Starring Jennifer Rubin, Richard Lynch, Bruce Abbott
Written by Andrew Fleming and Steven E. de Souza
Directed by Andrew Fleming
If a horror film is successful, imitators are bound to follow. When John Carpenter’s Halloween changed the face of the genre with its arrival in 1978, along came a slew of holiday-adjacent fright flicks of varying quality, movies like Mother’s Day, Christmas Evil, New Year’s Evil, and My Bloody Valentine (some would even argue that Halloween itself was a knockoff of Black Christmas, but that’s a whole other can of worms). Demonic possession pictures like Beyond The Door and Abby crept up after the enormous success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. And Tobe Hooper’s legendary The Texas Chain Saw Massacre birthed its share of copycats, with Wes Craven’s classic sophomore effort The Hills Have Eyes probably being the best example of this.
Interestingly, one of Wes’s own films would come into the crosshairs of certain celluloid opportunists years later after A Nightmare On Elm Street exploded onto the scene in 1984. Dream Stalker, Dream Demon, and Doom Asylum have all (justifiably) been deemed Elm Street mimics in some way or another, but one movie that usually tops that list is due for a re-evaluation. Bad Dreams, the 1988 directorial debut of Andrew Fleming (who would go on to helm the 90’s genre gem The Craft) is certainly guilty of some cinematic sins but ripping off Freddy isn’t really one of them.
Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin) wakes from a thirteen-year coma as the only survivor of a Manson-esque death cult called Unity Fields. Her memories are foggy and as she begins her recovery in the psychiatric hospital she woke up in, awful fates begin to befall the members of her support group. She soon realizes that her cult’s long-dead leader Harris (Richard Lynch) is somehow attacking her new friends, and the only way the violence will stop is if she joins her brothers and sisters in the grave. Will Cynthia and her psychiatrist Dr. Karmen (Bruce Abbott) figure out a way to stop him, or will she return to the ranks of Unity Fields?
Now to say that Bad Dreams doesn’t share any similarities with A Nightmare On Elm Street (or more specifically Dream Warriors, the third installment of the franchise) would be foolish. Both take place primarily in a psych ward, feature a group of relatable outcasts lead by a well-meaning psychologist, and have a killer who sports gnarly full-body burns (although in Bad Dream’s case, the non-burned version of the villain is most prevalent). And of course, there’s the fact that its lead actress is Jennifer Rubin, who just so happened to play Taryn in Nightmare 3. All of these would have been forgettable if it wasn’t for the film’s title (even though it doesn’t actually happen in the movie, Bad Dreams definitely sounds like it’s about people being killed by their nightmares) coupled with its poster, which features a charred hand covering a screaming Rubin’s mouth.
All of that sounds damning, but actually watching the film shows that it’s fairly far removed from Wes Craven’s dark dreamscapes. For starters, the theme of Cynthia trying to come to terms with the emotional aftermath of being a member of a death cult is compelling stuff that’s grounded firmly in reality. Fleming, who co-wrote the script, attempts to take the film in a psychological-thriller direction, as there are portions of the movie where we wonder whether it might actually be Cynthia (influenced by the emotionally abusive hold Harris had on her and the rest of the members of Unity Fields) performing the murders. Then there is the ending that, however ham-fisted it may be, definitely places the world of Bad Dreams in reality rather than…well, dreams.
On top of these distinguishing aspects, it also has some damn fine kills. One in particular almost revels in its gory ridiculousness and while it doesn’t necessarily make any physiological sense (like we’ve ever needed that to begin with in this genre) it’s a hoot to see play out. And while we’re talking about aesthetics, Harris’ burn makeup is disgusting. It’s all clotted blood over peeling skin, and is one of the more memorable effects of its kind.
While Bad Dreams might be more original than it’s given credit for, it’s still not a stellar picture. Moments that are meant to inject some levity into its scenes feel crass and only serve to make characters that we’re supposed to relate to very unlikable. Pacing issues hinder the film’s flow, the third act being a painfully evident example of this. And its twist ending (which might be its most distinctive non-Nightmare-ish element) feels rushed, with the obvious way in which it was botched really sucking the momentum out of a plot that was already starting to feel a little shaky.
Still, despite these issues, Bad Dreams is infinitely more watchable than most of the other forgotten horror films of that era. When hitting its stride, it achieves an energy and originality that makes it infectiously entertaining. It’s time it was judged by its own merits.
Long deemed an Elm Street rip-off, Bad Dreams is far more original (not to mention entertaining) than it’s given credit for and is well worth a watch.