Thursday, February 12, 2015

Nightmares (1983)

Nightmares (1983)
Dir. Joseph Sargent
Written by Jeffery Bloom, Cristopher “Cross” Crowe
Starring Cristina Raines, Emilio Estevez, Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Richard Masur

This four-segment anthology horror didn’t begin life as a film; like JOHN CARPENTER’S BODY BAGS these four segments were originally headed for TV, in this case for ABC’s short-lived anthology series Darkroom. When Darkroom was canceled in 1982, they took four orphaned segments (claimed to have been excised from the series because they were “too intense for TV,” though I wouldn’t rule out the idea that they just had four segments left over that they wanted to squeeze a few more pennies out of), cobbled ‘em together into a movie (no framing story or anything, not even the James Coburn narration from the series) and titled it as generically as possible just to ensure there was nothing to stand out or make it memorable or anything. Someone in the marketing department must have had a bad feeling about this strategy, because even the poster admits that this doesn’t sound like too hot a ticket: “each summer, one film opens that you’ve never heard of…” (“hey Steve, it’s summer, man, wanna go check out that new movie NIGHTMARES?” “never heard of it. let’s do some coke instead.”) “...and will never forget.” (“OK, that sounds a little more confident, but what movie could they be talking about?”) …”NIGHTMARES is this years sleeper.” (OOOOoooh, I get it, you’re talking about the movie that this poster is advertising. Good fakeout, 1983’s NIGHTMARES.)

To be frankly honest (arguably the edgiest kind of honest) this movie NIGHTMARES is not that great. These segments may have been too intense for ABC in 1983, but they’re nowhere near intense enough for a legit horror movie, despite the totally unearned R rating. They definitely feel like they would be something that played on network TV in the 80’s. Not that they’re incompetent or ugly or anything, they look fine, in fact, they look better than a lot of the movies that would follow them in the 90’s. They just seem kinda small-scale, flat, unambitious. There’s no significant gore, and very little in the way of imagination, they’re pretty derivative and uninspired from a narrative viewpoint, so they just don’t really have a lot going for them. Dan P from the Roads? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads blog, who watched most of the Chainsawnukah movies with me, fucking loathed this one, thought it was just utterly without merit, an insult to the entire endeavor of human civilization. Me, I wasn’t as offended by it, I found it a perfectly agreeable little time-waster, in fact occasionally kinda charming in its 80’s goofball cheesiness. But that’s absolutely the best thing you could argue about it: it’s benign and dorky enough to mildly hold your attention. Well, at least intermittently. Not so much at the start.

It begins with one of those hookhand-killer-on-the-loose type stories. I’m informed by the internet that it stars Cristina Raines, William Sanderson, and even has Fear singer Lee Ving in it, but honestly I have no memory of this whatsoever at this point, and didn’t even remember it was in the film, let alone the lead segment, until I checked IMDB in preparation for this review. Let’s move on.

Do you even arcade, bro?

Segment 2 is probably the one which is either going to make or break this one for you, depending on how many episodes of I Love the 80’s you were able to watch without vomiting Crystal Pepsi onto your lite-brite. It’s the most openly and shamelessly absurd episode here, so much so that I bet you could throw it on a sketch-comedy show today and everyone would wholeheartedly believe it to be a modern parody, rather than a legit 80’s artifact made with the serious intent to terrify and disturb. Basically the premise is this: Emilio Estevez (FREEJACK) is the raddest dude in 1983, and that radness is exemplified in the one thing that truly defined radness to a kid with a blonde crew-cut in 1983: he’s the king of his local mall’s arcade. The other kids are in awe of him, and he draws a crowd* as he plays Atari games with a grim seriousness that would probably be a little excessive for a speech addressing Congress of the start of World War III. 

As a player, he has no peer, but he does have a nemesis: the brutally difficult Battletank-esque “Bishop of Battle,” a notoriously difficult shooter featuring nefarious monochromatic polygonal shapes which torment the player through 12 punishing levels of difficulty, and --perhaps!-- a fabled 13th. When his parents forbid him from wasting his youth in front of a flickering 8-bit screen and beg him to please, please, just for them, knock up some teenager or something, just anything else but the video games, he rebels and sneaks out at night, breaking into the arcade and indulging in a marathon session with the Bishop of Battle… until things start to get a little too real. So basically this is the embodiment of every gamer’s nightmare since we saw THE WIZARD: the game comes to life and tries to get him. What’s funny is that although you might assume that the vaguely geometric polygons in the game are actually 8-bit symbolic representations of planes or UFOs or something, when they emerge from the game they look exactly the same. Apparently the game was a photo-realistic depiction of what just happen to be nefarious real-life 8-bit invaders.

The computerized villains were all created using ACS1200, and IMDB claims they “cost so much they nearly bankrupted the production” (not sure how that fits in with the “these were cut from TV for being too intense” theory, but I guess it would explain its reported 9 million dollar budget), but they have all the hallmarks of something some studio executive overheard his kid talking about and told his producers, “the kids like it, bring me some of that, money is no object.” Estevez also reportedly took two weeks of gun training to convincingly mimic shooting his Nintendo Zapper at invisible enemies, which should be about as telling a detail as one could hope for about how hilariously wrong-headed this whole concept is. It’s hard to believe anyone could have possibly taken this thing seriously, but there is every indication that someone, possibly everyone, did. Cocaine is a hell of a drug.

Swipe left.

Drugs are also a good explanation for the next segment, which stars noted greatest-man-alive Lance Henriksen (PUMPKINHEAD, HELLRAISER 8: HELLWORLD) as a disillusioned former Catholic priest who is leaving his parrish only to face stiff opposition in that front from…uh.. you know, it’s not really important. It’s something, I don’t remember, what, you expect me to keep track of every little detail in these movies? Look, there are some things you’re just better off not knowing. OK! Ok, well, it’s a malicious black Chevy 4x4. They have kind of a car fight, and then he throws holy water on it and kills it. It’s not even as cool as it sounds.

Actually, Henriksen is pretty much the only reason I watched this one, I’d had a few people tell me that this is one of his best performances. It’s a fair point, he really digs in deep to bring this poor guy’s inner struggle to his face, but you know what, he’s always great, so that’s not exactly a shock. Unfortunately redoing DUEL but with a smaller truck and way worse filmmaking is one of the lamest ideas I’ve ever seen in a Horror movie, at least MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE had that one truck with a gobin face on it, NIGHTMARES can’t even be bothered to do that. Henriksen is great, but he’s also great in DYING GOD (2008) and THE INVITATION (2003) and THE PENITENT MAN (2010) and come on, you’re not going to see those. He spends most of his screentime yelling or driving, not the best use of this fantastic actor if I may say so. The only thing of note here is that at one point, the crafty evil Chevy hides itself from its prey by burrowing underground and then roaring up out of the soil into the air, like that time Chuck Norris did the same thing in LONE WOLF McQUADE. Otherwise, kinda a wash.

Why? Why did you sign the contract to appear in NIGHTMARES!!?

The last segment is arguably the best, and the only one which even remotely manages any kind of serious build or respectable horror atmosphere. But even so, its pleasures are pretty mild. It concerns married couple Richard Masur (RISKY BUSINESS, MY GIRL 2) and Veronica Cartwright (CANDYMAN 2: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH, oh yeah, and THE BIRDS and ALIEN) who encounter an unusual rodent problem. First, wifey just hears rats in the wall, but the problem escalates with a frightening aggressiveness. She wants to call an exterminator, but her dickhole husband doesn’t think its necessary…until it becomes so blatantly necessary that a shotgun rat hunt is in order. I was sort of surprised at how effective this piece is; its nothing too imaginative, but there’s a sweaty, fevered...well, nightmarishness about this bizarre scenario. It has a Yellow Wallpaper kind of vibe to it, a slippery suggestion that under the prim surface something is rotting -- possibly the marriage between our two leads, possibly their sanity. Cartwright and Masur are good enough actors that they convey the emotional escalation of the situation with some surprising heft, reluctantly dragging you down this rathole into its absurd conclusion, which features some unfortunate effects but doesn’t quite manage to entirely shake off the dreamy paranoia of the escalation. This is mild praise, but it is praise, and that’s not something that NIGHTMARES deserves in abundance, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Another thing NIGHTMARES doesn’t have much in abundance? Anything memorable. If not for the ludicrous killer Atari segment with Estevez, there would be almost nothing here imaginative enough to register. I sort of liked the last segment, but it would be a minor effort at best in any self-respecting Horror anthology worth its salt. I appreciate NIGHTMARES’ attempt at a serious tone, but everything about this production screams small-scale, low-ambition, limited imagination early 80’s TV. There’s a small place in my heart which has some nostalgic affection for the era, which is probably how this one managed to avoid actively offending me, but without that cover there’s really very little here to recommend it. Watch it for the ironic enjoyment of the Estevez sequence if at all, and even then, I don’t recommend attempting this feat without some bitchy friends and a good provision of booze. Still, if you fancy an unassuming night of semi-competent low-stakes 80’s horror TV, you might find some value here.

*One of whom is Moon Unit Zappa


The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: None. From the writer/director of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, THE MOVIE and ... wow, the writer for LAST OF THE MOHICANS!!?
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Emilio Estevez?
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: No, unless the evil rats count.
  • MONSTER: Devil rat. Unfortunately the truck that menaces Henriksen is just a regular truck, not the monster variety.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Arguably the first segment, with its escaped killer.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Man into... 8-bit man.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, out of print, quickly forgotten.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Some things are best left on television.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Nothing about these four shorts would suggest nightmares.
This is being pretty generous and awarding a whole thumb for basic competency and awesome ACS1200 graphics.

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