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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Bad Dreams Andrew Fleming 1988

No! Sleep! For Rubin!

Bad Dreams is neither bad, nor about dreams. Discuss.

Seriously – for a movie called Bad Dreams, it’s interesting that the film has nothing to do with sleeping at all. In fact, this loony-bin slasher (one of my favorite sub-genres: Girl, Fuckeded-Upted) bears so many unfortunate similarities to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors as it is – including the central presence of one Jennifer Rubin – that the added (and inappropriate) connection to the whole dream-killer thing probably only served to confuse people even further about which film was which.

Just to clear things up:

1. Nightmare is the one with the horribly-burned killer with the knives for fingers; Dreams is the one with the horribly-burned killer without knives for fingers.
2. Nightmare features Kewpie-faced dwarf Penelope Sudrow as a pathetic, mewling mental patient; Dreams features Kewpie-faced dwarf E.G. Daily as a pathetic, mewling mental patient.
3. Nightmare features beloved genre washup Craig Wasson (Body Double, Schizo) as a well-intentioned shrink trying to save the kids from horribly messy demises; Dreams features beloved genre washup Bruce Abbott (Re-Animator) as a well-intentioned shrink trying to save the kids from horribly messy demises.
4. Dreams features 4-time Emmy winner Susan Ruttan (L.A. Law); Nightmare features 4-time Emmy watcher Heather Langenkamp (Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story).

The thing about Bad Dreams is, it’s actually quite a competent flick, with some great camera tricks, an interesting and unexpected twist, and some healthy dollops of blood and gore. It’s a shame that it bears so many similarities to the much flashier and better-remembered Dream Warriors, which immediately relegates it to the also-ran category for most. Rubin, while not quite as punchy as she was as the punk-rock junkie Taryn in Warriors, does a fine job playing suicide cult survivor Cynthia, the sole leftover human briquette of the intentional blaze that engulfed all of the other members of her cult, including creepy leader Harris (Richard Lynch). Side note: oddly, Lynch set himself on fire in 1967 after taking acid behind the Met in New York City. Why he would then take a role as a self-barbecuing hippie loon is beyond me.

Anyway, Cynthia wakes up from a 13-year coma to find herself not in the charred remains of Unity Fields, but in a “borderline personality” group in a mental hospital. Honestly, there’s no real reason for her to be here in the first place – the fact that she slept through the nightmares of Sheilds and Yarnell and Solid Gold hardly make her an instant candidate for psychiatric observation. But as she has no family to speak of and the facts around the mass death (it was never proven to be a suicide) are still fuzzy, she’s stuck with the bastard stepsiblings of the Cuckoo’s Nest posse for the next few weeks. During this time, under the watchful eye of the handsome-yet-over-cardiganed Dr. Karmen (Abbott) and the stodgy Dr. Berrisford (Harris Yulin), Cynthia is forced to hang around a bunch of bona-fide nuts as they go through Primal Scream therapy, bitch at each other, and try to mess with the new girl. Thankfully, they start to die very quickly.

See, Cynthia is having visions of an extra-crispy Harris appearing to her in the hospital and telling her to kill herself to fulfill her suicide pact with the cult. He tells her that if she doesn’t do it soon, he’ll have to kill all of her friends. Not exactly water-tight logic, but if it means a few fewer overacting mental patients, I’ll buy it. The first to go is Lana (Daily), a quiet girl whose awful lopsided hairstyle suggests that she only has one eye: she drowns in the pool as Cynthia has a flashback to her baptism at Unity Fields. Pretty nice, actually. Cynthia also has repeated remembrances of her family and Harris burning up – with some impressive effects – that eventually lead her to remember the entire story, which she relates to the police and doctors. For some reason this isn’t good enough for the detectives (solving this long-forgotten 13-year-old case is apparently of tantamount importance and worth the rapidly devolving mental condition of this poor girl), so Crystal is forced to remain in the ward as the rest of her fellow nutbags drop like flies, all apparent suicides.

We’ve got chain-smoking Susan Ruttan (she smokes 100’s – “bitch-sticks”) tossing herself out a window, her head splatting with a satisfied wet thud on the pavement. We’ve got the local nymphomaniacs (sadly – although humorously – they’re middle-aged and not too attractive. Finally, a film that tells it like it is regarding sex perverts.), who throw themselves into a turbine, which minces them up like so much cabbage and spews the pervie-slaw through the ventilation grates, showering the entire facility in grue. It’s completely ridiculous, yet totally hot.

There’s also some bleach-drinking and a self-mutilation number that predates the groundbreaking Seventh Heaven cutter episode by, like, fifteen years. In the meantime, dashing Dr. Karmen – after being fired – has a hissy fit in the parking lot and takes a pill to calm down, after which he hallucinates that he is repeatedly running over Dr. Berrisford and catching on fire in his car. Snapping out of it, he realizes that the strange suicides seem to have some kind of connection to the frequent dosings that the patients are given by Dr. Berrisford. Curious, he checks in with the pharmacy (which is alarmingly run by the voice of Roger Rabbit) and finds that Berrisford has essentially been feeding the already-borderline patients crazy pills – kind of like giving crystal to a kid with hyperactivity disorder, or Viagra to a Kennedy. Karmen’s hallucination is certainly the centerpiece of the film (aside from a few punchy images here and there, two of them involving stabbing of the hands, a not-too-common yet very effective image) – it’s well-shot and has a trudging, sick pace to it that introduces a bit of pitch-dark humor to an otherwise somber script. The classical scoring is a nice touch as well, although some might find that the irony is a bit heavy-handed and tips the scene into camp.

Speaking of which, writer/director Andrew Fleming is a big ol' homo. I of course mean this as a compliment.

And I’ll say right off the bat that it’s refreshing to see a first-time director tell a story in such a clean, uncomplicated manner – Fleming doesn’t get caught up in trying to establish any sort of “style”, and the result is a lean little thriller. Perhaps it’s this attention to the task at hand that would enable Fleming to bounce around to different genres as his career progressed (he’s turned in everything from the queerish comedy drama Threesome to the teen lezzie-chic witch-fest The Craft to the bloated Michael Douglas comedy The In-Laws – which, coincidentally, co-starred Alpha Himbo Ryan Reynolds). Regardless, although he may not have as distinctive a “voice” as other genre directors, he does know how to tell a story, and Bad Dreams is a fun, solid watch. Sure – it may not have human puppets, Patricia Arquette, or a Dokken theme song; but thanks to some unexpected gore, a creepy premise, and a nice twist, Bad Dreams are far better than just the pale shadow of Nightmares.

Rating (out of 5):