31 Days of Horror 2021: “Bad Dreams” (1988)

Sometimes, a clever title is a terrible idea.

For example, Andrew Fleming’s 1988 journey into the horrific land of psychological terror is called Bad Dreams. That’s clever because it evokes thoughts of the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, ostensibly pulling in Freddy Krueger fans anxious to watch another dreamstalker hack and slash their way through the subconscious minds of naughty teenagers. Casting Jennifer Rubin, arguably one of the most bad-ass characters to ever fight Freddy on his own turf in NOES 3: Dream Warriors, played into that connotation. What viewers got in exchange for their box office dollars was a movie that attempted to bring some gravitas to the horror movie genre, something far more adult in nature than what gorehounds during the 1980s were used to watching. Although Bad Dreams was a modest box office hit, pulling in a little over $9 million against a reported budget of $4 million, critics deemed the film too derivative of the NOES series. That complaint no longer holds up. Despite its bad clever title, Bad Dreams is deserving of an open-minded rewatch.

Cynthia (Rubin) is the sole survivor of the fiery destruction of a 1970s cult called Unity Field. Cult leader Harris (played by an ominously leering Richard Lynch) tells his followers that the only way they can be truly joined as both humans and spirits is to die together. Harris anoints his flock with gasoline before pouring fuel on the floor of the gorgeous Victorian home they share and burning it down with a single match. Discovered alive by firefighters, Cynthia is taken to a local medical facility where she spends the next 13 years in a coma.

When she awakes, Cynthia is placed under the care of ruggedly handsome Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott from the Re-Animator movies) and head psychiatrist Dr. Berrisford (stalwart character actor Harris Yulin). Cynthia expresses her desire to return to Unity Field or, at the very least, a similar environment where she felt loved and cared for, as if she were helping to create a Utopian society. But as she is bluntly told by Dr. Karmen, those kinds of places did not exist in the 1980s. That knowledge doesn’t prevent Cynthia from having hallucinations of Harris, who beckons her to kill herself and join the rest of her chosen Unity Field family on the other side. Soon, other patients under Karmen’s care begin dying in mysterious and gruesome ways. Cynthia is convinced that Harris is behind the deaths, an idea the doctors find utterly implausible.

Lynch played the heavy in multiple B-movies. His face alone raises an almost subliminal concern in the viewer that he could somehow be reaching out from beyond the grave in murderous fashion. It was an inspired bit of casting. Thankfully, Bad Dreams doesn’t need to coast on Lynch’s presence.

Bad Dreams dips further into mental health issues, particularly how someone can be controlled by an authority figure, than most other films of the time. Cynthia remains loyal to Harris even though he tried to burn her alive. She adheres to the basic tenets of Unity Field years after it went up in a blaze of egotistical glory. Cynthia believes in Harris’s omnipotence so much, she earnestly believes he has returned to retrieve her. Hints of survivor’s guilt play heavily into Cynthia’s character, as does more than a smattering of PTSD symptoms. These issues are not fully explored, but they are addressed enough to elevate Bad Dreams above the standard “crazy person kills people” slasher movie template.

Cynthia’s hallucinations, her waking dreams of Unity Field, and Harris are handled adeptly by director Andrew Fleming. Perhaps best known for the teen witch classic The Craft, Fleming seems to be equally comfortable with jump squares and protracted fear sequences. In one notable segment, Cynthia is in the locker room at the hospital pool. The back wall fades away into inky blackness, only to be illuminated moments later by pale orange lantern light. Cynthia’s friends from Unity Field become visible as Cynthia walks toward them, through them, towards the awaiting Harris. It’s an unexpected transition from reality into the depths of Cynthia’s trauma, presented with a subtle shivering force.

Fleming shares screenplay credit with Steven E. de Souza, the writer of such 1980s classics as 48 HRS. and Die Hard. The rapid banter and quickly forged strong connections between the secondary characters (you know, the ones who get killed) can likely be attributed to de Souza. In some ways, the characters in Bad Dreams feel like they were plucked directly from a 1980s action fest. Count it to this movie’s credit that when these characters are knocked off, there is more emotional impact than in most slasher movies. The viewer may not get much time with those people, but they’re entertaining and as viewers, we hate to see them go.

Visually, Bad Dreams creates believable worlds even when dealing with the supernatural and fantastic. This becomes obvious in any sequence involving fire. It’s easy to spot fake fire, whether it be computer generated or added as an overlaid special effect in post-production. When Unity Field burns its way to their version of heaven, it looks and feels disturbingly real.

There’s also a quick homage to artist Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting Christina’s World. It doesn’t last long, but it increases the off-kilter nature of the story by leading the viewer to wonder where reality begins and ends for Cynthia.

Bad Dreams is not a perfect film. Rubin’s performance feels lackadaisical instead of ethereal. Although she plays the final girl, Rubin barely seems to be there at all. The rest of the cast, including E.G. Daily, Damita Jo Freeman and the always welcome Sy Richardson, create a solid world around Rubin that makes Cynthia more of a catalyst than a character. That sort of action film ensemble makes the violence inherent within the script both palatable and affecting.

Bad Dreams treats its audience like adults. While it doesn’t deliver the kind of Kreuger-esque bloodbath its marketing led viewers to believe it would receive, Bad Dreams explores the manipulative hold cults hold over people. One could easily imagine the film centering on David Koresh’s sect of Branch Davidians or the NXIVM cult that ensnared famous Hollywood performers.

Well written, superbly directed and filled with thought-provoking ideas, Bad Dreams doesn’t deserve its less-than-stellar reputation. Bad Dreams does an excellent job of capturing what it must be like to be so desperate to believe in something that you’ll hold onto it, long after it has served its usefulness. That is a terrifying concept.

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