BAD DREAMS gets a lot of flack for resembling a certain other eighties horror franchise but it offers many unique charms of its own. Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin) survived a group cult suicide as a child (and a thirteen-year coma) only to wake and find the deceased cult leader (Richard Lynch) still has her number and plans to force all her pals to seemingly take their own lives unless she returns to him.
Every Five Favorite Things post I contribute is likely to feature the actors or cast as a favorite feature and Iâ€™m fine with that. I canâ€™t imagine loving a movie and not digging the people in it. Whoever did the casting for BAD DREAMS deserves an award for hitting the nail on the head with every part. We get the quintessential virtuoso villain Richard Lynch as the linchpin baddie, Jenifer Rubin who excels at being the likable scrappy outsider, E.G. Daily with her sympathetic sprite-like charm, Dean Cameron with his edgy humor sharpened to cut deep and Bruce Abbot as the soothing doctor with sweater weather vibes. And thatâ€™s not even half the players! You also get Susan Ruttan as a chain-smoking cynic and stuffy Harris Yulin as a conservative quack among others. Itâ€™s like the Avengers of awesome eighties- era actors and let me tell ya, they all deliver.
First time director Andrew Fleming (who would go onto direct the classic THE CRAFT) shows much talent in the way he dispenses suspense and allows the multitude of characters to all shine individually. There are a few scenes that make me flinch no matter how many times I watch the film and there are a slew of stylistic choices that elevate the film above many of its contemporaries.
The Elevator Scene(s)
The first time we get a good gander at the filmâ€™s fried-faced offender is truly startling and expertly jarring. Deceased cult leader Harris suddenly appears behind Cynthia in an elevator and itâ€™s impossible not to be stunned by the beautifully gruesome make up effects. Sure, heâ€™s got a crispy skin condition like the more popular Freddy Krueger but itâ€™s also more realistic, and tonally darker. In fact, his more aggressive, less jovial energy is not unlike Freddyâ€™s revamped persona in WES CRAVENâ€™S NEW NIGHTMARE years later. One of the most effective elements of this scene is the use of epileptic seizure courting strobe lights along with incredibly compelling editing. Itâ€™s very disorienting and alarming. Thereâ€™s also a tamer elevator scare later on in the film when one of Cynthiaâ€™s new found allies calmly enters the elevator and half of it is blocked from view thanks to a medical cart. An anonymous worker pushes the cart away, which instantly exposes the filmâ€™s phantom presence waving and smiling from behind her. Itâ€™s so simple and efficient and works better than most special effect laden set pieces.
The House/The Cult
Is there anything scarier than a cult? Cults freak me out — always have and always will. What could possibly make a person give up the reins to their own existence? And in the case of this film, how dumb do you have to be to allow someone who looks like Richard Lynch to pour gasoline on your head? It boggles the mind. I will say that the crazy cult people in this movie did indeed receive one good perk for their devotion and that is that they got to live in this really beautiful and cool looking house (before they burned alive inside it screaming for a chance to rethink their life choices). One of my favorite shots from the film is a sly but appropriate ode to Andrew Wyethâ€™s famous painting â€œChristinaâ€™s World.â€
Forgivable Flaws & Excusable Derivatives
When I saw BAD DREAMS when it first came out, I mostly loved it but was disappointed by the ending reveal that seemed to render the best parts of the movie null and void. Over the years I just accepted the too rational (yet agreeable in its condemnation of the overuse of pharmaceuticals) climax as a bitter pill I had to swallow to enjoy it. The devastating part is that the DVD includes the original ending that fixes many a flaw by offering a supernatural compromise that allows for two sources of evil and the revelation that Harris is Cynthiaâ€™s father! Oh what could have been! Besides diluting the filmâ€™s denunciation of toxic families, removing the original ending sabotaged the likelihood of an interesting sequel/rematch! The studio even nixed the use of the band Xâ€™s â€œBurning House of Loveâ€ over the end credits in favor of Guns and Rosesâ€™ â€œSweet Child Oâ€™ Mineâ€– I take that somewhat personally.
Released a mere year after NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: THE DREAM WARRIORS and featuring one of its stars along with a similarly complexion-challenged antagonist, BAD DREAMS rightfully was called out for its undeniable familiarity. In my book though itâ€™s worth enduring some slings and arrows if it means weâ€™re gifted another horror flick set in a psychiatric hospital (plus if it werenâ€™t for cinematic opportunism, thereâ€™d be no PIRAHNA or BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and is that the kind of world you want to live in?). All these years later the creative shortcut feels way less objectionable and Iâ€™d take BAD DREAMS over several of Freddyâ€™s post DREAM WARRIORS output anyway (not naming names).
Itâ€™s routine in the genre that a hit film would produce wannabes and in this case a great deal of the similarities are on the surface rather than in spirit. Like its heroine, BAD DREAMS has a lot of baggage and is far from perfect but it never fails to hold my interest and Iâ€™ll always root for it to find the appreciation it deserves.
The painting “Christina’s World” is actually by Andrew Wyeth, not Fleming, and I seem to be on some kind of supernatural Wyeth streak this week. I randomly decided to watch Next of Kin (1982) only to discover this same painting featured in a scene. The next day I watched “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, the new Charlie Kaufman movie on Netflix, and one of the characters references Wyeth in a conversation about art. This article makes three!
Zoinks! Thanks for the correction Brother Bill! I don’t know why my brain did that to me ! Andrew Fleming is the director of Bad Dreams! Hope my Art History teacher didn’t see that- I corrected it! Wow, I believe if you see something three times it is officially an omen! I gotta catch up with you and watch “Thinking of Ending Things” on Netflix!
I have a #6: I really love the BAD DREAMS poster for personal reasons. When I was in college they used to paste movie posters all over the city- I found the BAD DREAMS poster on a wall and ripped it down and got three (!) connected together side by side! I hang all three above my couch and they were there for years so it brings back good memories of being young in Philly. Also Iâ€™m pretty sure 20th Century Fox sort of ripped off itâ€™s own ad campaign when promoting NIGHT BREED…
There’s great irony in Richard Lynch’s portrayal of this character. From his Wikipedia bio:
That is so fascinating to me! It must have been really cathartic for him to play that part. Lynch is an amazing actor. I also really love him in THE PREMONITION (76) (on Tubi) I think my first memories of him are from BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and BUCK ROGERS back in the day. Thereâ€™s a great Doc on FRIDAY 13thâ€™s KANE HODDER called TO HELL AND BACK which covers similar territory as Lynchâ€™s experience. Itâ€™s very good! In a way I think BAD DREAMS is the ultimate Richard Lynch move, so glad it exists!
I love, love love this movie! It, along with Mirror,Mirror and (strangely enough) After Midnight(’89) are the first things that come to mind when someone talks about old video rental stores.
I’m not sure why, but just seeing these three films mentioned takes me back to a simpler time, a time where merely glancing at VHS cover art could give little me nightmares, imagining all of the horrors that would surely lay in wait when I was deemed “old enough” to take them home with me.
I miss those days. Thank you for bringing me back there!
You are speaking my language! Big love for MIRROR, MIRROR and especially AFTER MIDNIGHT (89)! You should write a Five Favorite Things on one of those! AFTER MIDNIGHT is incredibly underrated imo! Iâ€™ll never forget the first time I saw that on cable! Really left an impression on me! I miss those days too!
I can’t believe that “Burning House of Love” was intended for the credits. Such a great tune by a great band. When “Sweet Child o’ Mine” starts up it is downright jarring.
This is a super-memorable film. The knife-through-hand scene gave me the willies.
In my personalized alternate universe, Bad Dreams would be more popular than Nightmare On Elm Street, Richard Lynch would get more respect than Robert Englund, and X would DEFINITELY be more popular than Guns and Roses. Just sayin’.