I enjoyed looking back at how my perception of MANIAC changed over the years so here I am doing the same thing with the like-minded NIGHTMARE…
One of my favorite things as a young teen was trying to keep my eyes open long enough to watch SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE which, way back then, was followed by a show I enjoyed even more, SECOND CITY TV. SNL’s East Coast start time of 11:30 might as well have been 5 in the morning to me and I typically failed to remain awake. Luckily a mad scientist invented the VCR, which allowed me to tape both shows overnight and catch them the next morning over Apple Jacks. This is how I first came across the movie NIGHTMARE, one of my late night videotape fishing trips had hauled in a short TV spot for it. I remember the commercial being brief and simply showing a masked madman bashing down a door but it impacted me greatly. I rewound the ad a multitude of times, finding it more and more unsettling upon each view. The movie that I began to imagine in my head was brilliant and epic and what an injustice it was that I was too young to see it. I’d have to wait for video and so I did.
I almost didn’t recognize NIGHTMARE when I bumped into it at the video kiosk at the mall. The poster image of a screaming face I had become familiar with thanks to a newspaper clipping was abandoned in exchange for a mundane film still. Not that there was any debate about whether I should proceed with my rental, the videobox was of the over-sized variety and presented by a company called Continental, a seal of approval of sorts that I did not take lightly. When had Continental let me down before? Well, lots of times but whatever. My first viewing of NIGHTMARE ended up being, for the most part, disappointing. The movie was successful in both grossing and weirding me out but it was sloppy and crass and completely devoid of the magical element that existing only in my head. The door-smash scene from the TV spot was still scary but by the time it showed up in the film, I had already been alienated by scenes of rampant sexual dysfunction. Well, it wasn’t HALLOWEEN that was for sure; around this time in the early ‘80s I was finding out that sad fact about a lot of movies.
Instead of disappearing into oblivion, NIGHTMARE kept coming back. Its reputation was kept afloat by the fact that it was banned in the UK and the surrounding controversy about whether or not TOM SAVINI had any hand in the special effects. All I knew was that it was one of the more f-ed up movies I could recall from my youth and all of the sudden, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Even though it had let me down before NIGHTMARE began to expand once more in my brain. I had to see it again! I had to show it to my friends! A bootleg was the only answer! Well hey, this was before the Internet and to me, a VHS copy of a copy of a copy of a copy was about as criminally malicious as a mix tape. I can’t say my fuzz-blur pirate edition of NIGHTMARE (labeled “NIGHTMARE IN A DAMAGED BRAIN”) revealed any new insight or level of quality to me. It was all just as shabby and crude as I recalled but now it had an heir of the forbidden and the tactless, trashy counter-bourgeois beat it bounced to had a value all its own. This is when the unintentional humor began to bleed in and I began to agree with just how disagreeable it was.
I knew I had to get the DVD of NIGHTMARE as soon as it was (finally) available. Honestly I would have purchased it for the cover alone since it features the original poster art that so intrigued me long ago. The picture looks fine but happily not too fine, its worn weathered texture adding salty flavor to the tone. These days there is no question that I am fond of NIGHTMARE. It somehow ended up teaching me how to view a certain type of movie in a different way. It also turns out that I sometimes require more than mere technical finesse in a film. Just as certain bands proved being a virtuoso musician was not essential to make vibrant music, NIGHTMARE makes me realize that in the case of some movies, it’s the untamed energy that trumps all. The plot may be threadbare and the characters may be methodically intolerable but NIGHTMARE’s unstable and unruly attitude has bite and there’s a steadfast grim and hopeless element present that’s daunting. Somewhere along the line NIGHTMARE and I fused together. Watching it now, I feel like I’m seeing foggy old scratched up home movies of my own childhood. Like MANIAC, NIGHTMARE opened a door that allowed me to see past the easy to deride surface of a low budget film. It expanded the range of my taste and allowed me access to other films that I might have passed by. I guess it could have been done in a better, more sophisticated way but its raggedness is a large part of its messed up appeal. Yep, it disappointed me at first but looking back, that’s because I was trying to will it to be what I wanted it to be rather than being receptive to what it actually was. I’ll let more discriminating minds than my own decree whether it’s “good” or not. I’m happy simply knowing this scrappy nihilistic exploitation flick ended up mattering much more to me than I initially thought it would.