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Dream Big: Elm Street vs Dreamscape

  In the nineteen-eighties, as the realm of special effects moved on in leaps and bounds, a particular type of horror movie followed in its wake, capitalising on the ability to craft the more outlandish ideas and apply them to the genre in a way that often rendered these projects akin to a delirium, a fever dream. The surreal approach obviously appealed to audiences as much as it did to the filmmakers, since watching a chiller that employed the most bizarre setpieces to deliver on its promise of being scary also delivered on that promise of sheer spectacle. Works early in the decade such as An American Werewolf in London went as far as playing out the worst scenarios possible for their characters, only to pull back at the end of the sequence to reveal it had merely been a nightmare, and not reality at all. Then they would mix that dream state with the actual fate of those characters for their shocks.

Surely the ultimate in that device was writer and director Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, the little movie whose premise was so irresistible that it became an unexpected blockbuster and saw to it that New Line Cinema established itself as one of the major new studios to emerge from the eighties, in Hollywood at least. Such was the thirst for horror flicks in that era that they were more or less guaranteed to make their money back, if not huge profits - for that you needed, if you'll pardon the expression, a killer idea, in this case a murderer who could flit between sleeping victims in their dreams, the inspiration coming when Freddy Krueger, for it was he, was able to inflict the violence his weird fantasies conjured up in real life as well. Put simply, if you died in the nightmare, you died for real, and that was sufficient to put the wind up a generation of horror aficionados who found this captivating.

Robert Englund was Freddy, making him an icon of fright films in the way that Bela Lugosi had found himself for Dracula and Boris Karloff had for Frankenstein, only of a more recent vintage. Considering how the villain would become the central figure of a number of sequels to come, it may be surprising that Craven kept him in the shadows for most of his debut in the role, even giving way to stuntmen when the need arose, as the real lead was Heather Langenkamp who played Nancy, the final girl of slasher tradition. She was the teenager who finds her life invaded by a monster that she discovers has a more personal connection to herself than she initially realised, or rather to her parents, and other parents in the neighbourhood. The story is well known now, because those sequels flogged it to death with every variation they could possible think of, but at the time the notion of the parents' responsibility for the murders seemed genuinely subversive.

That said, it was the plastic reality the movie dealt in that was what truly caught on in horror fiction: even Stephen King was soon at it in his massive pageturner It shortly after in much the same approach. That melding of the mundane everyday with the invasive force of a surreal evil was a trademark of this decade, not only in the shockers either, but the manner in which the bad guys, especially in the franchises, went about their ungodly business was more often than not purely dictated on how far the special effects could take them. On Elm Street, Krueger is a curiously masochistic figure as he courts the heroine to punish him for what turn out to be truly heinous crimes - yet he punished himself too, turning that bladed glove on his right hand against himself, cutting off his own fingers and slicing open his maggoty chest, albeit confident in the knowledge that in the dreams those wounds will heal.

That was the nightmare antagonist who really did use the nightmares as his modus operandi, and he would perhaps be the eighties' iconic villain, largely thanks to never knowing when enough was enough and returning time and again in sequel after sequel, seemingly because New Line were well aware they were a licence to print money as there was always an audience hungry for more from Freddy. Other horrors caught on quickly, and the rivals Jason Vorhees and to some extent Michael Myers learned from Krueger's example, particularly that "he’s dead, oh no, he isn’t" finale that would practically guarantee not merely a follow-up, but healthy profits too as a solid, even an imaginative, evildoer in your movie ensured filmgoers would flock to watch them. Some of these pretenders became similar icons, Pinhead in Hellraiser for instance, while others, such as Richard Lynch's cult leader in Bad Dreams, proved imitation was a lucrative form of flattery.

However, there was perhaps something in the air in 1984, as that same year another horror movie where dreams, or more specifically nightmares, were a vital part of the plot, and that was Dreamscape. This operated more as a conspiracy thriller of the sort you would get in the previous decade, but its horror setpieces were pure eighties, and as such this has gone on to be something of a cult item for paralleling Elm Street and spiralling off in its own direction. Whereas Craven was influenced to write his script after reading about a spate of unexplained deaths in the Asian community that were claimed to have been caused by nightmares so frightening they killed the slumbering, the author of Dreamscape was David Loughery who was far more interested in the concept of lucid dreaming, that was the ability to realise you were in the dream state and act with your own agency throughout.

The mechanics of this are hazy to say the least, but it was a genuine experience, and Loughery was proof of that: add in the fear that if you died in a nightmare you would die in real life, and he had his personal killer idea much as Craven had his. Here Dennis Quaid, in one of his first leads after a number of supporting roles, was a psychic who had rejected the laboratory conditions he had been tested under as a teen and chose to rebel and utilise his gifts for his own gain; we first meet him at the racetrack, getting into trouble for picking the winning horse once more, and attracting the attention of the gangsters behind the bookmakers. He is forced back into the fold of government research by his former mentor Max von Sydow who believes this mindreading maverick holds the key for solving his patients' problems by entering their sleeping experiences and altering them to cure the issues they suffer from.

Now, lucid dreaming is a purely personal affair, nobody has ever proven you could enter someone else's mind at the same time and share that experience, though doubtless there are those who claim they can do precisely that. But while Freddy Krueger was implementing his talents for evil, Quaid's more heroic character was there for good, and that will take him right to the top - the top man's dreams, that is, for President of the United States of America Eddie Albert is finding the weight of the free world hanging heavily on his shoulders which is giving him restless nights, especially in light of his wife's recent death. Indeed, the opening image in Dreamscape was of said First Lady running away from a nuclear explosion and disintegrating when the blast reaches her, because hey, the eighties, it was the era of that fear of atomic warfare, and the big idea was how the leader of Western democracy would deal with that psychologically.

In some ways this has dated more obviously than A Nightmare on Elm Street, probably because of the technology involved, and the fact this did not make a major player of its production company as happened with New Line (the sole other title they created was the Abel Ferrara thriller Fear City the same year) will indicate how far Dreamscape went down at the box office, but by deploying the shadowy language of conspiracy, with Christopher Plummer as a sinister agency head pulling the strings and George Wendt as a paperback horror author, more Richard Laymon than Stephen King, who uncovers what may be really going on, it was pleasing enough as far as that goes. Yet it was those nightmare sequences that truly allowed director Joseph Ruben, whose next film was the more celebrated The Stepfather, to let his imagination fly and whenever anyone went to sleep you knew you were in for a highlight.

Okay, so there was the bit where Quaid entered scientist and maybe love interest Kate Capshaw's sleep and seduced her - he is called out for that by her - but the special effects department really went to town when the nightmares kicked off. One comic relief example where a meek man imagines his wife is cheating on him apart, we were more likely to appreciate a little kid who's haunted by the Snakeman, where Quaid banishes the creature (a mixture of makeup and good old stop motion) only for it to return for the grand finale. His evil counterpart was Plummer's tame psychopath David Patrick Kelly, and who didn't like to see him let off the leash in a bad guy role? He even got to show off his nunchaku skills when he, Quaid and Albert meet up for the denouement, though a weird bit of Craven-esque synchronicity appeared as he sprouted blades for fingers and dug out a random character's heart. Overall, this may have been tonally all over the place, but it did entertain, possibly because of that. Fine, it was because of the nightmare parts.

Second Sight have released the special edition of Dreamscape on Blu-ray, a big improvement over the DVD and an ideal way to give this one a go, or add to your collection. Those features:

Restored version of new 2K scan
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio / PCM Uncompressed Stereo
The Actor's Journey Interview With Dennis Quaid
Dreamscapes And Dreammakers - Retrospective including interviews with Director Joseph Ruben, Co-Writer David Loughery, Actor David Patrick Kelly And other members of the Special Effects Team
Nightmares And Dreamsnakes Looking back at the Snakeman with Craig Reardon, David Patrick Kelley and others
In-depth conversation between Producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and Co-Writer/Producer Chuck Russell
Audio commentary with Bruce Cohn Curtis, David Loughery and Special Makeup artist Craig Reardon
Snakeman Test Footage
Still Gallery
Theatrical Trailer
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018