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It’s Never Quite As It Seems
A Nightmare on Elm St. 3: Dream Warriors was released in February of 1987. While the 1st 2 films had been extremely successful, the third entry in the series was undeniably the one that made “Freddy” into a marketable property that is still being peddled in every conceivable form even today. Elm St. toast, anyone?
Dream Warriors arrived with a large promotional push behind it. Hit music videos, guest appearances on MTV, and commercials on heavy rotation, it was pretty difficult not to be a success. Freddy Kruger was now a “movie star”. He was also a video game, a 900 number, a board game, and even a yo-yo.
As expected, every film studio wanted their own piece of that action. There were multiple attempts to cash-in on the craze. One of those attempts was 1988’s Bad Dreams, starring Jennifer Rubin, Dream Warriors’ “Taryn”. What better way to tap into that fan base than to cast one of Freddy’s more memorable victims? Well, it would appear that one way to tap into it is to give your film a title that makes it seem as if it actually relates to the Elm St series or dreams in general, but in reality has very little to do with your actual plot.
Richard Lynch (Invasion USA, God Told Me To) stars as “Harris”, the leader of Unity Fields, a 70’s cult of young, disillusioned hippies. When the film begins, he is performing some sort of “unity ceremony” with the women of the cult. The ceremony involves dumping a ladle of water on each of their heads. The last of the participants is Cynthia, a young girl that has found her way into the group’s welcoming arms. We then cut to a shot outside of the house that the cult uses for their commune. As dawn breaks, the house bursts into flames. Harris and his followers perish within.
Cynthia (Rubin) is pulled from the burning frame of the house and rushed to a nearby hospital where she is attended to by guys with mullets. As this scene is supposed to be set during the mid-70’s, this hairstyle is oddly 10-years out-of-place. Adding to the timeframe confusion, The Electric Prunes “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)” is faintly playing over the scene. For those unfamiliar with the song, it’s a catchy piece of psychedelic rock that was quite popular upon its initial release….. in 1966, 10 years before these opening scenes are supposedly set. I do feel that Bad Dreams would have benefited from more of an acid rock soundtrack, thus giving the film more of its own identity.
Cynthia slips into a coma that she doesn’t wake from for 13 years. Waking in modern-day 1988, she has no memory of the fire or of the events leading up to it. She is soon admitted into the hospital’s psyche group under the pretense of helping her acclimate back into current society. The group is under the council of the seemingly benevolent Dr. Karmen, played by Re-Animator‘s Bruce Abbott.
Even more recognizable faces make up the members of this group, including EG Daily (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, One Dark Night), Susan Ruttan (TV’s LA Law), and even Summer School‘s “Chainsaw”, Dean Cameron. All the other group members are borderline personalities, each a thin stereotype of common neuroses. There’s the quiet recluse, the overly edgy chain-smoker, the nymphomaniac, and even a cutter with a sense of humor. Cynthia clearly doesn’t belong in this group as all the others are pretty much crazy as shit. Unfortunately, most of these characters aren’t developed into anything other than vague caricatures.
In helping her feel welcome, Dr. Karmen offers to buy Cynthia lunch from the hospital cafeteria. Way to break the bank, Doc. They take the elevator, which leads us to the predictable scene of the lights flickering and the elevator jostling. Haven’t these people seen a horror movie before? Take the stairs, dammit!!
As they descend, Cynthia begins to “freak-out” when she sees Harris also on-board. He tells her that she still belongs to Unity Fields, his face changing from the charred, melting flesh of his demise to the charred flesh that was Richard Lynch’s normal appearance, all while the lights continue to flicker. As expected, no one else sees him, leaving Cynthia to look like just another mental case on the verge of a meltdown.
During the next group session, Cynthia has a flashback of the night of the fire. Harris is performing the dousing ceremony, only this time it’s quite evident that he is using gasoline and not water. The only “unity” in this ceremony is the “unity” of death. He douses more of the women, then splashes his own face before pouring the remainder of the gasoline on the house floor. He strikes a match and lights it all up, the cult members each covered in flames. The effect is low-budget, yet still looks far superior to similar CG effects done today. To make the scene (as well as the fate of the lost souls within) a little sadder, a couple of kids do go up in flames, and a baby can be heard in the background. Lynch, now acting as a present-tense entity, tells her that the clan can not “cross over” until she has joined them.
Soon, the other nutjobs start dying in what appear to be suicides. However, Cynthia believes that they’ve been murdered by the vengeful spirit of Harris. Her belief is quickly dismissed as each one has a history of suicide attempts. Oh, and they were all crazy. Crazy people do crazy shit. That’s what makes them “crazy”.
For whatever reason, the detective that investigated the fire all those years earlier is still hanging around the hospital. While he’s quick to blame Cynthia for the deaths, as well as the fire at Unity Fields, he never actually interviews her. He really doesn’t do much of anything other than occasionally showing up to give the protagonist a hard time and waste the viewer’s time with stadium-sized gaps in logic. It’s the same clichéd “stubborn cop” routine that you’ve seen hundreds of times, each of those presented more effectively.
Karmen is sympathetic, but naturally doesn’t believe Cynthia’s claims. “Too naturally”, you might say. Abbott delivers a decent performance, but he’s never given much of a chance to do anything with the character. Other than one “daydream” late in the film, the role provides little chance to display much emotion.
While fans of Cameron’s “Chainsaw” character from Summer School may enjoy seeing another frenetic performance from the actor, this character (“Ralph”) is rather unlikable and a little annoying. It’s a shame that he’s not given more to do with his character, but most of the actors aren’t. It’s clear that the producers were banking on name recognition, but other than the aforementioned Robert Englund, most genre “stars” weren’t thought of as the same “marketable commodities” that they are today.
There are a few bloody deaths, including one scene that ends in blood raining from the hospital’s AC vents, but the film isn’t very heavy in the gore department. The burn make-up for Lynch is quite impressive. The wounds looks quite raw and oozy, with flaps of burnt skin hanging from his face.
Bad Dreams was produced by Gail Anne Hurd (Aliens, The Terminator) and directed by Andrew Fleming, who would later direct The Craft. Despite these names being attached, the film is a sad case of trying too hard to be something it is not. In this case, A Nightmare on Elm St. The biggest flaw, however, is that this film has nothing to do with dreams. In fact, these are closer to “acid flashbacks”, a concept that seems more fitting and believable with the film’s hippie-cult themes.
In another nod to the Elm St. films, Charles Fleisher (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Tales From The Crypt Presents: Demon Knight) has a small part as a doctor. Fleisher also played a doctor in the first Elm St. film.
Bad Dreams is like that kid in school that really didn’t know who they were, but did whatever they needed to do in order to be seen as “cool”. And just like that kid, the attempts never really work. The lack of distinct personality is demonstrated one final time when Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” is used for the closing credits. The song has absolutely zero relevance to any of the events or themes within the movie, and is only being used because it was an extremely popular song at the time of the film’s release.
I’m sure there are those that just appreciate the fact that it’s an 80’s horror film and all the nostalgia that goes along with it. However, there are dozens of lesser remembered horror films from that time that are more deserving of praise and recognition. Bad Dreams isn’t what I’d call a “nightmare”, but it’s surely not a “wet dream” either.