So, back in 1988, long before he thought of songs like Rock Me, Sexy Jesus, director Andrew Fleming made his directorial and screenwriting debut. It was a little festival of horror called Bad Dreams. Now, the title seems to suggest an attempt to cash in on the Elm Street franchise. The presence of Jennifer Rubin as the lead seemed to suggest it, as a mere year before Bad Dreams; she appeared in the third Elm Street, the Dream Warriors.
Whether it was or was not, the film itself tackles a slightly different aspect, instead of dreams, it actually focuses more on sanity and delusions. Bad Dreams focuses on a young woman named Cynthia (Rubin) who grew in a hippie love cult. As hippie love cults are prone to doing, the leader (Harris, played by Richard Lynch) convinces everyone it is time to move forward to a new plain of love and unity through, you know, suicide. Cynthia is the lone survivor who spends the next several years in a coma. When she awakens, she has no real memory of the suicide attempt. In fact, when she is placed with a borderline personality therapy group, she speaks longingly of the beliefs of the cult.
But hey, this is a horror movie, so therapy probably is not going to help, especially when your doctor is Bruce Abbott from Re-Animator and his boss is Harris Yulin, the judge from Ghostbusters 2 (or for you Buffy fans, the head of the Watcher’s Council). And sure enough, it does not take long for Cynthia to see Harris (Lynch) wandering the hospital. Sometimes he looks just like he did before dying, and sometimes, he looks just like he did right after he cooked himself. He starts to demand that Cynthia keep her promise and kill herself. But she refuses, which forces Harris’ hand. He tells her that he will have to take someone in her place. And when therapy mate Lana (E.G. Daily from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) is found dead, Cynthia starts to think she is really being stalked by Lynch.
As the bodies pile up, the Doctor (Abbott) falls in love with Cynthia and discovers a rather devious conspiracy happening within the halls of the hospital. The movie plays with the “is she losing her grip on reality or is Harris real” dilemma. The police get heavily involved, and create a minor subplot that raises the question of Cynthia’s guilt or innocence in the deaths. In this way, it is not a half bad little film. The end does not feel like a cheat, because the pieces pretty much fit together logically.
On the other hand, a lot this feels like the typical eighties horror film. All the characters fit certain stereotypes of “the institutionalized”. There is the lustful couple, the needy girl, the bitter older person, the sarcastic young man with violence issues and so on.
Oh yes, the cast is a who’s who of late 80’s stars. Seriously, remember Chainsaw from Mark Harmon’s Summer School? He is in this. Susan Rutton from L.A. Law? She is there as well.
Finally, the movie has one of my favorite “careless film cop” moments. One character kills another in front of a ton of police officers and the lead officer shrugs and walks away. I mean, the movie is over, right?
A Major Spoiler about the film follows…
Interestingly, although the film reveals all the delusions were just that, and that the deaths were explained as resulting from drugs, there was an alternate ending that totally muddied the water, where Rubin and Abbott return to the burned out hippie house, she suddenly finds herself surrounded by Harris, the other cult members and her dead therapy mates. It reveals that she is actually Harris’ own child. He hands her a knife which she uses to…um…kill him and then walks away and tells Abbott everything is gonna be okay. Weird.
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