Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Get Out of My Bad Dreams and Into My Cult

Perhaps it's my own age, but I always find something truly special about non-slasher horror films made in the 1980s. Once you hack your way through the cookie cutter patterned Friday the 13ths and their knockoffs, there is a seemingly endless supply of decent little thrillers rich in gore, compelling storylines, and character actors that instantly keep viewers young by challenging them to identify what other 1980s horror or 1990s sitcom they made brief appearances in.

For these reasons and more, I was excited to finally view 1988's Bad Dreams, a Nightmare on Elm Street-ish inspired flick that had the terrible luck of premiering around the same time as Freddy’s most beloved outing against the Patricia Arquette-led Dream Warriors. Well-cast and directed by a young (very young) Andrew Fleming (he who would go on to make a personal 8th grade favorite, The Craft), Bad Dreams is not what you would call a classic, but certainly worth its weight in dead mental patients and 80s era scoring.

Quick Plot: We open on an icily blond Richard Lynch leading his Waco-esque (pre-Waco times) cult into a fiery mass suicide. One young woman, Cynthia (Nightmare 3’s mohawk donning Jennifer Rubin), survives alone, falling into a 13 year coma which wakes her up conveniently enough in the 1980s, just in time to ride the nightmare horror craze and act beside a Summer School era Dean Cameron in a powerful supporting role. Since Cynthia has no memory of the fire and has even less resources in the outside world, she’s committed to a mental asylum headed by ReAnimator’s Bruce Abbott and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Henry Yulin*. Cynthia struggles to fit into the kooky borderline personality support group, quite a challenge when she’s continually haunted by the eerie image of a post-burning Lynch and the slightly uncomfortable fact that everyone she seems to talk commits suicide in an elaborate manner.

This is not your fluffy dumb and dead teenager movie, despite its reputation as Freddy's illegitimate child tucked away in a VHS love nest. While Bad Dreams was clearly influenced by the more famous films of its time, it holds its own and holds up well 20 years later. Sure, we've seen our share of pretty young women with ghostly visions and questionable sanity, but middle aged horndogs being splattered by violent air conditioning and salty mouthed Weekly World News reporters add new and welcomed touches to an age old sub-genre. The film is not without its faults--a clumsy climax and not quite fully realized villain revelation bog down its second half--but Bad Dreams ultimately succeeds on its own terms in creating a new story with memorable characters and a few moments of actual fear.

High Points
From Jennifer Rubin’s sympathetic amnesiac to the quirky but resonant mental patients and always enigmatic Richard Lynch, the entire cast turns in solid performances to make you genuinely care about each character

If you read my disappointed review of The Believers, you may know that I have a fascination of sorts with cults. While I still would have preferred a little more exploration into Unity Field, the presentation of this Jonestown-ish group is haunting and realistic

The gore is not nearly as explicit as in the Nightmare series, but Bad Dreams does boast a few memorably twisted and creative death scenes, plus a truly disturbing and impressively directed baptism by fire that may indeed induce your own bad dreams

Low Points
Somewhere along the line, the film switches viewpoints from Rubin’s patient to Abbott’s psychologist and while this does produce one of the film’s wackiest and most entertaining sequences, it also loses our character investment

This moment actually made me happy, but not in a good way: note the final expression and blase shrug of the police investigator at the film’s resolution. Should major characters really express such a blatant lack of interest after a dramatic and deadly showdown between the protagonists and villain?

Lessons Learned
If you want to be totally 80s, get two divorces and a yeast infection. If all you can handle is Cleveland, stick to the 70s.

Having secret sex in a turbine fan room carries risks far greater than herpes

The record for longest tenure in a coma is 37 years

Comas will do wonders for your hair and complexion

Fans of 80s studio horror should enjoy Bad Dreams as an interesting, if not amazing remnant of a time when horror had something of a heyday. While it doesn’t pack the lasting visual innovation of its ultimate rival, Dream Warriors, it is a well-acted and sometimes haunting film that refreshingly does not involve zombies, big men with machetes, or boobs (sorry boys; the ladies can enjoy the sexiness of Bruce Abbott’s Mr. Rogers’ sweater). The DVD includes a few older featurettes, along with a friendly commentary by writer-director Fleming. An alternate ending packs a creepy and appropriate punch before finishing with a dime store Halloween decoration image that belongs in no film made for more than thirty seven dollars and eighty two cents. Bad Dreams is definitely worth a viewing and could have enough rewatchability potential to merit a purchase.

*You might be wondering why I seem to have this need to credit each actor with another performance. Truly, it’s just too hard not to when nearly every cast member has some notable horror or cult film on his or her resume. Plus, I've been playing the movie-actor-movie connection game for nearly two days, so I'll personally take any chance to boost my personal database of useless film knowledge.


  1. I'm checking out your blog for the first time. Some cool stuff here. For the record, Dean Cameron fucking owns in this movie (as he is wont to do). I think referencing the previous credits like that makes perfect sense, as many horror actors get typecast and recast because of certain roles anyway. The casting director probably said "get me the guy that was in Re-Animator! HE ROCKED!" So don't worry about it. In my reviews, I'll sometimes go one step further and refer to a character throughout by the name of the character the actor had played in their signature role, just to confuse and annoy people. Well, I also wrote a review of Bad Dreams, although I have only watched it on VHS, and have not seen the DVD with the extras and alternate ending and such. Maybe I'll check it out...http://cinemagonzo.blogspot.com/2010/06/bad-dreams-1988-elm-street-sequel-gets.html

  2. Thanks for stopping by Thomas! I loved your review, although I would probably give the gold star of the film to Richard Lynch. He's weirdly chilling here, and not just because his hair serves as a warning to all unnatural blonds looking to experiment. I'll definitely stay in touch with your blog!