Nightmares (1980)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-06-14 22:27

Written by: Colin Eggleston, John Michael Howson, and John D. Lamond
Directed by: John D. Lamond
Starring: Jenny Neumann, Gary Sweet, and Nina Landis

Reviewed by: Brett G.

“I don't know what's real anymore…"

Sex has been given an interesting treatment in the horror genre; while it’s potentially the beginning of life, it’s so often a one-way ticket to the business end of a sharp object. Consider Psycho: Marion Crane dies because she’s ostensibly a hussy in the eyes of Mrs. Bates; that sort of conflation worked its way down the line of Italian gialli and into the basest of slasher flicks. Basically, the message is clear: fuck at your own risk. Hailing from down under, Nightmares (also known as Stage Fright) very much keeps the sex-crazed at the edge of a knife in this lurid, psychotic vision of madness.

When Hellen Selleck was a little girl, she often stumbled onto her mom getting banged by guys. One night, a man tried to make his move while driving; Hellen was remarkably aware of what was going on, so she interrupted the tryst. This caused the car to swerve off the road, and her mother was flung threw the windshield and killed. Years later, she’s grown up to be a stage actor with a relatively normal life (she’s just a little wary of men coming on to her). The production of the latest play she's starring in is soon disrupted by a rash of disappearances and brutal slayings.

Nightmares certainly lives up to its name. Unfolding like a delirious fever dream, its abrupt cuts and elliptical montages prevent rhythm and typical narrative coherency. It’s almost reminiscent of a female counterpart to Maniac in its study of obsession and psychological scarring, while its conflation of sex and death echoes the giallo tradition. All of this, of course, makes it a twisted, demon spawn of Psycho, and Lamond wears that Hitchcockian influence on his sleeve in several shots. His take on the then-burgeoning slasher genre is a wickedly stylish tour-de-force of roving cameras and high-strung symphonic sound that often work in spectacular fashion.

Cramming all of these influences together seemingly gives Nightmares a bit of an identity crisis, though. At times, it seemingly tries to hide the identity of its killer (who wears the standard-issue black glove); however, other moments make it abundantly clear that Hellen’s tragic past knocked a few screws loose. Ultimately, the killer is exactly who you think it is, but somehow, the film still works. The end result is a film that feels like a giallo that’s shedding its skin in an attempt to become the more standard slasher/body count flicks that would soon emerge. These kind of “odd films out” are always a curiosity because they never quite fit anywhere; neither a giallo or a straight slasher, Nightmares stands off in a corner inhabited by similar genre stragglers (the aforementioned Maniac being another).

Of course, one thing the film has in common with both genres is murder. The hack and slash found here is particularly grisly and is almost always accompanied by sex. As such, the violence is rather stark, as the killer’s target is often naked bodies that soon become covered with blood. Besides Lamond’s bravura camerawork, there’s no awe factor either. No glorious decapitations or dismemberments will be found here; instead, expect sheer brutality that reflects the killer’s inner torment and rage. The righteous indignation towards copulation on display here would make Mrs. Voorhees proud, and the slick gore effects are top-notch.

There’s a bit of a lull as the film labors to its third act, but Nightmares is a mostly compelling narrative. The stagebound setting allows for some nudging irony and black comedy, particularly in some of the juxtapositions that pop up (the play is a “comedy about death”). I imagine the rivalry that develops between the play’s director and a local critic is an all too real reflection of any artists feelings towards those who would criticize their work. However, in the world of Nightmare, both are joined in their sleaziness; the director is an overbearing, demanding asshole, while the critic is an unabashed pervert. That’s nothing a shard of glass can’t fix, of course. The most noteworthy performance is Jenny Neumann in the lead role; like the character she plays in the play itself, that sense of tragedy never leaves her eyes, no matter how radiant and innocent she tries to be.

A true Ozploitation diamond in the rough, Nightmares is a thrill ride of slash and sleaze that genre fans shouldn’t miss out on. Fans will finally get a look at it in all its uncut and uncensored glory thanks to Severin Films. Their transfer has been fully restored from original elements, and it shows; though there is a bit of wear and tear at times on the print itself (which really only adds to the charm), it’s a fine presentation overall. The 2 channel mono track is more than serviceable, and gives the film’s sound design a chance to shine. Special features include an audio commentary with Lamond and Mark Hartley, the film’s theatrical trailer, and a Lamond trailer reel. There’s also a featurette titled “The Brief History of Slasher Films,” which is a brisk fifteen minute rundown that adequately introduces the genre. Nightmares is a violently effective take on that genre that reminds us of how good it can be when it wants to be. Buy it!

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