Bad Dreams (1988)
Release Date: April 8th, 1988 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Andrew Fleming Actors: Jennifer Rubin, Bruce Abbott, Richard Lynch, Dean Cameron, E.G. Daily, Harris Yulin
nnerving suicide cult leader Franklin Harris (Richard Lynch) recruits young Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin) to participate in a terrifying ritual (of pouring gasoline on the heads of his disciples) before orchestrating the fiery explosion of Unity Fields, the large house his “family” resides in. Rescue crews discover more than a dozen corpses before pulling out the charred, comatose body of Cynthia, the lone survivor. Thirteen years and five months later, Cynthia suddenly awakes in the strangeness of the 1980s. She has no family, next of kin, or connection to this new environment – but psychiatrist Dr. Berrisford (Harris Yulin) and therapist Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott) are confident they can cure her neurosis and depression by including her in a “Borderline Personality Group,” which treats dual psychotic and neurotic conditions.
As the brainwashed Cynthia regains her strength, she begins to participate with the sessions and gets to know her fellow patients: the outspoken, outbleating Ralph (Dean Cameron); the cryptically chanting, monotonic African-American Gilda (Damita Jo Freeman); anxious, middle-aged ex-reporter Miriam (Susan Ruttan); the timid Lana (E.G. Daily); and argumentative Ed (Louis Giambalvo) and his flustered wife Connie (Susan Barnes). Unexpectedly, Cynthia starts having visions of her deceased cult friends and of the horribly charred Harris, who beckons her to join them in the afterlife. He warns that as long as she hysterically avoids his temptations, he’ll continue to execute her present companions one by one. An investigation by Detective Lieutenant Wasserman (Sy Richardson) and his policemen doesn’t seem to assuage anyone – least of all the ghost of Harris.
There’s a brilliantly serious tone at work in “Bad Dreams,” defiantly shrugging off the notion of derivativeness from other horror movies of the late ‘80s. If it can’t be wholly original, it might as well approach its easily eerie setup with absolute sincerity. The level of gore and deaths is also refreshing, suggesting that the filmmakers are clearly not content in shying away from the bloodshed fans presumably want to see in such slashers. Grisly makeup effects smartly complement lighting tricks (such as strobe-like elevator flashes, illuminated faces peering from darkened corners, and dim basements) and snazzy editing, which effectively transitions and mirrors Cynthia’s fragmented state of mind. A couple of very amusing nightmares involving other characters are also included for shock value, assisting “Bad Dreams” in surpassing the repetitive nature of its genre.
A clever spontaneity exists involving the character of Ralph, who is not only fascinated with cutting himself, but also prone to enraged outbursts (in a particularly nerve-wracking scene, he goes ballistic while armed with scalpels). It signifies the unstable environment of the asylum and the playground of dreamscapes unconstrained by reality – anything can happen at any moment, making the horror elements just that much scarier. While some of it is clearly reminiscent of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” not only with the frequent reverie tormenting and the desolate, glowing hallways of an institution (or humid, claustrophobic confines of a turbine room), but also with Harris’ hideously disfigured, scorched face, “Bad Dreams” is still a noteworthy, entertaining, twisty little thriller.
– Mike Massie