More hits than misses in this vintage 1980s four-part suspense/sci-fi/supernatural/horror anthology.
By Paul Mavis
Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory imprint has released another long out-of-print 1980s exploitation title: 1983’s R-rated Nightmares, from Universal Pictures, written by Christopher Crowe and Jeffrey Bloom, directed by pro helmer Joseph Sargent, and starring a big cast of familiar faces, including Cristina Raines, William Jordan, Anthony James, William Sanderson, Emilio Estevez, Mariclare Costello, Lance Henriksen, Tony Plana, Richard Masur, Veronica Cartwright, Albert Hague and Bridgette Andersen.
Few critics liked Nightmares when it was released (there appears to be some question about its financial success), but it’s maintained a small, loyal following over the last three decades, particularly among gamer and computer animation aficionados (“The Bishop of Battle” segment).
Seen today, Nightmares holds up quite well…within its limitations. Scream Factory’s sharp 1080p High-Definition Blu-ray release offers two ways to see it —1.78:1 widescreen and its original 1.33:1 fullframe, along with the original trailer and an excruciating commentary track featuring star Cristina Raines and executive producer Andrew Mirisch.
As a teenager who never missed a horror movie back in the 80s, I distinctly remember seeing Nightmares on opening night in the fall of 1983, and being entertained…but also somewhat disappointed that that “R” rating was so soft (the slam-bang trailer and that evocative one-sheet poster seemed to promise a lot more). No doubt that’s because—unbeknownst to most audiences, including me—Nightmares was originally written and shot as a two-hour NBC TV pilot, and thus structured along the lines of the far more restrictive television networks’ standards and practices.
The movie’s only real gore—the creepy opening scene where highway patrolman William Jordan (TV’s Project UFO) is viciously stabbed—was, tellingly, a post-production pick-up shot that the producers, armed with some extra cash to pump up the theatrical version, were able to shoot once the pilot was okayed for big-screen release.
The conventional wisdom on Nightmares has always been that its four unrelated story segments were either leftover episodes or ones deemed too violent for ABC’s supernatural anthology series, Darkroom, which was produced and written by Nightmares’ scripter, Christopher Crowe, in 1982.
Wrong. According to executive producer Andrew Mirisch (TV’s The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Nightmares was wholly separate from Darkroom, and conceived by producer/co-writer Crowe as a pilot for a potential one hour anthology series for NBC’s 1983-1984 schedule. Crowe wrote the first three segments—“Terror in Topanga,” “The Bishop of Battle,” and “The Benediction”— while Jeffrey Bloom (Snow Job, 11 Harrowhouse) wrote the last, “Night of the Rat.” Consummate jack-of-all trades Joseph Sargent (Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), then, according to Mirisch, the most sought-after TV director in Hollywood, was brought in to helm the four stories.
Other behind the scenes personnel for Nightmares were top-notch as well. Dean Edward Mitzner (Tron, 1941) was brought in for production design, and Craig Safan (Angel, The Last Starfighter) penned the notably eerie score. Two cinematographers were used: Gerald Perry Finnerman (TV’s Star Trek, Sssssss) for the first two segments, and Mario DiLeo (Breaker! Breaker!) for the last two (on the commentary track included on this disc, Mirisch implies Finnerman was replaced).
Mirisch doesn’t give any specifics in his commentary, but NBC rejected the pilot, and at some point someone at Universal had the idea of taking Nightmares and jumping it to the big screen (over the years, Universal had done this several times in America and quite often for overseas distribution, most notably with Don Siegel’s brilliant 1964 made-for-TV movie, The Killers, with Lee Marvin and John Cassavetes). Interestingly, no linkage or “bookend” footage was subsequently shot (or even cheaper narration recorded) to somehow tie the four separate stories together (they do share, however, the standard “you’re going to pay for your bad personal behavior” subtext of innumerable other horror movies). They just begin and end, and the next story starts…which works against any kind of build for the audience (always a tricky problem with anthology movies).
Reviews for Nightmares were mostly negative, with critics citing a general lack of originality and scares, while box office receipts were unspectacular at a little under $7 million (according to Mirisch, the budget was much lower than the reported $9 million, and with ancillaries such as home video and TV sales, Nightmares was profitable).
Nightmares’ first segment, “Terror in Topanga,” finds smoker Lisa (Cristina Raines, The Sentinel, Nashville) climbing the walls of her swell Topanga Canyon A-frame: she’s out of cigarettes. Unfortunately, escaped mental patient William Henry Glazer, the “Canyon Slayings” killer, is on the loose, and Lisa’s husband, Phil (Joe Lambie, TV’s Falcon Crest), forbids her to go out. Needless to say, she does, failing to see she’s almost out of gas. Pulling into the seemingly deserted Zach’s Canyon Gas, she suddenly feels she’s made a terrible mistake when she sees that familiar-looking attendant (William Sanderson, Blade Runner)….
Directed in that crisp, clean, no b.s. style associated with Sargent’s best work (his The Taking of Pelham One Two Three—the original, not the bullsh*t Denzel Washington remake—is one of the best action/suspense films of any decade, not just the 1970s), “Terror in Topanga” delivers a neat little unexpected twist after an expertly-built set-up, filled out with nice, off-putting touches like neighbor Robert Phelps’ curious/vicious dog (now we know why he was barking…), and exploitation god Anthony James (Vanishing Point, High Plains Drifter) as a soft-speaking, gun-toting grocery clerk. Kudos to the expressive, perfect-to-look-at Raines, who still manages to find some shadings with her underwritten part. A solid, satisfying little suspenser.
Next in Nightmares, “The Bishop of Battle” looks at Valley punk J.J. Cooney (Emilio Estevez, The Breakfast Club, Young Guns), who’s got an insatiable jones for The Bishop of Battle game at his local mall’s video game parlor (ask grandpa what those were). Hustling money in downtown L.A. with his worried friend, Zock (Billy Jayne, The Beastmaster, Cujo), J.J. just isn’t himself anymore, what with ignoring his friends, like Pamela (Moon Unit Zappa, the Valley Girl song), of fighting with his concerned parents, Adele (Mariclare Costello, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death) and Jerry (Louis Giambalvo, Weekend at Bernie’s). J.J. is only interested in getting to the mythical 13th level of the game, where he can defeat The Bishop (voice work of James Tolkan), before The Bishop beats him…to death.
Anyone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s will appreciate “The Bishop of Battle”’s nicely realized look at the video arcade scene, where you usually played alone (and in front of an audience, maybe, if you were any good), and where it was very easy to get obsessed with a game, pumping in those quarters like there was no tomorrow (Galaga for this reviewer). The story itself is predictable—if you saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory you can guess Estevez’ fate pretty quick. However, the execution is zippy (bands Fear and Black Flag help jack up the anxious atmosphere), the performances well done (Estevez is appropriately edgy, particularly during the better-than-expected confrontation scene at his home, with pros Costello and Giambalvo), and the old-timey video graphics quite fun (that final scary shot of The Bishop bearing inexorably down on Estevez is Nightmares’ most-effective, best-remembered shot — looks great in Blu widescreen).
“The Benediction.” Catholic priest MacLeod (Lance Henriksen, Damien: Omen II, Aliens), seeing the suffering of his border town flock after the senseless death of a small boy, loses his faith and decides to leave the church. Despite entreaties from Father Luis (Tony Plana) and The Bishop (Robin Gammell), MacLeod plans on crossing the desert to a new destiny, and he’s taking that gallon jug of holy water with him, because finding yourself in the Mojave is thirsty work. Too bad that bad-ass black Chevy 4×4 from Hell is chasing him….
The most derivative of the four segments in Nightmares, “The Benediction” works because Sargent keeps it simple, and he knows how to stage those action gags. If you’re stuck with a rather silly The Exorcist/Duel/The Car hybrid storyline, and you’re limited to a TV episode budget, the only thing you can do is keep it moving, which Sargent does with consummate, invisible ease. No CGI here, of course, so that truck coming out of the ground is pretty cool the first time you see it. Henriksen is intense, as expected…but the story’s final resolution is too abrupt and not particularly satisfying.
Finally, Nightmares’ fourth segment…and the one everyone laughs at: “Night of the Rat.” Suburban housewife Claire Houston (Veronica Cartwright, The Birds, Alien) has a rat problem: she’s married to one. Steven Houston (Richard Masur, The Thing) is a nasty, hard-charging businessman who treats his wife with as much contempt as his employees. So he has little patience for the little woman when she wants to call an exterminator to take care of a rodent problem in the attic and walls of their swank home: he’ll set the traps, and problem solved. The only thing is…the rat they kill is very important to a six-foot Das Teufel Nagetier—“Devil Rat”—that is terrorizing their little girl Brooke (Bridgette Andersen).
When you’re watching this final Nightmares segment, wishing that somebody had taken the time to at least try and fix the terrible green screened “giant” rat special effects…just remember that what you’re watching is the post-production fix, according to producer Mirisch (they make Bert I. Gordon look like William Cameron Menzies and Douglas Trumbull rolled into one). Ignoring those scenes for a moment, Sargent’s take on scripter Jeffrey Bloom’s The Birds rip-off is completely respectable. The subtext is nicely anxious (Masur, always great playing an ass, is matched by barely holding-it-together Cartwright); it’s grounded in a solid premise (he’s a rat terrorized by a bigger rat); and the suspense, well-wrought by Sargent, is highlighted by the expected but well-executed spook’ums shots of stuff jumping in and out of the frame. Fine. Great. But man…when they show that supposedly howling rat, ringed by a bright green halo like he’s just been hit with a phaser, it’s just…sad. An old Hollywood adage has it that if you can deliver a great last ten minutes for your movie, the audience will leave happy and you’ve got yourself a hit. “Night of the Rat” proves that adage in reverse.
This Scream Factory release isn’t the first DVD of Nightmares. Anchor Bay released a full frame disc in 1999 (don’t you wish you had sold yours for a hundred bucks on Ebay a few years ago?), but this 1080p HD Blu-ray is the best transfer this reviewer has seen of the movie, looking sharper and clearer than even its theater-projected image back in ’83 (today it’s easy to forget how often 35mm exhibitions at the local multiplex appeared soft and blown out…or completely out of frame and out of focus). Comparing the widescreen 1.78 and the 1.33 versions available here to watch, top and bottom image information is the same for both versions, but right and left side info is lost on the 1.33. So, that 1.33 isn’t an open matte master; it’s cropped. Watch the 1.78:1 version.
Included as bonuses on this Blu disc are the original trailer for Nightmares (no problem there), and a full-length commentary track featuring executive producer Andrew Mirisch and actress Cristina Raines, moderated, if you will, by blog writer Shaun Chang (okay, problem). Mirisch and Raines offer up a relative paucity of detailed information about Nightmares‘ production, but I don’t blame them. A commentary track is only as good as its moderator. You need to ask questions that will not only interest the viewers, but also ones that your guests can actually answer. Questions that will interest them, and make them want to share with the viewer. And if they can’t answer those questions, then the moderator needs to move on and get them interested in something else.
And if all else fails: flatter them. Ask them about their careers, about their art, their skills, anything, until another scene comes up and you can get the discussion back on track. That doesn’t happen here with Mr. Chang. It’s a cringe-worthy commentary track (why does the moderator keep interjecting off-topic personal asides and laughing like an ass at nothing?), one of the worst I can remember out of the hundreds and hundreds I’ve reviewed and listened to (it’s not a good omen when only a few minutes into the track, Mirisch has to correct Chang on “The Bishop of Battle”’s title. Do the homework, dude!). What a waste, particularly when Mirisch and Raines seem so interesting, well-spoken, and informed. See how that works?
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.