Alex Gardner has an extraordinary gift. To keep it may cost him his life…
Once again, it appears I am a member of a cult. Yes, I am part of the cult following of a little genre bending gem of the early 1980s called Dreamscape. Before Nightmare on Elm Street came this sci-fi/thriller/romance/comedy/horror film about a man who can mentally insert himself into the dreams of another, and act within it. A stellar cast, interesting premise, and some great surrealistic dream sequences make for a highly entertaining picture that leaves you feeling satisfied at the end. It actually did pretty well at the box office and got good reviews, but on home video and cable the film really gained its audience, hence the claim of it being a "cult classic." After suffering along for years with my well worn VHS copy Image has finally given both the film and myself a new lease with a new anamorphic transfer, Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, and a commentary track. Call this judge happy.
Well, lets start with the cast. Dennis Quaid (Frequency, The Big Easy, Innerspace) is the lead character; a psychic bon vivant who used his gifts to win at the track until coerced to participate in an experiment in dream research. The scientists in charge of this effort are Paul Novotny, played by Max Von Sydow (Snow Falling On Cedars, The Exorcist, The Seventh Seal), and Jane DeVries, played by a gorgeous Kate Capshaw (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Black Rain, The Love Letter) perhaps best known now as the wife of Steven Spielberg. The villains are played by the masterful Christopher Plummer (Twelve Monkeys, The Insider, Malcolm X), as the sinister government powerbroker Bob Blair, and David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, Last Man Standing, Flirting with Disaster) as Blair's pet psychotic psychic. George Wendt of "Cheers" fame also has a nice supporting role as horror writer Charles Prince (obvious takeoff of Stephen King). Each of these characters are played with flair and add to a fine overall mix of good and evil, funny and serious, scary and noble. In a now-humorous note, ex Duke of Hazzard star John Schneider (who was hot at the time) was almost cast in the lead ahead of Dennis Quaid, which could easily have turned this story into pure camp. As it is, there is a certain amount of camp, but at least now it's intentional.
Our hero is Alex Gardner (Quaid) who as I said is psychic but prefers race tracks and babes to serious study. His non-serious life is changed abruptly when the government tracks him down to participate in a radical new exploration of the world of dreams. Novotny, a professor who had studied Gardner in the past, along with DeVries have found it is possible for a psychic to link with and enter the dream of another person by being wired up to a gadget in between them. It's already been done, first by Tommy Ray Glatman (Kelly) who is definitely not the most likable guy at first meeting. Coercing leads to interest as Gardner becomes fascinated by the idea and sees the chance to help people. In one of the film's most striking scenes, Alex enters the dreams of a young boy he has befriended who has been suffering from recurring nightmares. Through the surrealistic locales of off-kilter perspectives Alex runs with the boy being chased by a monster not-so-affectionately known as "Snakeman." Episodes like this set up the main plot, which involves the President of the United States (played well by Eddie Albert, The Longest Yard, TV's Green Acres, The Longest Day) suffering from dreams of nuclear Armageddon and a plot to "end his suffering."
Director Joseph Ruben did a fine job of keeping the various sub-plots and mix of genres working together. This was really his first effort moving out of teen flicks into more serious work, as he would later do with The Stepfather and Return to Paradise. The script was co-written by Chuck Russell, who would go on to direct Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which borrowed from Dreamscape a great deal. The first was best between this original and that later dead beaten horse in the Nightmare franchise.
I've had this movie on VHS, in pan & scan, for a very long time. I probably should have known better, but I stuck the tape in the old VCR for grins after watching it on DVD. As expected, the tape is now good for nothing but recording old Andy Griffith Show reruns. Image has done a great job with making a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from the best source elements available. Colors are very nice, and detail is sharp except in scenes where filters made for a softer, more dreamlike quality. The varied and contrasting lighting used in the dream sequences give a very surrealistic but vivid picture.
If anything, the sound is better than the picture. There are three fine soundtracks to choose from depending on what capabilities you have with your equipment. You have a choice between Dolby Digital 2.0, 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks. All have a good frequency range, though the 5.1 tracks have the most presence and dynamic range. None of the tracks are overpowering in the surround department, but both the 5.1 tracks will not disappoint with imaging in the front soundstage. The score and sound effects never overwhelm the dialogue. Overall a very nice, clear sound; far better than I've ever heard it on TV or video.
The disc also has a commentary track with producer Bruce Cohn Curtis, writer David Loughery, and special effects honcho Craig Reardon. Each speaker has his own front channel to speak from to make it easy to determine who is saying what. I always like that with multi-speaker commentaries. There are a few pauses, more notably in the beginning, but it does make for a nice combination of scene specific information and anecdotes about the production and casting, along with how things went on the set during shooting.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, the disc may say Special Edition on it, but I wouldn't call it a true SE compared to what other studios are offering. Besides the commentary the only extras are a short test sequence with the "Snakeman" special effects, and a slideshow with stills, mainly of Snakeman. If after that you didn't have enough of Snakeman, then go to "Monster" on the main menu, or try using your arrow keys in various chapters of the chapter selection menu, and get another quick look at him. I also have to complain about the lack of subtitles of any kind on the disc. All discs need to have captions for the hearing impaired, and special editions should likely consider that a prerequisite for the claim.
There are some problems with the film itself. And I mean the actual source print more than the movie; this was and is still a low budget early '80s film. There is a fair amount of grain in some scenes, especially some of the dream sequences, which plug up the picture and also tended to turn blacks into a charcoal gray. There were some blemishes on the source print that didn't quite clean up as well. Still, it's the best the film has looked in a very long time.
As for the movie itself, the low budget mainly manifests itself in the special effects, which are somewhat dated and sometimes a bit cheesy. Mostly it still works; especially the rickety staircase from the boy's nightmare and the ninja scene in the final dream. Snakeman was a lot scarier in 1984 than in the year 2000 though.
The disc and the film aren't perfect, but I've always liked it anyway. I like it even better now on DVD, the picture and sound are more than adequate for my recommendation. It may not be all that special a special edition, but for anamorphic widescreen, new soundtracks, and a commentary track I'm glad to have it. If you haven't seen the film you need to at least rent it. If you're a fan of the film like me buy it. I did.
Dreamscape is acquitted of all charges and will live on as my one of my favorites of its era. Image is likewise thanked for bringing us this DVD but is fined for lack of subtitles.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Producer/Writer/Special Effects Commentary Track
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