One theme, five killer films. This week, we explore the stuff dreams — or nightmares — are made of with five fantastic 80s films you may have slept on.
Despite incredible advances in in the field of science and medicine, our understanding of dreams and nightmares is still evolving. However, nightmares — those lurid, vividly disturbing dreams that awaken you in a heart-pounding panic — are generally thought to be triggered by stress and anxiety. A recent dream survey conducted by Harvard researcher Deirdre Barrett, an expert on nightmares on author of “The Committee of Sleep” and “Trauma and Dreams,” found that most adults are currently suffering from nightmares associated with stress and anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our fascination with dreams and nightmares is probably acute as ever, particularly the quest to better understand and overcome the byproducts of insomnia, stress, and anxiety. Filmmakers, particularly within the horror genre, have long tapped into our collective interest in nightmares and created classics, including Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. But not everything invaded our collective consciousness the way Krueger and the Elm Street kids did.
So, grab your No-Doz and Red Bull and skip the next restless sleep cycle to enjoy these five underrated dreamsploitation gems from the eighties.
1. Bad Dreams (1988)
Before director Andrew Fleming gifted us The Craft (1996), the then 24 year old NYU film grad made his directorial debut with Bad Dreams, a slick, atmospheric horror-thriller that follows the plight of Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin), the lone survivor of a cult called United Fields that committed a mass suicide at the behest of its insane leader Franklin Harris (Richard Lynch).
Thirteen years after Harris led his cult to a fiery death, Cynthia awakens from a coma as a grown woman, despondent and vulnerable to reoccurring nightmares and flashbacks. She’s committed to a psychiatric hospital and attends group therapy sessions led by Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Paul Abbott from Re-Animator fame) and his boss, Dr. Berrisford (Harris Yulin).
Berrisford secretly uses Cynthia as a test subject for experimental drugs as patients from the group therapy session are picked off in gruesome ways seemingly at the hands of a ghostly Franklin Harris. Dean Cameron, best known as the horror movie obsessed Francis “Chainsaw” Gremp in the comedy Summer School (1987), makes an appearance as an edgy but humorous patient who meets a grisly end following the deaths of several of the other patients.
In an homage to Carrie (1976), Cynthia is drenched in blood pouring out of a ceiling vent after two patients are pulverized into pulp by the building’s air conditioning turbines.
Prolific Hollywood producer Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss), who was married to director James Cameron at the time, produced the project, which had a budget just under $5 million. Though Bad Dreams enjoyed moderate commercial and critical success, earning just under $10 million at the box office, others lamented it as a lazy riff on A Nightmare on Elm Street. In fact, Fleming originally wrote the concept while in film school before A Nightmare on Elm Street had even been released.
Fleming credits his macabre interest in the Manson Family murders and mass cult suicides like the Jonestown Massacre as his inspiration for the story. Although the studio had envisioned Bad Dreams to become a lucrative franchise, it never materialized. Bad Dreams holds up well and enjoys a fairly robust following, showcasing one of Jennifer Rubin’s most memorable roles.
2. Deadly Dreams (1988)
Often dismissed as a diluted copycat of A Nightmare on Elm Street, director Kristine Peterson’s B-movie aesthetic and muted violence puts Deadly Dreams in a different category altogether and certainly warrants a rediscovery.
Alex Torme (Mitchell Anderson) is tormented by the tragic murder of his parent’s years before on Christmas Eve by a business rival Norman Perkins (Duane Whitaker, ‘Maynard’ in Pulp Fiction). Plagued by nightmares and visions of the killer, known as the Hunter (Gary Ainsworth), Alex fears he’s losing the battle to maintain his sanity and confides in his obnoxious friend Danny (Thom Babbes, who also wrote the screenplay) and older brother Jack (Xander Berkeley). Alex becomes romantically involved with Maggie (Juliette Cummins) and a tangled web of lies and deceit threaten to unravel Alex’s entire life.
The Hunter wears a wolf-skin mask and wields a shotgun and a deer knife, harassing and tormenting Alex in his dreams and reality including the infamous knives through the mattress gag.
Babbes, who wrote the screenplay while visiting Vermont in the dead of winter, fondly recalled the production to Morbidly Beautiful, noting:
“The dream sequence scene where he stabs the knife through the pillow into her face and the blood oozes through it, that entire scene was shot exactly like I wrote on the page. Every shot was exactly as I wrote it. It is my favorite scene of the film. It was done with precision and stayed truthful to the page.”
As for negative critics who disregarded Deadly Dreams as a copycat of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Babbes responded to Morbidly Beautiful:
“There is nothing supernatural about it. My goal was to focus on this writer who was slowly losing his mind and being haunted and hunted, which is all explained through the reveals at the end.”
Since Deadly Dreams only existed on the direct to video market, it became a forgotten film as the slasher cycle had already entered a decline by the time of its release. Be on the lookout for a bit appearance by character actor Troy Evans (Teen Wolf and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers) who plays the Sherriff and Duane Whitaker (‘Maynard’ in Pulp Fiction) who plays the vengeful Norman Perkins in the film’s intro.
Interestingly, director Kristine Peterson (Body Chemistry, Critters 3) eventually left the film industry for a second successful career as a psychoanalyst in New York City.
3. The Slayer (1982)
A truly underappreciated and lesser known gem from the early 1980s, writer-director Joseph S. Cardone’s first feature The Slayer is a moody, atmospheric slasher with outstanding practical effects and cinematography, as well as effective performances from the rather limited cast.
Two couples decide to take a vacation on a deserted isle and soon fall victim to a mysterious killer. Kay (Sarah Kendall), a troubled young artist who suffered from nightmares her entire life, believes her nightmares are responsible for the deaths of her friends. The film ends with Kay waking up as a young child on Christmas Day where she receives a pet cat as a present, hence starting the perpetual loop of terror all over again.
Was it all just a nightmare, a premonition, or is Kay stuck in a continuing time loop?
The non-linear plot, ambiguous ending, and emphasis on dreams blurring the boundaries of reality effectively bolsters the overall story and contributed to its depth, uncommon for the spate of slasher pictures being produced at the time. The concept also predates A Nightmare on Elm Street by a full two years.
The film’s outstanding practical effects, including vicious death scenes and a snarling, fanged sea creature, also earned it a spot among the UK’s list of banned “video nasties.”
Special effects artist Robert Short, responsible for creating the film’s incredible creature, later went on to win an Academy Award for his makeup work on Tim Burton’s classic horror comedy, Beetlejuice (1988). Actress Carol Kottenbrook, who plays Kay’s friend Brooke, is married to Cardone and played in his other films Alien Hunter (2003) and The Covenant (2006).
4. Dreamscape (1984)
Director Joseph Ruben (The Stepfather) blends elements of action, sci-fi, and horror with Dreamscape, an entangled early eighties yarn involving psychics, a government scheme to use dreams as assassination vectors, and the questionable mental state of an elderly U.S. President ahead of an international summit on nuclear weapons.
Dennis Quaid (Jaws 3-D) stars as Alex Gardner, a personable but sleazy psychic who uses his abilities for cheap thrills like winning horse races and picking up women. His seedy lifestyle catches up with him, and Alex soon finds himself back under the direction of his former scientific mentor, Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow), who is conducting cutting-edge dream experiments involving psychics entering people’s dreams to help cure them of insufferable nightmares.
The program, of course, is funded by a secretive government agency and is overseen by Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), a diabolical mastermind who aims to use the program to assassinate victims in their sleep.
Bob happens to be an old friend of the U.S. President (Eddie Albert), who is struggling with nightmares about preventing a nuclear holocaust. Once the President suggests his nightmares are a sign that he should seek a nuclear disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union at an upcoming summit, Bob manipulates another psychic, Tommy (David Patrick Kelly), to assassinate the President by invading his dream.
Alex picks up on the plot, and battles ensue in the dream world involving a stop-motion snake man, radical nunchaku moves, and an eerie rendering of Washington D.C. following a nuclear holocaust.
Dreamscape is a hyper, genre-twisting adventure with a talented, recognizable cast and sense of humor. Though the stop motion effects have not aged well, the film includes a few notable gore scenes, including a ripped-out heart and an angry mob of mutated nuclear fallout zombies
5. Dream Demon (1988)
The dreamsploitation craze of the eighties also inspired British filmmaker Harley Cokeliss to co-write and direct Dream Demon, a conservatively executed slow burn that doles out some occasionally great looking gore.
Diana (Jemma Redgrave) suffers from reoccurring nightmares leading up to her wedding day with beau Oliver (Mark Greenstreet), a handsome and decorated war hero. Diana, a timid virgin, believes her nightmares are associated with her fears of becoming a housewife and expectant mother.
After an humiliating run in with local journalist (Jimmy Nail) and his foulmouthed photographer (Timothy Spall), Diana is aided by Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite), a kind stranger whose visiting London from Los Angeles.
Diana and Jenny are soon inseparable friends, and Jenny begins to suffer odd flashbacks while in Diana’s house. The nightmares continue and Peck, the vulgar photographer, is killed by Diana in her dream, which manifests into the real world.
As Diana continues to slip further into madness, Jenny begins to unravel her haunted past, with both women recognizing they need each other to survive.
While Dream Demon is far from perfect, its stylish cinematography, potent special makeup effects, and renderings of the dream world are commendable.