Movies such as The Terminator, The Evil Dead, and The Hidden have staked out similar territory, with some success.
In these films, the order of the day is outrageousness, and Bad Dreams has an abundance of that. The film’s prologue describes a Manson-like cult leader dousing his flock (a bunch of people who look like Squeaky Fromme) in gasoline and burning them all up in an isolate country house. One survives, a girl (Jennifer Rubin) who spends the next 13 years in a coma.
When she returns to the conscious world, she enters a group therapy session at a hospital, a collection of nervous patients described by their doctor (Bruce Abbott, a veteran of Re-Animator duty) as “The borderline personality group.” Rubin is convinced the cult leader is still pursuing her, a conviction that gains credence in the way the other patients keep dying off in mysterious ways.
This section of the movie indulges in mucho sick humor, as a trysting couple falls into the turbine ventilation system and the air ducts flow with human blood; and a young patient works off his excess energy by mutilating himself to the tune of Sid Vicious’s “My Way.” Among other things.
Well, maybe that doesn’t sound all that funny. But a lot of Bad Dreams is irreverently hilarious, thanks to the swift touch of director/co-writer Andrew Fleming and producer Gale Ann Hurd (she produced Gremlins). They keep the punchlines (and the graphic bloodletting) coming, and it may not be until after the movie is over that you realize how little has actually happened.
The way Bad Dreams finally comes up short is in failing to exploit the whole cult-family subject. There are a lot of possibilities, horrific and darkly comic, in the milieu. Fleming and Hurd obviously chose not to pursue those aspects, which is their right, and as it is Bad Dreams is high-energy wackiness. It’s also disposable and forgettable, and not even very scary.
First published in the Herald, April 1988
Fleming later made Dick, which is a movie I happen to like a whole lot, so whatever it took to get him there is fine by me.