Nightmares (1983) Nightmares (1983) ***

     It’s possible that Nightmares was the first anthology horror film I ever saw, although I think Creepshow is just a tad more likely to hold that miniscule honor. At the very least, Nightmares was part of my introduction to the concept, and for that reason I retain an affection for it somewhat in excess of what its actual merits would warrant. I do want to stress, however, how much work that “somewhat” is doing there. Although I can’t call Nightmares even a minor classic in good conscience, it has plenty to offer any fan of oddball 80’s horror movies.

     A lot of online sources describe Nightmares as a collection of stories derived from urban legends. That isn’t at all accurate for the film as a whole, but it does apply to “Chapter One: Terror in Topanga.” Specifically, “Terror in Topanga” is a riff on the venerable “killer in the back seat of the car” yarn. That killer is William Henry Glazier (Fear frontman Lee Ving, from Pulse Pounders and Streets of Fire, credited here as “Lee James Jude”), who escaped from a maximum security mental institution some weeks ago, and is now wanted in connection with five murders in the western reaches of Los Angeles. Glazier’s latest exploit— the stabbing of a policeman after a traffic stop in Topanga Canyon— is the top story on the 11:00 news when Lisa (Christina Raines, of Hex and The Sentinel) realizes that she’s all out of milk and cigarettes. A Topanga resident herself, Lisa nevertheless thinks nothing of zipping off to a late-night convenience store somewhere outside the valley. Her husband, Phil (Joe Lambie), pitches a fit, however, forbidding her to go anywhere at an hour like this when there’s a maniac known to be on the loose. The thing is, Phil doesn’t smoke, so he doesn’t get what a dire state of affairs it is to be out of fucking cigarettes. Lisa sneaks out after leaving Phil an explanatory note, but quickly finds cause to regret her impulsiveness. With the specter of William Henry Glazier hanging over the canyon, the ten-minute drive to the store becomes a gantlet of ever more unnerving encounters with strange men— and that’s before Lisa notices that her car is running on fumes. Worse luck, both of the gas stations on well-lit corners outside the canyon are closed for the night, leaving only the shadowy, easily ambushed roadside station in Topanga itself. And the carhop who comes out to pump Lisa’s gas (William Sanderson, from Savage Weekend and Blade Runner) fits to a tee the description of Glazier on the TV news earlier. Of course, I’ve already told you where the killer is really hiding…

     “Chapter Two: The Bishop of Battle” is Nightmares’ most original segment. It begins with teenaged J.J. Cooney (Emilio Estevez, of Freejack and Maximum Overdrive) and his younger friend, Zock Maxwell (Billy Jacoby, from Cujo and Dr. Alien), arriving at a video arcade in a rough neighborhood far from their San Fernando Valley homes. J.J. has come to hustle, so naturally he wants to do so in a place where he’s unlikely to be recognized. His scam is to wager with arrogant players who are good at one of his favorite games, but not as good as him. On this occasion, J.J. throws six games of Pleiades to a hoodlum whom the closing credits identify as Pedro (Andre Diaz), at stakes of a dollar a game. Then with the mark’s confidence suitably inflated, he feigns a desperate impulse to bet the whole remaining contents of his wallet— $25, which was rather a lot of money for a kid in 1983— on one last play. Pedro doesn’t carry that kind of cash, but he really wants to take it off of this overeager gringo dipshit, so he turns to an older and presumably more established street tough (Gary Carlos Cervantes, from Wheels of Terror and Warlock: The Armageddon) to cover his side of the bet. By the time Pedro and his creditor realize that they’ve been had, the money is already in J.J.’s pocket, and the boy himself is walking by the beat cop standing watch just inside the arcade door. Even so, J.J.’s escape is a narrow one, enabled only by a bus appearing at just the right moment.

     The objective behind J.J.’s hustling is rather unexpected. He’s raising money not for a car or a stereo or any other big-ticket item of obvious appeal to an adolescent boy, but rather to beat the Bishop. No, no— not that Bishop. What I mean is, the arcade at the Fox Hills Mall has an innovative video game called The Bishop of Battle, with which J.J. has lately been obsessed. Unlike the vast majority of early-80’s arcade games, The Bishop of Battle doesn’t merely repeat itself endlessly until the player runs out of lives. Rather, it has “thirteen progressively harder levels,” the last of which offers the player a chance (presumably an exceedingly slim one) to win. Gamer lore has it that the thirteenth level has been reached only once, by a player somewhere in New Jersey, and never beaten by anyone. J.J. is determined to be the first, and he’s willing to sacrifice anything and everything— school, friendships, his relationship with his girlfriend (Heartstopper’s Moon Unit Zappa), you name it— to fulfill that ambition. Today, armed with a hundred quarters’ worth of some swindled vato’s money, he comes very close indeed. Come closing time, J.J. loses his last man to the Bishop’s creatures on level twelve.

     There’s a family blowup waiting for J.J. at home. He’s missed dinner, he obviously hasn’t done one jot of his homework, and his parents (Louis Gambalvo, of Bad Dreams, and Mariclare Costello, from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death) are extremely disappointed with his latest report card. Neither are they persuaded that their son’s status as the world’s second-best Bishop of Battle player adequately counterbalances any of those things. J.J. can consider himself grounded. Yeah, well… we’ll just see about that! That night, after Mom and Dad are asleep, J.J. sneaks out of his room and breaks into the Fox Hills Mall arcade for a rematch. Consider, though: The Bishop of Battle’s levels increase in difficulty by becoming more immersive. Each one tilts the virtual gameboard and narrows the field of vision until what starts as a top-down maze shooter on the Berserk model becomes by level twelve a first-person shooter in which the player must navigate the maze by memory and use audio cues to track the movements of enemies around, and above, and behind them. If that’s level twelve, then what remains to make level thirteen more immersive still? J.J., inevitably, is about to find out…

     “Chapter Three: The Benediction” begins with a literal nightmare, as Father Frank MacLeod (Lance Henriksen, from The Terminator and Piranha II: The Spawning) dreams that he fails to save a fawn from being poisoned by a demonic rattlesnake in the ruins of an old Spanish mission. It’s a crude and fairly transparent metaphor for how MacLeod feels about his vocation lately. He and a younger priest, Father Luis del Amo (Tony Plana, of Vampire Bats and Slayer), really do minister out of a former Spanish colonial mission in the Mojave Desert. Their largely Hispanic congregation is grindingly poor, without any plausible hope of ever being anything else. MacLeod never quite spells out the afflictions he and del Amo battle on behalf of these people every day, but we can probably fill in most of the blanks: sickness, malnutrition, lack of educational opportunity and the intractable ignorance that comes with it, domestic cruelty, senseless and random violence. What we can be absolutely certain about is that MacLeod is burning out fast. As he confesses to his bishop (Robin Gammell, from Lipstick and The Haunting of Julia), he isn’t just starting to doubt God’s goodness, power, or even existence; he’s starting to doubt that there’s anything in the cosmos worth struggling for even if those things were all real. At the very least, he knows he’s of no damn use to his parishioners.

     The final straw comes when a young boy is shot to death. After half-assing his way through a funeral service that he knows in his heart to be nothing but pious lies, MacLeod packs up his car and leaves. When Father del Amo asks where he’ll go, MacLeod says he figures on driving east across the desert as far as the $78 in his wallet will carry him, then take whatever work comes his way. He won’t let his partner talk him out of it either, even going so far as to commandeer the holy water jug (“It’s tap water,” he growls) so that he’ll have a way to keep cool and hydrated on his journey. No, from this moment on, Frank MacLeod is an ex-priest. But while it may be that God can’t be arsed to send his erstwhile servant a sign, the Devil is another matter. Having driven well and truly into the middle of fucking nowhere, MacLeod finds himself harassed and pursued by a huge, black pickup truck that appears impossibly whenever his guard is down, only to vanish again in a manner just as starkly in defiance of orderly reality. And although the truck’s heavily tinted windows prevent Frank from noticing this detail, we in the audience can’t fail to miss the significance of the crucifix hanging upside down from the pestilent vehicle’s rear-view mirror…

     “Chapter Four: Night of the Rat” brings up the rear with a supernatural take on Chauncey G. Parker’s The Visitor (filmed the same year as Nightmares under the title Of Unknown Origin). This version, though, unfolds not from the perspective of overextended corner-office go-getter Steven Houston (Richard Masur, of The Thing and The Demon Murder Case), but from that of his harried wife, Claire (Veronica Cartwright, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Witches of Eastwick). Claire is the first to hear the rat that has taken up residence in the attic of the Houston house. She wants to call an exterminator immediately, but Steven is the kind of guy who likes to do everything himself (regardless of whether he’s any good at it), and the Houstons are supposed to be saving money to have a swimming pool installed in the backyard. Besides, those cheap, old-fashioned spine-breaker traps Steven distributes around the attic do the job in a jiffy; he and Claire actually hear the rat trip one and die shortly after they go to bed the following night.

     The trouble is, that wasn’t the only rat in the house. What’s more, the other is much smarter, much fiercer, and much more destructive all around than the first. It clogs the sinks with unbelievable amounts of shed fur. It gnaws through the electrical pipes inside the walls of the house, and cuts the wiring within. It kills Rosie, the family cat, and lays waste to the bedroom of the Houstons’ daughter, Brooke (Bridgette Anderson), while the girl is away at school. (Eerily, the one thing in Brooke’s room that the rampaging rodent leaves intact is Suzie, her anthropomorphic stuffed mouse.) It even chews gaping holes in the drywall behind all the large pieces of furniture, giving itself ambush sites from which it can push said furniture over onto unwary humans as they pass by. As that last item should indicate, this second rat is a no-two-ways-about-it monster, which Claire is again the first to discover. She doesn’t get a good look at it as it stalks her through the crawlspace under the house, but she sees enough to know that the time has come to call in a professional. Mel Keefer (Albert Hague) is not what one usually expects from an exterminator. An elderly Teutonic Jew, he seems more vampire slayer than rat catcher. But under the circumstances, maybe that’s just the kind of guy the Houstons need…

     There’s a lot of misinformation about Nightmares floating around on the web, to the point that I’m not completely sure what to believe and what to disbelieve. For instance, it’s been widely reported for years that the four stories here were shot originally for the short-lived ABC anthology series “Darkroom,” but were rejected by the network as unsuitable for broadcast. That would mean this material had been sitting around unseen for almost two years, since “Darkroom” was cancelled in January of 1982. However, that story is contradicted by executive producer Andrew Mirisch, who says the whole film was developed as a pilot for NBC, who abandoned the project before it had even been given a name. What I am certain of is that Nightmares is a very late example of the once-common phenomenon of a failed television pilot being repurposed as a feature film. But whereas the overwhelming majority of such ascended pilots still got their premieres on the small screen, Nightmares went all the way to theaters— even if it would ultimately enjoy its greatest success as a premium cable staple. If you look closely, clues to Nightmares’ television origins are scattered all over the place. The weird, abstract opening sequence looks tailor-made to accommodate a “Twilight Zone”-inspired voiceover. There’s very little gore and no nudity, at a time when any self-respecting horror movie had oodles of both. Similarly, not one character ever quite successfully completes an attempt to curse— and that includes all the singers of the various punk bands that J.J. Cooney listens to on his Walkman to focus his game-playing concentration. (The lyrics aren’t bleeped or silenced; rather Universal paid to have Fear, Black Flag, and Rik L. Rik record whole new versions of the songs used here. Not coincidentally, that also spared the studio having to pay royalties to Slash Records, SST, and Posh Boy.) Nevertheless, production values in Nightmares are significantly in excess of what one generally saw on TV in 1983, so it isn’t immediately obvious that this isn’t a “real” movie.

     Nightmares’ TV roots shoulder a lot of the blame for the weakness of “Terror in Topanga,” I think. As we all know, the early 1980’s were the heyday of crazies with knives, so it took something really special to stand out. An extraordinary setting. An extravagant body count. A killer with an especially menacing appearance or a memorably appalling modus operandi. Murder scenes that were either stylized to the point of expressionism or so hideously realistic you could practically smell the blood. Very little of what it took to succeed amid the slasher glut was permissible on television, leaving “Terror in Topanga” with a virtually empty toolbox. Director Joseph Sargent— a veteran indeed by 1983— does what he can to build compensating suspense on Lisa’s drive to the store and back, but he never manages to disguise the fact that this is ultimately a story about a woman running a common household errand. Kudos to William Sanderson, though, for making the gas station carhop just odd enough to be disconcerting, without doing anything definable as an overt threat.

     We’re on firmer ground with “The Bishop of Battle.” For one thing, it’s a story that literally could not have been told much earlier than this, dependent as it is upon the intersection of new technology and adolescent entertainment fads. J.J. Cooney is an unusual protagonist, a petulant putz with a petty obsession, who nevertheless reads true as a character. The spat between him and his parents is an especially insightful and well-constructed scene, pitting a dictatorial jerk who happens to be entirely in the right against a charismatic rebel whose head is all the way up his own ass. Then there’s the game itself. One could argue that “The Bishop of Battle” belongs to the proudly stupid tradition of stories about how whatever new thing all the kids are into these days is bad and dangerous. Usually, stories of that kind are written by people who don’t care to engage with the object of their ire, and therefore present versions of it that bear laughably little resemblance to reality. Witness the mechanically impossible role-playing game in John Coyne’s Hobgoblin or the frenetic pothead piano-player in Reefer Madness. Consequently it’s remarkable that The Bishop of Battle is actually a cleverly designed and boundary-pushing game that simultaneously remains plausibly within the limits of what the era’s computing technology would allow (at least prior to the fantastical thirteenth level). If it had been a real game in 1983, I would have played the shit out of it— and I bet lots of other kids would have, too.

     “The Benediction” is the segment that I wish I could like more. Lance Henriksen’s performance is magisterial, especially considering how little the script gives him to work with. Unfortunately, he’s trapped in a muddled mashup of Duel and The Car that doesn’t do any of the things it borrows as well as either of its models. “The Benediction” also suffers from a flaw in narrative logic so severe as to reduce it to utter nonsense: at the start of the story, the Devil has already won. If the object is to deprive God of Frank MacLeod’s services, that goal has already been accomplished. All Satan stands to gain by chasing him across the desert in a monster truck is to restore his faith in God by the Transitive Property of Mythical Entities. And if God sent that demonic truck to get MacLeod back in the game, then God is a dick who doesn’t deserve him in the first place.

     “Night of the Rat” was my favorite of Nightmares’ four stories when I was a kid, and it remains so today. For starters, it’s the one with a monster in it, and that always scores a few extra points with me. It’s an unexpectedly good monster, too— or at least it is when we finally get a clear look at it. That first glimpse under the house is apt to put you in mind of Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell, but in the climactic scene, when the Hell-rat holds Brooke hostage in her bedroom, the combination of matting, miniatures, and forced perspective suggests what all those Bert I. Gordon movies must have looked like in his head, before reality got in the way. Beyond that, though, “Night of the Rat” is a story that sympathizes with its monster, without ever attempting to apologize for its monstrousness. The Houstons’ nemesis turns out to have a very good reason for declaring no-quarter war against its human hosts, but it’s nevertheless a deadly and unwanted intruder with which no stable modus vivendi is realistically possible. On the downside, “Night of the Rat” owes a little too much, structurally speaking, to Poltergeist, and Keefer’s role is disappointingly small in the final assessment. Nor does “Night of the Rat” ever quite capture the feel of a dark fairy tale transplanted to the modern American suburbs for which its creators were so plainly aiming. It works best if you’re willing to meet it somewhere between a quarter and a third of the way.



This review is part of a B-Masters Cabal roundtable on horror anthologies. Click the banner below to read my colleagues’ contributions:




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