Events kick off in rural America, the charismatic Harris (Richard Lynch) holding court over a cult of hippyish folk in an isolated farmhouse. He introduces the teenaged Cynthia (Melissa Francis) to the group as their newest member, and invites her to join them all as they prepare to embark upon "the ultimate joining of man and woman". With this, Harris grabs a ladle and douses each cult member with gasoline. Moments later, the house has gone up spectacularly in flames.
The emergency services rush to the scene, and it's assumed that everyone is dead. However, once survivor is unearthed among the smouldering rubble: Cynthia. She's rushed to hospital, with suspicious detective Wasserman (Sy Richardson) following her every step of the way. But his enquiries are going to have to wait - Cynthia is unconscious.
Thirteen years, five months and nine days later, Cynthia (now played by Jennifer Rubin) awakens from her coma. She's quickly farmed off to a nearby psychiatric institute for evaluation. This involves her staying there, and taking part in regular group chats with a bunch of people suffering from "borderline personalities". When Cynthia asks what that expression means, group coach Dr Karmen (Bruce Abbott) explains that these are essentially people who exhibit strong signs of psychosis and neurosis (including chemical addiction and so forth).
The group certainly consists of a few oddballs, including affable but horny self-harmer Ralph (Dean Cameron), take-no-shit Miriam (Susan Ruttan), quietly intense Gilda (Damita Jo Freeman), and highly strung, sensitive Lana (Elizabeth Daily). Cynthia soon decides she doesn't belong here and asks to be discharged. Karmen advises that all efforts to locate her family have failed so, really, she has nowhere else to go.
And so, the class discussions continue. If nothing else, they do begin to prompt long-buried memories to surface from Cynthia. Which, of course, Wasserman is most interested in when he suddenly appears suggesting the case was never closed because he still has serious questions regarding the "suicide pact" of thirteen years earlier.
Perhaps coming to terms with her past by releasing suppressed memories through therapy is what Cynthia needs? Or maybe not: see, the fly in the ointment is that Harris - who was confirmed as being amongst the charred corpses all those years ago - keeps appearing to her in visions, beckoning her back into his cult.
Are these paranoid delusions, or genuine hauntings? Cynthia is convinced of the latter, especially when those around her start to suffer - and she attributes their ill fates not to suicide or self-harm, but to the spectre of Harris attacking them from the other side ...
Writer-director Andrew Fleming' feature debut is an ambitious prospect which namechecks the Jonestown massacre while looking both back, at 70s culture and controversy, as well as forward to the more fantastical genre flicks of the 90s (specifically the late HELLRAISER and ELM STREET sequels). Speaking of the latter, it's impossible not to address the similarity here with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS. A group of fucked-up inmates at an exclusive institute - one of which happens to be Jennifer Rubin, in both films, for Pete's sake - are stalked and killed by a figure that can only be seen in the lead character's dreams? Hmm, it's ostensibly the same film. However, in practice BAD DREAMS takes several satisfying detours and makes great bids to differentiate itself from its more high-profile cousin. And, lest we forget, Fleming's original script predated the release of the original ELM STREET. So, rather than plagiarism, this is just a case of "unfortunate coincidence" ...
Still, there's enough here to ensure BAD DREAMS retains a healthy degree of individualism.
The cast are uniformly good, and they're aided by a script which is more intelligent, more thought-out and wittier, than your average slasher. Abbott was always good value for money at the time (RE-ANIMATOR etc) and doesn't let us down here: he's a strong, charismatic presence and commands every scene he's in. Rubin is ever-watchable and should've gone on to bigger things. Lynch is, as ever, a consummate villain. He plays things just on the right side of hammy, and comes across - without the use of prosthetics - as a more threatening proposition than Freddy Krueger was by the time this was released in 1988.
The editing is taut, set design and camerawork are stylish, and Fleming directs with a lot of confidence. The horror sequences are genuinely creepy at times while the potentially mind-fucking merging of dreams and reality is balanced with considerable skill. Gore is relatively light but what FX we do have are practical, of course, and competently staged for their time.
Jay Ferguson's subtly eerie score deserves a mention too, as do a couple of well-placed pop songs on the soundtrack (The Chambers Brothers; The Electric Prunes). Oh, and trivia fans may also be interested in the song that plays over the film's closing titles: "Sweet Child O' Mine", which was originally procured for inclusion in the film when its creators, Guns 'N' Roses, were still unknown ...
Representing number 37 in their ever-growing "Slasher Classics Collection", 88 Films bring BAD DREAMS to the UK in a special edition dual format (blu-ray and DVD) release.
I focused on the blu-ray disc for the purposes of this review.
The film is presented fully uncut, 84 minutes and 10 seconds in length (including the opening 20th Century Fox logo), in full 1080p HD. Presented as a generously-sized MPEG4-AVC file on a dual layer disc (region B locked), this 16x9 presentation respects the original 1.85:1 ratio. Colours are strong and convincing, images are keenly sharp without evidence of any unwelcome enhancing, blacks are deep and true. It's a very satisfying transfer, and certainly the best I've ever seen the film looking.
English 2.0 audio gets the DTS-HD treatment and sounds consistently excellent throughout, finding and maintaining a healthy balance between the effective score, some noisy sound effects and the quieter moments of dialogue-led drama. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to read.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. There is no scene selection menu but the film is split by 9 remote-accessible chapters.
Extras are plentiful.
These begin with an enjoyable commentary track from Mondo Digital's Nathaniel Thompson and Tim Freer. There's a good rapport shared between these two as they discuss the film's production, its cast, its place in the pantheon of dream-inspired horror movies of the time and so forth. Inevitably, the links to ELM STREET crop up throughout (even minor trivia such as crew members who had worked on various entries of the Freddy franchise), while each facet gets covered - soundtrack, effects etc. It's nice too that these two are unafraid of giving their opinion on matters, whether it be this film or others mentioned in passing. This keeps the commentary track from sounding stuffy or overly academic. No pregnant pauses or repetition here either; this makes for a highly engaging companion piece to the main feature.
Next up is an enlightening 24-minute interview with Fleming. BAD DREAMS was his feature directorial debut, thanks to him landing a 90-minute interview with Gale Anne Hurd (producer of ALIENS and THE TERMINATOR) based on his script for this movie. He got a great lucky break, straight out of film school, and seems overawed to this day at his serendipity. Fleming looks well and speaks with enthusiasm, albeit he's very down-to-Earth about it all - as well as being honest about his thoughts on Steven De Souza's attempts at rewriting the script, and the similarities between this and DREAM WARRIORS - making this 24-minute featurette a most appealing prospect.
Rubin's up next for a new 40-minute interview. Rubin is so sincere to the point that this is truly refreshing. She swears, she heavily suggests that she was a victim of sexual abuse during her early days in modelling and then acting, she's not shy about telling you who she really doesn't like, she discusses drugs ... All of which makes for pretty compelling, thoroughly agreeable viewing. I like Rubin a lot, she's a great bold personality - she's a nice, true person, who's brave enough to not give a shit.
Spencer Murphy then shows up for an entertaining 19-minute chat about how derivative BAD DREAMS may or may not be. He's a lecturer at Coventry University as well as director of the East Winds Film Festival, and he's such an animated character that it would take a heart of stone to find him anything less than agreeable. Inevitably there's a lot of discussion about the ELM STREET comparisons here, but it's all good.
The main feature's original theatrical trailer runs for an enjoyable 104 seconds and does little to distance BAD DREAMS from ELM STREET. No matter, it's a great trailer regardless: fast-paced, bombastic and perfectly representative of the film it's selling.
This release also comes with a DVD version of the film and extras, double-sided reversible cover artwork, a limited slipcase, and a 20-page colour booklet containing liner notes discussing the most essential North American slasher films (including the likes of ALICE SWEET ALICE, BLOOD FEAST, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE etc).
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by 88 Films|