Imagine this, if you will. You’re a monster kid (yes, you are, so shut up). You’re cruising around the dial (back when televisions had dials and you had to sometimes adjust the signal manually [that means with your hands]) when you come upon it. A permanently boggled schlub in a seersucker suit who looks like he would have fit right in at the press room in His Girl Friday leveling a crossbow at an elderly lady, warning her not to approach. She, naturally, does, and the man looses a bolt. As the arrow finds its target, the senior citizen transforms into a gruesome, hairy monster (a rakshasa, to be precise) just before dying. And so was I introduced to the wild, wonderful world of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, arguably one of the most fun television series ever made and one of my all-time favorites (though, in all honesty, I can’t say it’s the highest quality in the world, but how much of what we hold closest to our hearts ever is?). The show was dubbed Kolchak’s Monster Of The Week (I believe by “TV Guide”), and it was that, but this is what fed the hunger inside me and kids like me. However, for how formulaic the show is, the television movie from which it sprang (The Night Stalker) is exceptional and often touted as one of the best films ever produced for the small screen. That film was directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, the director of Nightmare In Badham County (aka Nightmare). Make of that what you will.
Cathy (Deborah Raffin) and Diane (Lynne Moody) are a couple of students from UCLA on a little road trip through the American South (always a bad idea in exploitation fare). When their tire blows out, they get a firsthand taste of the local constabulary’s asshole-ish-ness in the form of Sheriff Danen (Chuck Connors). Later, after the Sheriff tries to make it up to the ladies by lecherously hitting on them and is rebuffed in public, the two women quickly understand exactly how close-knit this little community is. They also learn that the Badham County Farm is only one step removed from Hell.
This is a WIP film, and it has all of the elements needed for the genre. It has the prisoners being abused and forced to wear flimsy, easily removable clothes. It has aggressively predatory lesbian guards. It depicts slave-like conditions under which the characters toil. It has vicious internal conflicts among the inmates. And this last point is the specific reason why the leads are played by a white woman and a black woman. You see, the tensions at the farm are only exacerbated by its being segregated. Though both sets of prisoners are treated as slave labor, it is the black prisoners who are given the more menial tasks. Even at the bottom of the ladder, they get a raw deal. This segregation and the treatment of the different races come as a shock only to the two outsiders. To the people indigenous to the area, it’s simply how things are. By that same token, the women in the black barracks mostly get along with one another. It’s the women in the white barracks that get into cat fights and generally want to kill each other. This sense of solidarity among the blacks isn’t because they’re sager than the whites any more than the discord among the whites is because they’re less civilized than the blacks. It’s more distressing than that. The numb obedience of the black women comes from an innate sense of racial inferiority which has been institutionally reinforced over decades. This idea enhances the film’s overall somber attitude.
This vile corruption is embodied by three men (four, actually, but one of them has very little to do in the narrative), representing the government (or more specifically one part of it). Danen, the Judge (Ralph Bellamy), and Superintendent Dancer (Robert Reed) are supposed to be enforcers of the law. These are the people whom we rely on to keep the bad guys away. These are the people who are our protectors. That they so readily twist and manipulate the system to suit their own base desires points to an endemic illness. We have seen this sort of corruption of power countless times in film. It is portrayed in communities both North and South (though I would venture a guess that there are more of them set in the South, just because of its old ties to slavery). But the one constant in films like this is that these are small, clannish localities. Big, metropolitan, corporate corruption is another facet in other movies, but that is usually typified by its dispassion. In small areas, where everyone knows everyone else and everyone seems in on the scheme, it’s the familiarity that makes the evil done more insidious. This isn’t a wide net spread over a large mass. This is a tight glove wrapping itself around your throat. It feels more intimate, as if the perpetrators have something personal against their victims. But even the bodies of the subjugated are just meat to be used and discarded at a whim, still just a means to an end. No matter how much these villains may enjoy what they do, they still do it with a sociopathic detachment, because these acts no longer offer pleasure. This is merely what they do.
All WIP films are sleazy. That’s one of their big appeals, and Nightmare In Badham County is no exception. Women are demeaned and molested throughout. A scene with guard Alice and prisoner Nancy nails this home. Alice strips down to just her panties, sits on a couch with her crotch splayed, and states, “I didn’t keep you out of the fields today just so you could eat my lunch.” It’s not just the situation or the double entendre of the dialogue. It’s Alice’s open repose that amps the sleaze up. Her nudity makes her menace (again) feel more intimate. But beyond all this, the film is resolutely grim in tone. Intriguingly, this is illustrated with Dancer’s skanky interactions with the women and how they customarily turn out, but it takes on a quasi-meta meaning due to Reed’s casting in the role. This is not because of the actor’s well-documented sexual orientation but to his identification as one of America’s most beloved, moralistic fathers in recorded history (Mike Brady of The Brady Bunch, for those who don’t know). To see a man who was held up as a moral compass for many years discard said morality and get down into the gutter makes it feel somehow more wrong and just a little shocking. It’s at this point in the film when the viewer begins to understand the gravity of the situation and believe that truly this nightmare may not be one from which our protagonists may ever awake.
MVT: The dour quality of the film sets it apart in my experience with this genre. This is bleak, even angry, filmmaking, and despite its exploitation roots, it has something to say. It just says it through gritted teeth.
Make Or Break: The scene with Danen and the girls in the local lockup manages to be nasty and creepy without being explicit. It also sets the timbre for the remainder of the film and reminds the audience that this is only the beginning.