Dreamscape (1984) ***
Let’s play a little word-association game for a second, okay? I’ll say something, and then you say the first thing that pops into your mind— ready? Alright, here it comes: historically significant movie… Yup. That’s about what I thought. Not a goddamned one of you blurted out “Dreamscape,” did you? Understandable, I suppose, but Dreamscape is actually a much more important film than most people seem to realize. Together with Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Dreamscape is pretty much the reason why the PG-13 rating exists today. Originally, as my readers who were born before the late 1970’s will surely recall, the MPAA rating system had only four tiers; its creators figured that one ranking between “suitable for everybody” and “probably not suitable for most people under seventeen” was sufficient. But in the decade and a half that passed between the rating system’s advent and the middle of the 1980’s, the way in which the original four ratings were applied shifted, and a sort of gap opened up right down the middle. As the 70’s wore on, the G rating— which had originally stood essentially for movies that would have passed muster under the old Production Code— came increasingly to mean that a film was so utterly innocuous that not even the most pathologically straitlaced and protective of parents could find anything objectionable about it. By way of illustration, consider that The Legend of Boggy Creek was rated G in 1973, yet Star Wars got a PG just four years later. The inner boundary of the R rating, meanwhile, remained more or less stationary except in regard to nudity, with the result that PG was forced to cover such a broad range of territory that the rating lost much of its usefulness as an indicator of content, even before taking into account the notorious inconsistency of the ratings board’s rulings. What was a conscientious parent to make of it when The Karate Kid and Cheech and Chong’s The Corsican Brothers showed up in US theaters within months of each other, bearing the same rating?
So against that background, consider Dreamscape. Though it could scarcely be described as deserving an R rating, it still came as quite a shock to parents who had come to assume that they could send their ten-year-olds to a PG movie without giving the subject a second thought. The sexual themes, brief nudity, and paranoid politics played their roles, to be sure, but what really got people’s attention about Dreamscape (and about Gremlins and Temple of Doom as well) was the level and intensity of the violence. Though it was only briefly presented, there was some serious gore in this movie, along with some scare scenes that were much more potent than what parents were used to seeing on a PG rating. Eventually, the outcry got so noisy that the MPAA began paying attention, and decided the time had come to institute a new rating to cover the hard end of the PG spectrum. Indeed, there was even an effort to retroactively apply the PG-13 certificate to the movies that had caused it to be created, and here we see again the manifestation of a time-honored Hollywood double standard. Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had both been produced by major studios, and the legal departments of those studios swiftly put paid to the idea of up-rating them to PG-13. Dreamscape, on the other hand, was made by an independent company called Zupnick-Curtis, which nobody had ever heard of, nor has to this day. Would you care to guess what rating stamp you’ll see on the back cover of a home video copy of Dreamscape now? All in all, it’s probably not the claim to fame that the eponymous Stanley Zupnick and Tom Curtis would have wanted for their movie, but it’s a claim to fame nonetheless.
Dreamscape’s other big claim to fame is that it went into nearly as heavy rotation as The Beastmaster on the premium cable movie channels, and consequently left a lasting mark on the childhoods of millions of boys in my age cohort. It is thus one of those films in respect to which the question of how good it is has been, for me, overshadowed to some extent by the question of how well it stacks up against my memories of it. And to my relief, I’d say it holds up relatively well— certainly much better than, say, Gremlins or The Keep.
Paul Novotny (Max Von Sydow, of Dune and The Exorcist) and Jane Devries (Kate Capshaw, from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) are the psychologists at the head of a program of dream research at Thorn Hill College. For some reason, Novotny believes the present project could use the services of Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid, from Jaws 3-D and Enemy Mine), a young psychic whom he had studied extensively some nine years ago, but Gardner pulled a very successful vanishing act after he “got tired of being poked and prodded,” and Novotny has no idea where he might be now. Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer, of Starcrash and The Pyx), Novotny’s liaison to the government agency that provides most of his funding, tells the scientists not to worry. He’ll find Alex, no two ways about it.
Blair should probably start by looking for Alex at the race track, where the psychic uses his paranormal gifts to supplement his income by betting on the horses. In fact, Blair’s agents catch him at home instead, but they still come at a very convenient time for Gardner, whose uncanny success has finally pushed a bookie named Snead (The Octagon’s Redmond Gleeson) over the edge. When the G-men arrive at Alex’s house with a very firm recommendation that he accompany them to Thorn Hill, some of Snead’s thugs are themselves on the way over, and Gardner is happy to have a quick getaway handy, even if a mysterious summons to a faraway college isn’t precisely the getaway he’d have chosen were it up to him.
So what do a couple of federally funded dream researchers want with a ne’er-do-well psychic? As Novotny explains to his former star lab rat, he has developed a machine that will allow people with Gardner’s natural abilities to enter and indeed participate in the dreams of others. Novotny sees great potential for his research as a therapeutic tool, of course, but he admits that he’s mostly doing it because it’s new, it’s exciting, and nobody has ever done it before. And while he’d prefer to bring Alex onboard by appealing to his sense of adventure, Novotny also mentions that while Blair was tracking Gardner down, the investigation brought to light his considerable winnings at the race track, and that the IRS is just a little bit annoyed with him for not telling them about all that money himself. Finally, the doctor suggests that he might be able to prevail upon the government to cut Alex some slack in exchange for his cooperation. Alex understandably hates being blackmailed, but Mrs. Gardner, as the saying goes, didn’t raise no fools.
So Alex begins dream-linking, as Novotny calls it. He starts small, just observing at first— “a cerebral peeping tom,” in his own words. But gradually, he works his way up to Novotny’s number-one patient, a young boy named Buddy Driscoll (Cory Yothers), who is afflicted with nightmares so harrowing that dream-linking with him has already turned one of Novotny’s other two psychics into a human vegetable. Now just between you and me and whoever the hell else is reading this, I’m thinking that makes Psychic #2 a nancy-boy. I had way scarier nightmares than Buddy’s all the friggin’ time when I was a kid, and I never wound up in a rubber room. Regardless, Buddy’s own personal Freddy Krueger is a humanoid cobra thing he imaginatively calls the Snakeman. Every night, it breaks into a German Expressionist version of his house, chases him down into an institutional-looking Evil Basement, and tries to eat him. But this time, with Alex Gardner on his side, Buddy is able to turn the tables on the Snakeman, and decapitate him with an axe. Go, Buddy! Gardner’s success comes at a price, however, for it awakens the jealousy of Psychic #3, an ersatz Sean Penn by the name of Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly, from The Warriors and The Crow), who was the top man on the dream-link totem pole until Alex showed up. There’s no way it’s anything but a plot point when Glatman catches his rival doodling a sketch of the monster from Buddy’s dream soon thereafter.
Meanwhile, Novotny is about to acquire a patient far more important than any he has yet served. The President of the United States (The Devil’s Rain’s Eddie Albert) is also a chronic nightmare sufferer, and he’s an old friend of Bob Blair’s. Blair flies him in to Thorn Hill, and sets the scientists to the task of doing something about those dreams. There’s an element of urgency to the matter, too, because the president is due to lead a diplomatic delegation to Geneva for an arms control conference with the Russians, and because his nightmares all focus on the topic of nuclear Armageddon, Blair believes that he’ll give away far too much at the bargaining table if he’s still having the dreams when he gets there. But as usual, there’s something decidedly fishy going on. One of Alex’s drinking buddies in town is a horror novelist by the rather desperate name of Charles Prince (George Wendt, of House and Space Truckers), and Prince knows some things nobody else does. First of all, that hitherto unnamed agency Bob Blair controls happens to be a covert intelligence organization that “even the CIA are afraid of.” Second, Tommy Ray Glatman isn’t just any old psychic. When he was a teenager, he shot his father to death, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Prince thinks Blair hand-picked Tommy for the dream-link project with the intention of training him to be not merely a dream-spy, but a dream-assassin. So given the great lengths to which Blair went in order to get the president set up in the dorm room next door to Tommy’s, and given also his strenuous and vocal disapproval of the disarmament talks into which the president is about to enter, what do you suppose might happen when the leader of the free world goes to sleep tomorrow night?
There’s no point in denying that Dreamscape is an extremely dated film. The puffy hair, the overblown lighting effects, the cheesy synthesizer score— I grew up in the 80’s, and I still had a little trouble getting past all that this time around. Beyond that, it would have benefited greatly from a slightly slower pace, with more time devoted to developing character and establishing the hows and whys of the story. Novotny, for example, has a dark side that goes almost totally unnoticed. A man who is willing to resort to government-sponsored blackmail to get what he wants— to say nothing of working side by side with a nasty piece of work like Bob Blair— is far from being an uncomplicated good guy, and I’d have appreciated it if the movie had spent some time delving into that complexity. The other character who gets seriously shortchanged by Dreamscape’s breathless pace is Jane Devries. We don’t often see movies in which the female lead falls into a relationship with a man younger than her, nor is it a common occurrence for a sci-fi film to pair a female scientist up with a love interest whose career poses no threat to her own. There’s no question of Devries having to give up her work to pursue Alex Gardner— he’s a moocher and a scam-artist, and there’s never any shortage of job openings in either of those two fields anywhere! Considering how far outside the usual paradigm the relationship between Devries and Alex is, I rather wish the filmmakers had left themselves room to do a bit more with it. Generally speaking, Dreamscape could have been a lot more sophisticated than it turned out to be, if only its creators had slowed down just a little.
On the other hand, Dreamscape remains a fun movie, and it’s easy enough to forgive most of its faults. Dennis Quaid pulls off a sort of smarmy charm that usually had no place in the more serious films he made later in his career, and is extremely convincing as a guy you know you shouldn’t like but somehow do anyway. The numerous dream sequences mostly are not as convincingly dreamlike as those in the contemporary and conceptually related A Nightmare on Elm Street, but they come closer to the mark than their counterparts in most movies do. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-inspired set design used for Buddy Driscoll’s nightmare is a cool touch, and the first of the three different Snakeman designs used does seem like the kind of monster a child would dream up. (Glatman’s and Gardner’s subsequent interpretations are much less effective.) But for my purposes, the thing that works best about Dreamscape is the president’s nuke nightmares— although I expect this aspect of the film is also the one most likely to leave younger viewers cold. Like many children of the 80’s, I spent the first half of my youth pretty much convinced that the world was indeed going to end in atomic fire, and that it was likely to do so within my lifetime. For most people my age, their nuclear fears came dressed in images from The Day After, but I never saw that film. Instead, I saw the Bomb through the prism of a harrowing cartoon short about the destruction of Hiroshima (I’m guessing it was something I caught on “Night Flight”), supplemented, after 1984, with images from Dreamscape. To this day, the dream sequence involving the pack of vengeful, radiation-scarred children sends chills up my spine. The president’s nightmares are probably the most dated part of this very dated film— nothing is more irrelevant than yesterday’s bogeyman— but I’d venture to guess that they’d still hold sway over anyone who grew up during one of the three peak periods of the Cold War. I guess you sort of had to be there.