Directed by Joseph Sargent. Starring Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Cristina Raines, Joe Lambie, Anthony James, Richard Masur, Lee Ving, Moon Unit Zappa, Emilio Estevez. Horror, USA, 99 mins, cert 15.
Released on dual-format Blu-ray & DVD by 101 Films on 7th May 2018.
Utilising four leftover segments from cancelled TV anthology show DARKROOM, NIGHTMARES was originally released in 1983 amidst something of a resurgence for horror anthology movies, which is at odds with the TV show being cancelled due to low ratings but such is the way of these things. The four segments were all directed by Joseph Sargent (JAWS: THE REVENGE), which was fortunate for the sake of tonal continuity, and all feature familiar names and faces so we’re off to a good start, and it also opens with a pretty cool – in a naff ‘80s way – opening title card featuring demonic eyes floating over a stormy landscape. Yes, naff but if there is a power metal band somewhere looking for an album cover idea then here it is.
First segment TERROR IN TOPANGA is a retelling of the old urban legend about a killer on the loose when you need to go out in your car, only this car belongs to Lisa (Cristina Raines – THE SENTINEL) who has left her husband at home while she pops out to the 24-hour store for cigarettes late one night. After a couple of strange encounters with the various characters that seem to come out after dark she gets her cigarettes but then she notices her fuel gauge is nearly on empty...
THE BISHOP OF BATTLE is next and stars Emilio Estevez (YOUNG GUNS) as J.J. Cooney, a teenage video game hustler who works the arcades scoring easy money by challenging the players he knows he can beat. J.J. is addicted to a video game that features a mythical 13th level that only one other person is known to have reached and he regularly gets to level 12. After the latest row with his parents he sneaks out one night and breaks into the local arcade to challenge the titular Bishop of Battle and get to level 13, and then he wishes he hadn’t.
Lance Henriksen (ALIENS) stars in third segment THE BENEDICTION as a priest who has lost his faith. Leaving the church behind he heads out into the desert in his car to see where fate takes him but fate has other things in store than finding a new vocation as he gets pursued by a mysterious black car that seems intent on ramming him off the road, but who is driving?
NIGHT OF THE RAT is the last segment and sees Claire (Veronica Cartwright – ALIEN) and Steven (Richard Masur – THE THING) Houston having trouble with rats crawling around in their loft. Reluctant to call in outside help due to cost and ego, Steven decides to tackle the critters himself but it turns out that it might not be an ordinary rat who has made itself at home in his roof.
Of the four segments TERROR IN TOPANGA is the weakest, stretching out a fairly basic idea about a hidden killer and even the writing points out several times that Lisa shouldn’t be leaving the house after 11 at night just for cigarettes but this is a horror movie and the filmmakers must have assumed that audiences weren’t so turned on to slasher movie tropes yet. It isn’t terrible and has a couple of tense(ish) moments thanks to some misdirection but overall it just doesn’t do anything a full-length slasher movie doesn’t do a hundred times better
The segment that gets the award for not aging particularly well goes to THE BISHOP OF BATTLE, thanks mainly to some very ‘80s computer graphics (although Emilio Estevez’s rather chunky Walkman doesn’t help) and a US hardcore punk soundtrack featuring Fear and Black Flag (side note – Fear vocalist Lee Ving was a friend of writer/producer Christopher Crowe and appears in TERROR IN TOPANGA so that would explain the punk connection). Emilio Estevez does his then-usual arrogant shouty teenager shtick and by the time the direction of the story is made clear you’re actually rooting for the virtual Bishop to win but as a short film it’s quite fun, it just looks very old.
NIGHT OF THE RAT had potential to be the best story of the lot but somebody decided to show the monster and with no CGI or anything resembling passable practical gags it is left to composite optical effects to try and induce some terror, which it doesn’t. Which, by process of elimination, leaves THE BENEDICTION to be the best of the bunch and when you have Lance Henriksen being chased by a strange car and taking it all very seriously then you have the foundation of something enjoyable, and for the most part it is although it does seem to be over fairly quickly once you get to the meat of the story. Nevertheless, it does have a dusty THE HITCHER-esque atmosphere and there is a fantastic visual of the car emerging in front of Henriksen that probably took a lot of Joseph Sargent’s budget to pull off but it was worth it.
So overall, NIGHTMARES isn’t scary or particularly gory but it does have moments of fun and nostalgia that carry it along without ever going for the jugular in an overly nasty way. Yes, these shorts were meant for TV and that is obvious when you look at the effects and the pacing of each segment but they were left out of the show for a reason – apparently they were deemed ‘too intense’ for a TV show or TV movie, which NIGHTMARES was originally going to be – and when put up against other anthologies from the time like CREEPSHOW or CAT’S EYE it just doesn’t quite hit the same highs. Nevertheless, the Blu-ray print looks nice and clean – especially those arcade game graphics – and the interview with producer Christopher Crowe gives a detailed background on how NIGHTMARES came together, and bundled with an audio commentary from Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson and a booklet featuring essays and interviews about the film this is probably a better package than NIGHTMARES really deserves given how average it actually is.
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