The best compliment I can pay to ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE is that it hides its third act twist surprisingly well. Where the question marks start to come in is that it is unclear if the successful springing of the surprise is through careful planning or the dumb luck that incompetent filmmaking lulled viewers into a false belief that the movie had nothing more on its mind than being a delivery system for a smattering of nudity, some dodgy makeup effects, and a series of performances to push songs performed by star/writer/producer/singer/songwriter/bodybuilder Jon Mikl Thor. But does it matter if the film’s entertainment value is intentional or unintentional? I think not.
There really is no plot to ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE. A hair metal band that is in a funk and needs to deliver a new album in a month rent a farmhouse with a barn that has been converted into a recording studio. Unbeknownst to the new tenants, the farmhouse is a portal to Hell and, one-by-one, the band members and their significant others are killed or possessed by demons until…nah, I’ll keep this a spoiler-free piece.
From the beginning, it is fairly clear with the song playing over the looooonnngggg opening credits sequence (that follows a prologue so abrupt and outlandish that it feels almost avant-garde) that this flick is going to serve as a delivery system for the hair metal sounds of Thor—the band fronted by Jon Mikl Thor (the already acknowledged star/writer/producer/singer/songwriter/bodybuilder, not the actual God of Thunder—though the climax of the film almost feels like he is auditioning for the role). Honestly, that is not a bad thing.
From the perspective of 2019, it is easy to be smug and snarky about mid-to-late ’80s hair metal, but it was a hugely popular genre at one point and virtually impossible ignore for its cultural impact. There is a reason that songs by Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Skid Row are still in heavy rotation on classic rock radio stations. Hell, even Ozzy Osbourne—Mr. Prince of Darkness himself—basically went hair metal in his post-Black Sabbath solo career. While I would never put any of the Thor songs from ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE in the upper echelon of hair metal earworms…they honestly aren’t bad. Start to finish, the soundtrack of this flick would play better than albums from most of the middle-of-the-road hair metal acts of the ’80s like RATT, Cinderella, or Poison. So am I saying that mainstream American pop culture missed the mark when it overlooked Thor and ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE? Not exactly. Read on…
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE is not a good movie and I don’t think anyone remembers it as such. But it is a profoundly weird with an impressively ambitious collision of tones that deserves to be remembered fondly—something that would not actually be possible had it or its leading would-be hair metal star crossed over into mainstream success. The appeal of Jon Mikl Thor and this movie is that they are both better than their reputations and deserving of their grin-inducing cult status simply by being just a bit cleverer than you expect.
Director John Fasano feels a bit like he was handcuffed by the third act twist of Thor’s screenplay. It would have been very easy for him to tip his hand with one wrong move, so that leads to a film that often feels stilted or unnecessarily cartoonish. But to his credit, he leans into this cartoonishness (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he did this intentionally) with monsters whose appearance land them somewhere in between rejects from the Jim Henson workshop and background creatures in a lower-budgeted Full Moon production. The resulting tone is something of a mess, but it at least has its own DIY flavor that keeps viewers on their toes.
Lest I oversell ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE, it has more than its fair share of problems. There is about forty-five minutes of material here, but the film runs nearly an hour and a half, so pacing is a real issue. The acting is rough, with only Thor managing to turn in a halfway decent turn. But because of the nature of the beast, all of these flaws might be intentional (however unlikely) on the part of the filmmakers.
Thanks to a 2006 DVD release from Synapse Films and getting the RiffTrax treatment a few years back, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE has become a cult fave with a so-bad-its-good reputation, but I would modestly suggest that what Thor and Fasano created with the film is something more genuinely entertaining than the backhanded compliments it usually gets. In its own wonky, punch-drunk way, the movie achieves what it is trying to do—it just does it in such an awkward style that it is easier to laugh at it than with it. While both reactions are enough entertainment to justify its existence, I feel infinitely better that I found enough in its ambitions and playfulness to laugh along with the foolishness.