Sound: B- Extras:
B+ Film: B-
Back in the spring of 1988, I was seeing almost every theatrical
release that opened, but I somehow missed Bad Dreams, and
didn't catch up to it until Anchor Bay released it recently on DVD. I
think I wrote it off at the time as just another '80s slasher movie, and
listened to some of the scathingly negative reviews (like the ones Siskel &
Ebert did on their show that director Andrew Fleming mentions during his audio
commentary). But I should have known I was missing a potential gem when
Leonard Maltin gave Bad Dreams a "BOMB" rating in
his movie guide. If Maltin hates something, there's a good chance it just
might have been too rough for wimpy old Leonard.
I now regret skipping Bad Dreams for all these
years because it turns out to be a solid, underrated horror film. I
actually liked it a lot better than the Nightmare on Elm Street
films, from which it seems at least partly inspired.
Part slasher film and part psychological thriller, the film opens
on the grounds of a cult called Unity Fields in the mid-1970s. The Jim
Jones-style leader of the cult is a lunatic named Harris (veteran villain
Richard Lynch), who exhibits absolute control over the cult members. We
then witness Harris force his brainwashed flock into pouring gasoline over
themselves and setting themselves on fire in a Guyana-like mass suicide.
Everyone dies except one young girl named Cynthia, who resisted at the last
second. Cynthia, however, was knocked unconscious during the
subsequent explosion, resulting in her being comatose for 13 years.
Cut to 1988. Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin) is now in her
twenties, and suddenly awakens from the coma in a psychiatric hospital -- one
of the film's biggest flaws is that it should have devoted more
time to Cynthia discovering how the world changed during those 13 years.
After Cynthia awakens, she's put into group therapy with other mental
patients that's run by a young psychiatrist (Bruce Abbott), who regularly consults
his superior, an older shrink (Harris Yulin).
Cynthia then starts seeing apparitions of Harris, often with a
hideously burned face, but she's the only person who can see him. Then
when other patients from the group start dying in gruesome ways, Cynthia is
convinced the evil spirit of Harris is responsible and won't rest until
Cynthia has joined him on the other side.
While Bad Dreams contains enough bloodshed to
please gore hounds, what I appreciated most about the movie is its surprisingly
logical explanation for all the deaths in the psychiatric hospital.
Perhaps, the film's departure from the supernatural at the end is one
factor that hurt it at the box office. The final shot of the
alternate ending (included in the extras) shows that the filmmakers were
thinking of ending the film in the conventional slasher-flick manner
of setting up a potential sequel, but I'm glad they didn't settle for such an
I also came away impressed by Jennifer Rubin's performance as
Cynthia. She does a convincing job of looking medicated, and director
Fleming tells of a little trick she used to achieve this in his audio
commentary. Combining the best qualities of Jennifer Connelly and Liv
Tyler, Rubin has an interesting screen presence, and it's unfortunate she didn't
have a bigger career. Dean Cameron, who played a similar smart-ass the
previous year in Carl Reiner's Summer School, is also a
standout as a self-mutilating, but witty borderline personality named
Then there's perennial heel Lynch, who's supposedly a very
nice person in real life, but has the ability to make himself creepy and
menacing on camera. He's perfect as Harris, and not just because Lynch
himself suffered serious burns earlier in his life.
Anchor Bay has done a fine job on the Bad Dreams
DVD, which isn't called a Special Edition, but contains more extras than some
DVDs given that distinction. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer
has a good, clear picture and better-than-usual 2.0 Dolby Digital
sound. The extras include an enjoyable commentary track by
co-writer/director Fleming. This was Fleming's first film, and he tells
of how Gale Anne Hurd hired him to direct his own script shortly after he
graduated from college, and how Hurd's husband at the time, James Cameron, gave
him pointers. In addition, there's three behind-the scenes featurettes
recorded during filming, an alternate ending, which works quite
well until the aforementioned final shot, the original theatrical trailer
and the screenplay on DVD-ROM. The only segment missing from the
extras are recent interviews with Fleming, producer Hurd and cast members
about their recollections of Bad Dreams 18 years later.
- Chuck O'Leary