American Nightmare Review

American Nightmare
American Nightmare
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The central events depicted in American Nightmare took place in the spring of 2015. As the first season of Serial and HBO’s The Jinx urged a renewed interest in true crime (and Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” waited in the wings), an odd news story emerged from northern California. Initial news reports described an incident in the city of Vallejo, where a woman was kidnapped from her home, and taken from the bed where she and her boyfriend were sleeping. An American public with a freshly developed taste for unsolved mysteries lapped up the coverage, which drew parallels between the hunt for Denise Huskins and one of the decade’s most popular fictional cases of a missing woman.

But American Nightmare is more than just the latest Netflix series to indulge subscribers’ macabre fascination with actual deaths, disappearances, and deviancy. Through interviews with key players and family members, dramatic recreations of testimony from those directly involved, and a thorough combing of the instant media reaction to the story, the taking of Huskins is reexamined for a new, wider audience. It hasn’t even been a decade, but this project shows how much the storytelling landscape for these “real-life” tales of trauma has changed. American Nightmare is compellingly made, with an odd and disturbing saga at its center. But what would feel in 2015 like a shock to the system is now an above-average addition to a subgenre that’s grown exponentially in the years since?

Knowing that any retelling of this story will be fraught with questions of a murky truth, series directors Bernadette Higgins and Felicity Morris first put their focus on Aaron Quinn, who went to local law enforcement after – in his words – being woken up by a team of kidnappers and then drugged as Denise was abducted from the home they shared. Aaron is framed in the way true-crime interview narrators so often are: sterile room, alternating camera angles, pregnant pauses while relaying details both horrific and bizarre (the alleged perpetrators disguised themselves in wetsuits, by Aaron’s telling). American Nightmare justifies its three-episode structure (it could have been roughly a 2-hour movie otherwise) by introducing new narrators as the story moves along the timeline.

Sprinkled in throughout are the dramatic reenactments that are standard for headline-grabbing stories like this one. Here, though, Higgins and Morris tone down the junky basic-cable aesthetics of their predecessors: Heavily-filtered, hazy flashbacks are replaced by something more visceral. A narrow, mostly point-of-view window into these recreations satisfyingly locks each chapter into a more personal perspective. An extreme close-up on an eyeball, repeated for effect through one extended stretch, is particularly chilling.

American Nightmare also examines the role that the press plays in helping shape public perceptions: Along with added context from a newspaper reporter, it is illuminating to see local TV reports that start with callous phrases like “That woman who was reported kidnapped from a home in Vallejo…” In tandem with some reckless and careless law enforcement conduct, we see how using easy pop-culture analogies can help crystallize opinion about an investigation’s subjects while that investigation is still underway. American Nightmare still plays along Even while they question the responsibleness of reports that framed Denise’s disappearance as a potential Gone Girl-esque hoax, Higgins and Morris mimic that movie’s onscreen method of tracking the passage of time.

Maybe the toughest thing to shake about American Nightmare is that its approach to what happened to Denise has an inherent, Gone Girl-esque caginess. First with Aaron, then with subsequent featured interviews, Higgins and Morris seem to mimic the way David Fincher’s film and the Gillian Flynn novel that inspired it show what it’s like to absorb the details of a case without any other context. Before a pivot about two-thirds of the way through the series, American Nightmare does the same coy dangling of the truth, even in the face of some horrific testimony. Using a nominal “shocking twists and turns” framework ends up blunting some of the intended impact.

Despite that murkiness, Higgins and Morris still have a strong sense of pacing, visual clarity, and a desire to enhance a familiar format. This series feels less in line with the off-the-shelf, homogenous products of the Netflix doc boom and closer in quality to something like Bart Layton‘s The Imposter. Some parts of American Nightmare almost work better as a proof-of-concept for an inevitable, limited-series adaptation, one where the initial elusiveness of the truth makes more sense for a story unfolding in real-time rather than a documentary trying to wring retroactive drama from people who already know the ending.

In the final chapter, American Nightmare arrives at a potent illustration of how certain institutions are ill-equipped or even ignorant of the needs of the people they serve. But it’s undercut by the presentation, as if this were a surprise Higgins and Morris stumbled upon in the course of making the series, as opposed to their whole reason for telling the story. A more satisfying conclusion is found in American Nightmare’s assertion that the more we give certain crimes the tag of “wild” or “unbelievable,” the more barriers there are between help and the people who need it most.

What we do get, given the structure of this project and the state of true crime as a cottage industry, is something that speaks to where we are in 2024. American Nightmare draws most of its effectiveness from the idea that digging for the truth is often tied to the (often, completely arbitrary) believability we assign to anyone telling their own story. The details that work as a catchy hook for a Netflix series sometimes work against achieving a thorough accounting of the truth in real time, especially when that saga plays out under a public microscope. That’s grown all the more acute in the nine years since Denise’s disappearance became a topic of national morning show speculation. American Nightmare may not be able to shake the fundamental idea that, from the first trickle of headlines to the nearly decade-later retrospectives, these stories so often repackage the pain and trauma of others. But through a sharper visual approach and attention to those most affected by this set of circumstances, American Nightmare arrives at a successful, insightful ending that’s a helpful starting point for similar shows in its wake.


The latest hit Netflix docuseries finds chilling and effective ways to go beyond the standard true-crime expectations. Yet, even as it ends up with a broader message beyond the unusual circumstances of a single kidnapping case, it’s hard to shake the idea that the overall structure of the show and its “twisty thriller” framing are working against what could make this a truly worthwhile entry into an ever-growing subgenre.

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