at some level completely unimportant. So unimportant that the film flirts, for most of its run-time, with anti-film narrative deconstruction that deliberately eviscerates rhyme and reason and the need for arbitrary explanation in slasher movies at all. Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare wishes to show us, essentially, that this is a nightmare, and that in a nightmare, explanation and sense are unimportant to the raw feeling of the events. Again, it might just be that this is a Canadian attempt to recreate the experimental, almost non-narrative qualities of Italian horror from the 1970s, or even something more caustic and pointed, something wishing to deliberately expose how arbitrary slasher films are at a base level.
It certainly has the feel of a nightmare, to this point. But giallos worked because their nightmares were nonsensical in their visual filmmaking as well as their storytelling. They carved out their own artistic niche in the way they played with color and form to instill pure horror into the images themselves. Our present subject, meanwhile, does not know what visuals mean, or that they exist, excepting a few band performances that were maybe intended to sell a soundtrack no one cares about. Or something like that. The physical geography and sense of time make less sense here than in any other horror film I have ever seen, including the multitudes of Italian ones that knowingly and intentionally fail to conform to the norms of realist physical space and time. It is impossible to tell who is still human and who is monster, initially because the characters all look alike to begin with, and later because the characters themselves don’t seem to know at all, or at least the actors forget whether they are monster or human from scene to scene. It almost seems like the last hour of the film was edited in the dark, fitting considering this work’s fleeting, almost non-existent understanding of lighting.
It just doesn’t end. And because it is so Canadian, and Canadian films are so historically challenging and difficult and scrupulous in their filmmaking, it just has to be intended as a commentary right? The music score begs to disagree, being so obviously John Carpenter’s score from Halloween played on a piano as opposed to a synthesizer (thus robbing it of its alien quality), but played just quietly enough so that it thinks we won’t notice. At some point, I just do not know any more. Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is a defeating film, a work meant to tire down even the most battle-ready and accomplished schlock imbiber. The shower sex scene choreographed to the lamest, most antiseptic Whitesnake rip-off song imaginable just ended me. And the film went on for another twenty minutes, and arrived at perhaps the most single counter-intuitive and magnetically dumbfounding climax I have ever been prey to, and this is after the straight-up screwball comedy interlude an hour in, or the can’t-not-but-be-an-absurdist-self-critique moment when a cadre of random women show up and then leave without doing anything.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare tops itself over and over again until the world must bow down before it. It essays a passive-aggressive attack on the viewer from the ground-up. It is an unadorned, spartan sort of idiocy. There is no monster in this film, nothing skulking around in the dark for the kill. This is a work that posits that the arbitrary idea of a cabin, or the film itself, is attacking people, rather than any specific entity that is capable of “attacking” in the literal sense. The man behind it, the writer and main actor Jon Mikl Thor (perhaps the single most Scandinavian looking man ever to grace the earth), is so patently egotistical he revokes any sense of criticism with the sheer belief he holds in his own material. Which, admittedly, is the single great saving grace of ’80s metal music anyway, that of “doing something so stupid” but “believing in itself so much” that it sort of sells itself anyway. Anyone who looks to 1987’s Evil Dead II as the ultimate intersection of comedy and horror has not come across the path of true genius yet. This film does not connect the long-lost dots between metal and the slasher; it deliberately posits metal as the angelic defense force against slasher movies. Anyone who does not understand should just go in blind. This, this is movie royalty right here. For what end, I cannot say. It has no direction. It only has magnitude, and what magnitude at that.
Is this what I’ve gotten into? I need to go lie down. Or re-evaluate my life decisions.
So how good is it really?: 1/5 (something really wretched this way comes…)
But how “good” is it?: 5/5 (without a doubt one of the handful of the best bad movie experiences I have ever had; a truly special film on all accounts)