Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger was thrilled to unearth this time capsule of '80s horror schlock.
The scream you don't hear is your own.
The title tips you off as to what kind of movie Bad Dreams is going to be (hint: we're not talking about the word "Dreams"). After a little Internet research, I'm hard pressed to find anyone who actually liked this film. So let me be the first to leap to its defense. I'm a former '80s metalhead/horror fan who had never heard of this movie before now. It is loaded with lots of '80s chic, young stars, and that ineffable horror-movie vibe that makes you want to sleep over at your friend's place watching R-rated movies into the night with a bag of Twizzlers and some popcorn. Yet Bad Dreams, at least for me, flew under the radar. For that reason, watching it was like finding a time capsule of custom-tailored nostalgia. Cheesy '80s horror movies rule!
Facts of the Case
Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) is a starry-eyed hippie in the Unity Fields cult led by Harris (Richard Lynch, The Sword and the Sorcerer). When she has second thoughts about taking a gasoline bath with the rest of her pals, Cynthia trades fiery death for a thirteen-year coma.
She awakens under the kind watch of Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott, Re-Animator)
If Aha! moments like "Hey, it's Dean Cameron, that guy from Summer School and Ski School 2!" don't sound like your cup of tea, maybe you should watch What Dreams May Come instead. If realizing that the gal behind the long hair and eyeshadow is the same E.G. Daily who stole "Smelly Cat" from Phoebe means nothing to you, may I recommend Field of Dreams. But if you thrill at the thought of seeing Re-Animator and Elm Street alums Bruce Abbott and Jennifer Rubin co-starring in their very own horror flick—well, my taste-challenged friend, grab some Twizzlers because Bad Dreams is for you.
Bad Dreams is not a particularly memorable horror flick. It has one good gross-out scene, a few paltry attempts at suspense building, and some twisted visions of death and violence, but it is neither cohesive nor groundbreaking. You don't walk away singing "one, two, Freddy's coming for you." You don't freak out when you see a guy in a white hockey mask at the park. You don't marvel at how they got 15,000 pins into that dude's forehead. Bad Dreams has no hook, no staying power to engage the minds of fickle horror fans.
Yet Bad Dreams is surprisingly subtle, and effective in quiet ways. It gets all of the little things right, and many of the big things, too.
For example, this thing looks fantastic. Some of the scenes that you know are low budget don't feel low budget. Colors are deep and stable, contrast is excellent, and lighting is applied with a deft touch. Bad Dreams has the weight of Gale Anne Hurd behind it, the producer who brought us The Terminator, The Abyss, Aliens, Aeon Flux…okay, nobody is perfect. The point is, Hurd is no hack. Nor is makeup artist Michèle Burke, who went on to win two Oscars for best makeup. James Cameron even gave periodic advice during the production. Bad Dreams has more craftsmanship in evidence than it has any right to.
The same touch is applied to a kinetic soundtrack that tries a little too hard but still manages to pump up the energy at just the right times. A sixties vibe lends a trippy, off-kilter tone to the Unity Fields scenes, while straight-ahead metal yells at us in the '80s. I was pleasantly surprised to hear "Sweet Child of Mine" as the ending credits rolled.
But the acting and the directing really elevate this thing above the mangled story that was somehow given the green light. Sure, Andrew Fleming wrote it, and I'll always hold that against him. Yet he also directed it with unexpected grace. Fleming pulls nuance and chemistry out of rudimentary sets and scenes. Even a nurse sitting at her station takes on sociological interest. While it's true that some of the movie's big moments fail to materialize, its quiet story comes through loud and clear.
Maybe the cast is responsible for this chemistry. The actors realize what sort of film they're in better than Fleming does. Their ad libs, character tics, and turns of phrase come together into a pleasing banter. Cynthia is a nondescript horror heroine/victim, but Jennifer Rubin is far from nondescript. She smirks and towers her way through the film, watchable every step of the way. The loony crew, culled from every crazy ensemble ever made, does their best to distinguish themselves from the far edgier and more tragic crew that died in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Dean Cameron's likeable cad shtick gets a darker edge, while E.G. Daily's brief appearance leaves a big impression. Even the sorely misused Damita Jo Freeman—whose Gilda is one of the least effective pivotal characters in horror history—manages to leave a mark.
The leading man trio is uneven. Richard Lynch owns the cult scenes, but is laughable in the post-mortem '80s. Bruce Abbott is likeable throughout, even when his character isn't given much of substance to do. He is the anchor of the film, radiating good-guy charm while hoping that his new ward isn't an axe murderer. Harris Yulin is extremely low-key, revealing his menace through brief flashes of his eyes or the condescending pat of a hand.
That may be the key to the whole thing. Bad Dreams is a chilling sociological story that forces itself to be a grody slasher flick. The bucolic days of freaky cult love are powerful harbingers of films and real events that occurred afterward. Cynthia's mental condition is never overplayed, and it rings true because of that. Interviews with cult members are laced with icy, implied violence. But the visions of a burned Harris chasing after borderline psych patients never come together into an understandable menace. He shows up, people die. Is he real? Is he a ghost? Is he a malevolent force sprung from the ether? Who knows.
Anchor Bay lavished loving attention on Bad Dreams. A nice mix of extras from the past and present provide a cohesive argument for the craftsmanship inherent in this film that should be a direct-to-video throwaway. It is big-budget Hollywood on a shoestring. One feature briefly highlights Burke's makeup work, which is interesting even if it is just like every other makeup featurette. "The Making of Bad Dreams" and "Behind the Scenes of Bad Dreams" are essentially raw footage of the crew hanging out in a parking lot. Considering that DVD was over a decade away at the time, these featurettes aren't bad. The commentary by Andrew Fleming is as informative as it is maddening. He shares a lot of deep inside knowledge, from Lynch's psychological demons to the crew's initial mistrust of him. These are great nuggets of information. On the other hand, Fleming continually repeats three main points: (1) Everyone involved is great, (2) I had no idea what I was doing so I screwed up XYZ, and (3) I really learned a lot from Person X about Subject Y. By the tenth repeat of how naïve Fleming was and how great Gale Anne Hurd was for taking a chance on him, I was ready to toss the DVD out the window. Even so, the commentary falls into the "informative" camp. An alternate ending and trailer seal the deal on a great slate of extras.
If you are looking for a splatter-fest with gore and nudity, you're barking up the wrong tree with Bad Dreams. If you're expecting a classic of '80s horror, there's a reason why Bad Dreams is not on the tip of your tongue. But if you want to recapture the illicit thrill of sprawling out on the pile carpet in front of the TV in the rec room, watching R movies while your friend's parents sleep in blissful ignorance, Bad Dreams is the ticket. You've seen A Nightmare on Elm Street far too many times, and Halloween is too hardcore. But Dean Cameron plunging scalpels into his abdomen while Jennifer Rubin screams in her '80s attire? That's a rare find.
So guilty it's good.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary from Writer-Director Andrew Fleming
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