Bad Dreams (1988)
Director: Andrew Fleming
Starring: Jennifer Rubin, Bruce Abbott, Richard Lynch, Dean Cameron, Harris Yulin
1/2 (out of 4)
Bad Dreams has a bad reputation for being a ripoff of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 – Dream Warriors. Like that film, it stars Jennifer Rubin, who plays a character undergoing group therapy at a hospital. Of course, members of the group are killed off one by one. Of course, the killer is the spirit of a dead maniac who had all his skin burned off. So yes, at first glance, it looks like a blatant copy. Hell, even the name of the movie is a giveaway. To my surprise however, first time director Andrew Fleming does enough interesting things with the material that help break the film out of the limited role given to it (riding Nightmare 3‘s coattails). Unfavorable comparisons to Dream Warriors, while understandable, may be a bit unfair.
Here’s what I think happened: In the director commentary, Fleming says that he came up with the story. Ok, I’ll buy that. Then producer Gale Anne Hurd comes in (having previously produced The Terminator and Aliens) and brings that typical big-studio mentality that says: Let’s get that one girl from that Freddy movie that just came out. And cast Richard Lynch – that guy’s crazy! Burn him up a bit, have him stalk a hospital support group, and finally let’s call the movie Bad Dreams. The Freddy fans will be tripping all over themselves to get into the theater!
Problem is – there aren’t any dreams in this film. There’s no nightmare-stalker. What we have is a story about a dead cult leader (Lynch) that seems to have returned from the grave to claim the one girl who escaped the Jonestown-like Kool-aid party many years earlier. Evoking “oneness” and total love and all that hippie stuff, creepy Harris “baptizes” his followers with gasoline, then sets the house on fire. Having miraculously survived the ordeal, Cynthia (Rubin) wakes up from a coma 13 years later to discover that the 80s isn’t very kind to hippies. Harris, horribly burned, also seems to have come back from the dead to claim her, and if she doesn’t want to go, he’ll just have to start taking group members in her place. Lynch plays the part well (I didn’t think of Robert Englund once) – imagine my surprise when I found out that Lynch himself was horribly burned back in the 60s when he set himself on fire after taking LSD. It’s impressive that he would willingly play a role like this.
The special effects, while low budget, are suitably icky. There’s one moment when an idiot couple fall into some turbines and blood rains down from the AC vents. Dean Cameron plays a self-mutilating borderline personality (and strangely enough the source of all the comic relief) who should definitely not be left around knives. Rubin does what she can with the milquetoast role given to her, and Bruce Abbott (Re-Animator) is on hand as her doctor who naturally falls in love with her. The high point of the film is the revealing moment where it escapes the confines of the ghost-killer plot, and moves in a direction that I did not anticipate. Unfortunately, the movie fails to adequately explain the motivations behind the “real” bad guy’s actions and to top it off Fleming really doesn’t know how to end the proceedings. The ending just fizzles out, leaving things feeling unfinished.
Bad Dreams doesn’t allow for much meaning beyond shock-and-laugh teen horror, but perhaps it has something to say about the importance of asserting your own will, lest you give others control over you. It’s drawing parallels between Cynthia’s old commune and her new support group, making them all victims of pretty much the same kind of monster. Maybe it’s trying to explain people like Charles Manson – in its own way, of course. It’s the perfect example of a film that I would submit as “worth the rental” – not all it could be, but underrated in the sense that we have an obvious big studio project run by boardroom execs who just wanted another Freddy Kruger, and most likely weren’t too happy when Fleming gave them something more intelligent. It elevates the film a bit, just not quite enough to make it an 80s “classic”.
The DVD has commentary from director Fleming and also includes the lost ending, which fills in some missing plot points. It also brings the movie to a more satisfying conclusion, especially in regard to Rubin’s character Cynthia. However, the final few frames are goofy, so in a way I’m glad they took it out. There are also a few “making of” segments, where Gale Anne Hurd professionally describes the movie as a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Haunting. (LOL!) Then she says she likes to think of the film as original (LOL!!) and starting a new sub-genre (LOL!!!). Yeah, she’s a real piece of work.
- Bill Gordon