FEBRUARY 17, 2014
I didn't think much of Bad Dreams when I first saw it way back in the early days of HMAD (yes, I had missed out on it as a kid), but after giving it another look I realize I was a bit harsh. It's not a great movie, but it's trying something new and is fairly well made for a debut, plus offers a strong cast of genre faves and solid character actors - including many adults, which was pretty rare for horror in 1988, especially in a "slasher" movie like this. And my only other viewing was on a pan & scan cable transfer, so I certainly appreciated this high-def second go around whenever the lovely Jennifer Rubin (one of my first actress crushes thanks to Nightmare 3) was on screen.
The problem with the movie is that it takes a sub-genre that's mostly known for its relative playfulness (the slasher) and uses its motifs for a plot about suicide, which isn't so fun. I dig the mystery/twist angle that (spoiler for 25 year old movie ahead) everything in the movie has been the result of psychosis and medication, and not the ghost/supernatural presence of a long-dead cult leader - but that really undermines the hook of the movie, and makes you realize in its final moments that everything you have witnessed has been a series of suicides brought on by (intentionally) mixed up prescription pills. That's a huge bummer of a reveal, especially when you consider that the victims all had real problems and were trying to get help, but got caught in the middle of their evil doctor's plan that was instigated by the arrival of a new patient who survives.
Of course, one could look at Nightmare on Elm St 3 the same way - Kristen shows up and people start dying, and she's one of the few to live. But we learn that the kids already knew about Freddy and thus we can assume he would have gotten to them eventually, which isn't the case here. The villain was able to use the idea that the cult dude was somehow doing this stuff, but the other patients wouldn't even have known he existed unless Rubin's character hadn't joined the group. So once you realize this, it makes it hard to get into the movie that's spent the previous hour building up the idea of a new horror icon that blends Freddy Krueger with Jim Jones (hey, more suicide!). I mean, maybe if it was a hardcore serious horror film, they could pull it off - but when you have Dean Cameron mugging in every other scene, and even occasional one-liners from Richard Lynch (as the cult guy), it's hard to really take it serious.
So it's a tonal misfire, in other words - but there's still some merit to the proceedings. Again, there's a great cast here, and watching them bounce off each other during the therapy scenes is entertaining every time. There's a sequence where two of the patients fall (jump) into a giant turbine fan which causes blood to spray out of all the vents and air ducts - a delightfully icky setpiece that you can enjoy a lot more nowadays since you know it was real fake blood being sprayed on all of the actors (including Rubin), not a bunch of pixels. Lynch's burn makeup (a 5 hour process, according to the bonus features) is also pretty spectacular - again, it's clear they were trying to launch a new Freddy icon (Lynch also says he was signed on for 2 sequels), but I'm not sure how a franchise would work considering he's basically a figment of everyone's imagination.
It's also got a nice turn from Bruce Abbott, in the Craig Wasson role as the group's handsome shrink. I never understood why Abbott didn't become a bigger star - he's got a very charming everyman presence, something that pays off here as he's pretty much the only normal guy in the movie. But he briefly gets in on the fun, during a weird hallucination scene where he imagines himself repeatedly running over his boss, and also gets to enjoy the longest rooftop rescue in history (seriously, he's hanging onto Rubin - with one hand! - for like 3 minutes). His boss is played by Harris Yulin, another solid character and one you don't often see in junky horror movies (one of his few others is My Soul To Take!), so again, the cast alone is enough to warrant a view.
All of the bonus features here are ported over from their 2011 DVD release; there's a pretty fun commentary with Andrew Fleming, who is proud but aware of the flaws in his first movie and thus has just the right attitude about it (he also shares a hilarious anecdote about being so young/broke when he took the meeting for the movie that his mother drove him to FOX and waited outside - heh). Then there's a then-new collection of interviews with Cameron, Rubin, Abbott, and Lynch (not long before he died), where they go through the usual paces of such things (except for Lynch, who is seemingly pissed off about something and seems like 2 seconds away from completely freaking out). The rest of the stuff is vintage EPK and behind the scenes material, as well as the original ending which drags on forever and sets up the sequel that never came to pass, so it was a pretty good call on their part to cut it.
This is the film's first release on Blu-ray, and it's paired with Visiting Hours, the hospital-based sorta-slasher with Michael Ironside. I have no desire to revisit that one any time soon, but for what it's worth, it DOES have some new interviews, including one with screenwriter Brian Taggart, so if you're a fan of that film you can justify the upgrade for sure. Some Scream releases are must-own sets even if you're not a big fan of the movie (I've held on to The Burning and Night Of The Comet), but this release is definitely a fans-only affair. However, I'm glad I gave Bad Dreams another chance; it's not great, but it's one of the better Freddy cash-ins, and given that it came out in 1988, when the Nightmare series officially reached parody level (Miami Vice Freddy!), it's admirably restrained in comparison.
What say you?