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 I'm fine with that. I can'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 that'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. It'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 film's fried-faced offender is truly startling and expertly jarring. Deceased cult leader Harris suddenly appears behind Cynthia in an elevator and it's impossible not to be stunned by the beautifully gruesome make up effects. Sure, he's got a crispy skin condition like the more popular Freddy Krueger but it's also more realistic, and tonally darker. In fact, his more aggressive, less jovial energy is not unlike Freddy's revamped persona in WES CRAVEN'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. It's very disorienting and alarming. There's also a tamer elevator scare later on in the film when one of Cynthia'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 film's phantom presence waving and smiling from behind her. It'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 Wyeth's famous painting "Christina's World."
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 Cynthia's father! Oh what could have been! Besides diluting the film'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 X's "Burning House of Love" over the end credits in favor of Guns and Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine"– 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 it's worth enduring some slings and arrows if it means we're gifted another horror flick set in a psychiatric hospital (plus if it weren't for cinematic opportunism, there'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 I'd take BAD DREAMS over several of Freddy's post DREAM WARRIORS output anyway (not naming names).
It'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 I'll always root for it to find the appreciation it deserves.