Written by: Andrew Fleming, Michael Dick, P.J. Pettiette, & Yuri Zeltser (story), Stephen de Souza and Andrew Fleming (screenplay)
Directed by: Andrew Fleming
Starring: Jennifer Rubin, Bruce Abbot, Richard Lynch, and Dean Cameron
Reviewed by: Brett G.
Cynthia's got a grave problem!
Back in the 80s, you could get away with aping the films that featured Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. All you really had to do was gather a bunch of unsuspecting victims into a different setting before killing them off with your very own psychopath. However, if you wanted to rip off Freddy, you had to be pretty brazen about it; say what you want about A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it really doesn’t belong in the category of the other body count films it gets lumped in with. That didn’t stop a handful of films from trying, though (in fact, I still maintain that Craven himself was trying to re-create another Freddy when he made Shocker). One of the more infamous one is Bad Dreams, whose title should clue you in to the film’s inspiration right away. It even brings along one of Freddy’s past victims, Jennifer Rubin, who got high with everyone’s favorite razor-fingered maniac in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3.
Rubin is Cynthia, a young woman who was once a part of a hippy love cult called Unity Fields back in the 70s. When their psychopathic leader, Franklin Harris (Richard Lynch), made them drink the gasoline-flavored Kool-Aid, everyone perished in a big fire, save for Cynthia. Instead, she entered a coma for 13 years; upon reawakening in the 80s, she’s not only met with a huge culture shock, but also with the revelation that Harris intends to finish what he started. Now interned in an asylum, she has to figure out a way to keep her fellow inmates from dying horribly at the hands of Harris, who is now a torched, malevolent specter reaching out from beyond the grave.
You can obviously see the Elm Street fingerprints all over the plot, which especially borrows heavily from Dream Warriors (which makes Rubin’s presence all the more strange). Cynthia finds herself in “group” and gains the sympathy of the good doctor (Bruce Abbot); meanwhile the bad doctor (Harris Yulin) doesn’t believe her at all. And of course all of the mysterious deaths are written off as suicides because a dead cultist killing people is absurd. However, it also carries itself like Elm Street too, right down to the ethereal musical cues that feel like they were taken from the cutting room floor of those films (though, oddly enough, some of the cues reminded me of Nightmare 5, which was released the year after this one). Hell, they even went so far as to feature Charles Fleischer (the dream doctor from the original Nightmare) in a small role in its insistence on copying Elm Street.
Of course, it’s not really as good as any of those movies, save for maybe part five. For one thing, it doesn’t really seem to care about characters; whereas Dream Warriors actually bothered to introduce and develop its characters, Bad Dreams literally introduces the entire supporting cast during Cynthia’s first group session (at which point we haven’t even met her yet!). They’re mostly just an assortment of weirdos who are defined by their neurosis: one girl is super shy, another one says vague, weird things, and there’s an oddball older couple who have some kind of issues with touching each other (or something). The only real standout is Dean Cameron, who was one year away from raising hell in Freddy Shoop’s class in Summer School. He’s a real twitchy guy here who tries to bullshit himself into Cynthia’s good graces, which he fails spectacularly at doing.
I think it goes without saying that Franklin Harris isn’t nearly the badass that Freddy Krueger is, either (otherwise there would have been a few Bad Dreams movies). Aside from being a meatball-faced burn victim who occasionally taunts Cynthia, they’ve got nothing in common. Like the rest of the characters, he’s mostly just a plot device to ensure that there’s some grisly death scenes. In that regards, however, if fails to really explain itself very well, which is another reason it pales in comparison to Nightmare. See, the movie never bothers to really explain what’s going on until the very end; meanwhile, we’re left wondering if Harris is a ghost or a figment of Cynthia’s imagination. Even more bewildering is the film’s title, which seemingly might offer a clue to the proceedings. Except it doesn’t--in fact, I think there’s only one dream sequence, and it doesn’t have a huge baring on the plot. At any rate, everything leads up to a revelatory twist that you won’t see coming if only because the film has been hiding its cards up its own ass the whole time.
But despite it all, I kind of like Bad Dreams. Maybe it’s the razor sharp directness of it all; it’s only about 80 minutes long, so there’s rarely a dull moment. In many ways, this feels like the Elm Street series re-imagined as a straight slasher because the emphasis is so gore-centric; it doesn’t disappoint either, as there’s a gruesome assortment of murder sequences. One involves a turbine blade, so you can imagine various body parts being splattered about. It’s the aftermath of it that’s really great, though. Rubin is another strong point; I always thought her career should have been better because she’s got a great presence. She’s got the same toughness she showed in Dream Warriors, but it doesn’t come without a hint of vulnerability. Director Fleming makes use of some real Hollywood money (the film was produced by James Cameron cohort/ex-wife Gale Ann Hurd) to craft a solid production. His visuals are especially strong, and the film is atmospheric enough considering how quickly it moves.
Bad Dreams seems to be very content on cashing in on the Freddy cash-cow and nothing more (appropriately enough, the production company here is “No Frills Film Production”). It doesn’t even bother to have much of an ending, and there’s a great reaction shot from a cop who witnesses the climactic showdown before shrugging his shoulders and walking off. That’s pretty much what the movie itself does just afterwards as it alarmingly plows into its closing credits, which are scored by “Sweet Child of Mine” (which is the second instance of weird musical choices, as the opening credits are scored by an inappropriately upbeat tune considering we’ve just seen a bunch of people die in a fire).
At any rate, this is one of those weird movies that was distributed theatrically by Fox but ended up in Anchor Bay’s catalog for a while; like other titles in that distribution deal, it went out of print. Fret not, though--Shout Factory is currently putting many of those titles back on store shelves, and this is one of the latest. The disc’s presentation is fine; I’m not sure if the anamorphic transfer is ported over from the previous release, but it’s mostly strong, with the color being particularly vibrant. I saw a hint of noise in some darker scenes, but it’s mostly an artifact free transfer. There’s a new 5.1 track, which is actually pretty impressive, as the rear speakers get a lot of work. Shout Factory provides a mix of new and ported special features as well. There’s some newly produced interviews with Rubin, Abbot, Lynch, and Cameron, who recount their experiences shooting the film, while another archive feature discusses the special effects. The other archive feature gives us some fly on the wall behind the scenes footage of the parking lot scene. Then there’s a work print version of the film’s original ending, which probably should have been left on, if only because it actually provides further resolution. Rounding out the special features is a trailer and a photo gallery. The best part? Bad Dreams arrives as a bargain double feature, as it’s paired with Visiting Hours (yes, that slasher movie featuring William Shatner). I can’t imagine fans of this film not being satisfied with this release, so they’ll want to snap it up if they don’t own the Anchor Bay version. The uninitiated will find a tidy little Nightmare rehash that’ll provide some cheap 80s thrills. Rent it!
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