Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 39 min.
Release Date: September 9th, 1983 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joseph Sargent Actors: Cristina Raines, Emilio Estevez, Moon Zappa, James Tolkan, Lance Henriksen, Tony Plana, Richard Masur, Veronica Cartwright
hough individually modest compared to the bloody affairs of contemporary horror films, the sum of the parts of “Nightmares” provides a uniquely entertaining and accurate sampling of horror movies of the early ‘80s. With four short stories addressing different areas of terror, from serial killers to giant rats, director Joseph Sargent’s anthology showcases a nostalgic spattering of the genre and a discernible range of highs and lows in substance and style. Plus, the tales’ bases in both common and uncommon urban legends impart additional interest.
The first chapter (“Terror in Topanga”) sets an appropriately foreboding mood as a maniacal serial killer is loosed upon the small town of Topanga. Recalling creepy myths and true crime, the deranged William Henry Glazer (Lee James Jude) is out on a stabbing spree. Despite the news reports and her husband’s insistence to stay indoors, young Lisa (Cristina Raines) decides a pack of cigarettes is worth risking her life for. Spouting the now cliché line “I’ll be right back,” Lisa proceeds to embark on a drive alone at night and winds up in a deadly predicament. A wise segment to open the film with, “Terror in Topanga” ably represents the subgenre of slasher flicks with a pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and isolation.
The second chapter (“The Bishop of Battle”) is perhaps the most famous, featuring a young Emilio Estevez as J.J. Cooney, a video game hustler determined to take on the arcade game Bishop and reach the elusive Level 13. Sporting cheesy special effects and a sinister green head for a villain, this sequence cleverly plays off of obsessions and the fear of technological takeover. A virtual reality invasion of the real world and a convincing performance from Estevez make this the most engaging yarn of the bunch.
Easily the weakest in both story and thrills, the third part (“The Benediction”) features Lance Henriksen as a priest who loses his faith after a tragic event. Told with a multitude of traumatic dreams and sullen flashbacks, “The Benediction” plays out like a weaker version of 1977’s “The Car,” only this time the devil’s choice of transport is a large black truck. Henriksen is competent as always, but the terror is light and fleeting – even for a short film.
The final chapter returns to good form in “Night of the Rat,” with a killer rodent plot that revolves around the consequences of messing with Mother Nature and the task of confronting inner fears. The suspenseful buildup is by far its greatest asset, as a climax featuring disappointing visuals and laughable solutions leaves plenty to be desired. In the end, tensions and emotions are fraught (with paranoia, obsession, faith, and determination playing key roles), merging with amusing examples of horror’s many facets to produce an effective representation of the thrillers of the time. By today’s standards, most viewers will be spared any real nightmares as a result of viewing this obscure ‘80s nugget (which was originally intended to be part of the television series “Darkroom,” before being deemed to extreme), but it’s still worth the visit to a period of innovation over straight gore.
– Joel Massie