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Tuesday, August 20, 2019 | Retrospective

After the box-office bonanza of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987), every big studio wanted a horror movie franchise cash cow character. And, in particular, some were savvy enough to realize that Freddy Krueger’s basic concept as a character allowed for a certain plot/imagery flexibility (as opposed to a hulking mute like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees) , while also requiring a larger effects budget to assure the promise of that cinematic “wow!” That first factor meant there was also more opportunity to “target the demographic” (that is to say, youth culture, re: Freddy on MTV) and, that second factor? Well, while it might seem like a drawback, a mutable practical effects budget is an easy way to disguise some, shall we say, “creative bookkeeping”? So the race was on to magic-up another Krueger, and this series of articles, which I’ve called the KRUEGER ALSO-RANS, examines four 80’s horror films and their central characters through this lens – that is, attempts by various studies to copy the success of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET by deliberately creating a franchise-ready character who eschewed the lumbering, silent slasher model and instead embraced the cinematic “rubber reality” approach used by our joking, twisted dream ghoul. None were successful. I’ll follow the examination with some thoughts on sequel and remake potential.

Next on the agenda is 1988’s BAD DREAMS. In 1975, Franklin Harris (Richard Lynch), the guru of the Unity Fields cult, leads a fiery mass suicide of the group, although a child named Cynthia survives in a coma for 13 years, awakening as an adult (Jennifer Rubin) in contemporary times. She is placed in Group Therapy for Borderline Personalities to help her “fit into the 80s” but all the varied participants begin to suffer violent deaths, even as Cynthia has repeated visions of a menacing, burned Harris. Has his spirit returned to haunt her?

“a hideously burned…acid guru calmly mouthing new-age/Aquarian platitudes is a good hook”

BAD DREAMS has that slick, staged, gory yet inventive (lots of pierced hands in this film!) 80s feel of latter day NOES. The set of “wacky” therapy patients makes sure that everything is treated as an understated joke (even patient Ralph’s hideous suicide) with quips galore – making a tone of menace hard to sustain. The Detective’s (Sy Richardson) final shrugged resignation to the flat climax is a laughably apt audience surrogate (I give them credit for a thriller movie ending that literalizes the “expanded consciousness is dangerous” subtext). Rubin isn’t the greatest lead actor either (although, granted, she is stuck playing a zoned-out, disconnected hippy cultist fish out of water) and not enough is made of the contrast between the two eras (tabloids, cynicism, “meds” culture, etc.).

On the other hand, there is some promise. The “flashing elevator” scene triggering a flashback-type memory (followed by an actual trippy flashback to real trauma) is not bad. There’s a nice use of 60’s acid/garage rock music (“Too Much To Dream Last Night” by The Electric Prunes underscores the ambulance opening, “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers is used for the full version of the mass suicide) – but I can’t help but notice that the contemporary scene cut to a punk version of “My Way” can’t afford to use the original Johnny Rotten recording (ironic!). The media clips of the Unity Fields cult nicely mirror the infamous, real-world cult interviews with Manson’s “family.” Lynch’s Franklin Harris (sadly, not a memorable name), who seemingly can control dreams and cause hallucinations, has intense eyes and the visual conceit of a hideously burned Timothy Leary type acid guru calmly mouthing new-age/Aquarian platitudes is a good hook – a “Hippie Boogeyman” as it were – but his status as merely “engineering” hideous suicides makes him a passive Freddy figure (granted, there’s a reason for this in twist).

COULD HAVE BEEN: BAD DREAMS (like TRICK OR TREAT before it) feels like another terribly generic name for a potential film series, not emphasizing the 60s/80s clash aspect in any way. The movie culminates with a twist (pills are the real Cult Leader!) but we’ll ignore that for our current purposes. There was some real potential here for some inventiveness along the lines of NOES: What does Harris want, anyway? What are his goals? Also, there was an inherently exploitable potential contrast between a 60s committed optimism and an 80s predatory cynicism. As for a remake, while the “cult leader spook” has been utilized by the recent film THE VEIL (2016), playing up the Acid-Guru Boogeyman as a knowing study of the dark side of the 1960s could prove promising (Perhaps Harris could visit a rave event and “counsel” the crowd into repeating the 1975 atrocity?).

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.