TRANSMISSIONS TO EARTH presents:
BAD DREAMS (1988)
Movie review by L.L. Soares
Like a lot of horror films from the 1980s, 1988’s BAD DREAMS feels like a missed opportunity. The first film by director Andrew Fleming (who went on to give us THE CRAFT, 1996, the Steve Coogan vehicle HAMLET 2, 2008, and episodes of TV shows like ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and FRANKLIN & BASH), it’s kind of a take on cults like the Manson Family and Jonestown. You would think with a name like BAD DREAMS it might venture a bit into Freddy Krueger territory, especially since Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) had been a horror movie hit just a few years before and was still fresh on everyone’s minds. But strangely, the title is misleading, since the killer here does not kill people in their dreams.
The leader of this particular cult is simply called Harris, and is played by the great Richard Lynch, who was in tons of movies since the 1970s, including such memorable ones as SCARECROW (1973), Larry Cohen’s classic GOD TOLD ME TO (1976), and his last appearance, in a small flashback as Reverend Hawthorne in Rob Zombie’s latest film THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013). (Sadly, Mr. Lynch died in 2012.)
We see Harris gathering his faithful in an old house on a hill, baptizing each member with gasoline before setting the house on fire. This is kind of (painfully) ironic, since actor Lynch really had set himself on fire in Central Park in 1967 during a bad LSD trip, and, after he became scarred during the accident, he was many directors’ go-to-guy to play various villains in horror films and in TV shows.
But back to the movie. Everyone in the cult dies in the fire, except for Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin, the striking actress who was also Edie Segewick in Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS, 1991, and whose first movie was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, 1987, strangely enough) who gets saved from the flaming house, but spends the next 13 years in a coma. When she wakes up, it’s a media circus. Not only is it a big deal she woke up after such a long time, but everyone wants to know what happened inside the cult house the night it exploded in flames. Unfortunately, poor Cynthia doesn’t remember anything about that night.
Her doctor, Dr. Berrisford (character actor Harris Yulin, who has been in over 100 movies including SCARFACE, 1983 and TRAINING DAY, 2001), tells Cynthia that she should see a psychitatrist, because after such a long coma, not only does she need physical therapy to get her motor skills back, she also needs to “heal her mind” and learn how to cope with life 13 years later (she was just a teenager when that fateful fire happened). So Cynthia is turned over to Dr.Berrisford’s assistant, Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott, who you might remember as Dan in the Stuart Gordon classic RE-ANIMATOR, 1985), and becomes part of his group therapy sessions. Of course, this being the 80s, the therapy group is made up of various quirky oddballs, some of which are clearly meant to be funny – and aren’t. These include wisecracking Ralph (Dean Cameron, also in SUMMER SCHOOL, 1987, ROCKULA, 1990, where he also played a character named Ralph, and lots of TV shows, including ALF, 1989 – 1990); shy Lana (Elizabeth Daily, who was also in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, 2005 and has done tons of voices for cartoons); a tough-talking lady reporter who’s always smoking; a middle-aged couple that is obviously having an affair; and an annoying teenage black girl named Gilda (Damita Jo Freeman) who keeps saying cryptic things that make you wonder if she has a direct line to Harris. Sometimes, these people seem a little too over-the-top (it’s not like this movie was striving for realism, sadly).
At first, Cynthia only remembers the peace and love platitudes that cult leader Harris laid on them back in the day, but then she slowly remembers how the man eventually lost his mind and set fire to all his followers, and suddenly, she’s traumatized all over again. Even more traumatic is the fact that Harris keeps popping up when Cynthia least expects it (as she remembers him, and later as a burned-up version), first showing up in a crowded elevator (this makes her go bonkers), and then slowly killing off every member of the therapy group (by drowning, tossing one person out of a window, and throwing the middle-aged lovebirds into a giant fan). Cynthia tries to tell Dr. Karmen and anyone else who will listen that Harris is doing all these things, but no one believes her. There’s also a cop, Detective Wasserman (Sy Richardson, who might be best known as Lite in the cult classic, REPO MAN, 1984) who is very suspicious of Cynthia’s cult member past and is sure she is somehow responsible for the deaths.
The twist ending in this one is very disappointing, and doesn’t make a lot of sense, considering past events. But hell, at least it doesn’t end with Cynthia waking up from her coma at the end, and it being all a “bad dream” – which I was dreading from the get-go, considering the title. When we do get to the surprise revelation (which I won’t spoil here), we find out that this is a movie is kind of a letdown. If only they had just delved more into Harris and his cult, and given it more resonance, this could have been the beginning of a franchise of its own. But no such luck. Instead, things get wrapped up in a tidy (and completely underwhelming) bow by the end.
Rubin is good here as Cynthia. Abbott is a little stilted sometimes, but has a few good scenes as Dr. Karmen (especially a great scene where he imagines running over Dr. Berrisford with his car!) and Lynch is perfectly cast as the Jim Jones/Manson-esque Harris (but he needed more screen time!). The direction by first timer Fleming is okay, but nothing amazing, and the screenplay by Fleming and Steve E. de Souza (based on a story by Fleming, Michael Dick, P.J. Pettiette and Yuri Zeltser) has some good ideas, but never fully delivers on them (and imagine, it took all those guys to come up with this one!)
Not one of the 80s best horror films by any stretch, BAD DREAMS at least has some good moments. But man, it could have been so much better!
© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares