Horror films aren’t often cited as nostalgia generators, period pieces or movies that bottle up a specific time and place.
Yet, as a child of the 1980s who often re-watches favorites like “Friday the 13th Part VI” or any “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” installment, it allows me to revisit music I grew up with, the fashion of my babysitters, phrases and styles that infiltrated the zeitgeist and other aspects that were once a part of pop culture.
Considering how most horror films target young people and capitalize not just on their fears but to comment on the world they inhabit, horror movies seem especially dialed in to portraying (and ultimately disputing) the time we call our formative years.
While never cited as an ’80s film the way “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is, “Nightmares” (1983) is among my favorite films from the decade. The movie captures its era, the details of day-to-day life and how (in a way Rod Serling would have appreciated) it places recognizable people into supernatural puzzles they have to solve.
Joseph Sargent’s “Nightmares” began as a television project that was upgraded for the movies. At least, that’s the story we can now agree on.
— Film School Rejects (@rejectnation) December 22, 2015
For decades, horror buffs and progenitors of the film’s cult following thought the vignettes had been filmed for the James Coburn-hosted, “Night Gallery”-like “Darkroom.” That show briefly aired during late 1981, early 1982.
The rumor appeared sound, as the slight but enjoyable “Darkroom” had early appearances from Billy Crystal and Helen Hunt plus stories penned by the likes of Robert Bloch, Robert R. McCammon and Alan Brennert. Other notable show writers included Christopher Crowe and Jeffrey Bloom, who were both credited with the “Nightmares” screenplay.
It seemed like a safe assumption that “Nightmares” was compiled of unaired “Darkroom” episodes. That’s apparently not the case. A commentary track on the film’s Scream Factory Blu-ray release with the film’s producer and Raines denying the claim.
Still, “Nightmares” sure looks like it was originally intended for the small screen. It’s one of the most charming things about it.
Unlike the glossy, star-studded, “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” released three months earlier, or the stylish, occasionally heavy-handed “Creepshow,” this is low key affair. “Nightmares” is unpretentious and efficient, with the TV movie aesthetic working in its favor.
It’s not a slick, gore-soaked terror fest with high minded social commentary and clearly never intended to be.
The film’s slight stature works in its favor, with each vignette concluding with fadeouts seemingly ready for commercials and network bumpers. If the wonderful, vastly under-valued “Grind House” perfectly recreated the feel of an all-night B-movie marathon at a sleazy movie theater, then this recreates the feel of sitting through a series of horror-themed TV shows on syndication.
If you’re old enough to remember how scary “Tales from the Darkside,” “Darkroom,” “Monsters,” “Friday the 13th- The Series,” “The Hitchhiker,” “Tales from the Darkside” and “Freddy’s Nightmares” once seemed, then this is a fun trip for genre lovers.
It begins with a great visual -- the camera glides across a treacherous, vast plot of land, which appears to be about to break apart from lava flow. Ominous clouds are rolling in and glowing red eyes stare at us.
The screen goes black, the title pops up and Craig Safan’s scary music kicks into high gear. This opener (which would be a grabber for any anthology horror film, let alone a TV series made during this time) is almost strong enough to compensate for a lack of a wraparound story connecting each vignette.
The first sequence is titled “Terror in Topanga,” in which a housewife (Cristina Raines), in dire need of a nicotine fix, takes a night drive out to snag a pack of cigarettes. Raines’ Lisa does so in spite of the warnings from a local newscaster and her husband that a murderous lunatic is on the loose.
We see firsthand what the killer is capable of, in an effectively staged post-title sequence that earns the film its R-rating.
FAST FACT: “Nightmares” co-star Veronica Cartwright says director Phillip Kaufman didn’t tell her about the surprise ending in 1978’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” hoping to snag a natural reaction from the actress. “That look of terror and upset is just what came out,” she told ComingSoon.net.
Raine’s spooky journey into increasingly deserted areas is well paced and atmospheric. There are nicely humorous touches, like a man caught reading “Playpen” (I guess Mr. Hefner said no to product placement). The notion that this woman is smart but knowingly putting herself in danger, in which she is only “safe” if she stays in her car, is an effective hook.
Genre fans will know where this is going, as “Urban Legend” inefficiently recycled this plotline 15 years later. My one qualm: notice the face of the killer as it’s shown on a news broadcast; considering whose face they show and who Lisa ultimately encounters, the early reveal is a cheat, intended to throw off the audience.
Story number two features a young Emilio Estevez (one year away from his breakthrough in “Repo Man”) playing J.J. Cooney, an arcade game hustler who is dangerously obsessed with a new game called “The Bishop of Battle” (also the title of this segment).
Cooney beats a gang at Pleiades, while punk rockers Fear and Black Flag blast over the soundtrack. The editing is especially sharp here, as the camera goes tight on Estevez and cuts back and forth to his laser focused glare and the colorful blips on the game screen.
With its fixation on ’80s quarter gaming culture, it’s no wonder that Wil Wheaton and a generation of “Frogger” addicts are especially fond of this portion.
Cooney’s obsession is akin to a drug addiction, as his parents and friends are worried about his unceasing promise to “beat The Bishop.” The vector graphics of the gameplay (aided by vocals from James Tolkan, who famously played Mr. Strickland in “Back to the Future”) are fun. So is the choice of bright red lighting in the arcade, conveying Cooney’s feverish mindset.
Estevez, in a performance that feels like a tryout for “Repo Man,” is terrific in this. He’s wily and intense, an extension of every kid before home gaming systems became a less costly option than sacrificing a daily clutch of quarters. Regarding Cooney’s game of choice and its legendary 13th level, he repeatedly exclaims, “I heard some guy out in Jersey got to it twice,” the same way many from this era remember playing the mythical Polybius.
Despite a silly final reveal, this is the best, most iconic chapter of the film.
The third installment, “The Benediction,” stars a compelling Lance Henriksen as Father MacLeod, a priest experiencing a loss of faith. As he drives away from his parish, he encounters a hostile, unseen driver in a black truck.
At first, it seems the driver doesn’t like the priest’s “Faith Restores Peace” sticker. Eventually, the truck driver hunts MacLeod, in an extended chase that won’t make anyone forget “Duel” but has a number of memorable moments. There are some great auto stunts (including a doozy in which the truck emerges from an unexpected vantage point) and, like the prior two vignettes, it’s a pulpy tale, told well and fast.
The final story, “Night of the Rat,” depicts a suburban family at the mercy of a destructive rodent determined to ruin their home. It stars Veronica Cartwright and Richard Masur, both genre royalty, as Cartwright’s prior film was “Alien,” while Masur had previously co-starred in “The Thing.”
They play couple struggling to keep their sanity as their home life becomes a farce of rubble and holes suddenly appearing in walls. This segment has jolting moments and a mounting tension, as long as the threat remains unseen.
At the last moment, the decision was made to show the diabolical rat and it nearly kills the movie; the poor f/x, as well as forced sentimentality, undermines the strength of the performances. Thankfully, the final pan upward into a quiet nighttime suburbia feels just right.
For a movie that never got its due and certainly didn’t garner acclaim for the acting, the work by Estevez and Henricksen is exceptional. Cartwright and Masur are also solid at portraying a wealthy couple whose patience with one another falters as their interior life is crumbling.
For Sargent, a veteran filmmaker, this falls somewhere between the artistic/commercial high of his “The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3” and his scraping the ocean floor with “Jaws the Revenge.”
There were two cinematographers hired: Gerald Perry Finnerman for segments one and two, and Mario DeLio for segments three and four. The difference in styles is subtle but noteworthy: in “Terror in Topanga” and “The Bishop of Battle”, the colors pop, though the camera work is unshowy.
With “The Benediction” and “Night of the Rat,” the color is palette is bland but the camera movement is cinematic and seemingly designed for a wide screen. Another duel contribution is in the writing, as Crowe (who later wrote Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans”) penned the first three segments and Bloom wrote “Night of the Rat” (which only comes up short due to the hokey special effects).
Overall, it’s uneven and campier than truly scary. Nevertheless, it’s always fun, brisk and unpretentious. Unlike the segments in “Creepshow” (1982) these anthology tales are light on their feet and devoid of a heavy hand in the telling.
The episode-to-episode quality is mostly stellar, as the jump (or fall) in quality for each vignette isn’t akin to the far slicker (and much spottier) “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”
Unlike Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which arrived the following year, this won’t generate sleepless nights. It’s too mild and slight to frighten hardcore horror fans, but it’s also competent, marked by memorable bis and highly entertaining.
As an encapsulation of the time in which it was made, “Nightmares” is a rich way to revisit the ’80s. It arrived the same year as “Valley Girl,” shares some of the same settings and would make a wild double feature.