Nightmares Come at Night / Les Cauchemars Naissent la Nuit (1970) *
Juniper and I call it the Franco Virus. Even more than with other notable cult filmmakers, developing a taste for Jesus Franco’s movies is like contracting a disease of the esthetic faculties. I became infected the first time I watched The Bare-Breasted Countess, which I initially loved strictly for its staggering awfulness by any ordinary standard of cinematic evaluation. But Franco has something… What’s that pretentious French phrase— je nais se quois? Yeah, he has one of those, and the packet of memetic material that the Franco Virus injects into your brain confers the ability to spot, recognize, and appreciate it even through the titanic incompetence of most of his work from the 70’s on. It also enables you to grasp, once you see a few of his earliest films, that titanic incompetence is a part of whatever Franco’s got, because for him, titanic incompetence was a conscious, deliberate choice. He knew how to make movies that could be understood and enjoyed on normal, commercial terms, but he decided in the late 1960’s to stop doing that, and to devote his energies to bewildering, often intensely personal trash instead. And if you’ve been infected by the Franco Virus, your brain can tune itself to his mad frequency, and those terrible, stupid flicks start to look kind of… well, kind of good— and generally not stupid anymore, either! Considering some of the Franco pictures I’ve been able to find some interest and/or merit in lately (Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula?! Really?!?!), I’d begun to wonder if I was now so hopelessly warped by the effects of the virus that my critical judgement was simply no longer in any way trustworthy when it came to him. Perhaps I’d straight-up lost the ability to look at anything he made and just say, “No— that movie is shit.” Consequently, I found Nightmares Come at Night, Franco’s Al Adamson-like attempt to salvage a film he’d been unable to complete the year before, oddly reassuring. Because seriously, this movie is shit.
Anna de Istria (Diana Lorys, from The Awful Dr. Orloff and The Bloody Judge) has bad dreams. That’s actually most of the movie right there: Anna has bad dreams. Specifically, she dreams about killing people, usually while or right after having sex with them. Her nightmares are very vivid, and elements of them often seem to follow her into wakefulness, with the result that she’s beginning to fear for her sanity— or worse, to fear that her dreams of murder are in some sense real. Anna’s girlfriend, Cynthia (Colette Giacobine, of Night Child and Count Dracula), is not very understanding, nor does Anna appreciate it when Cynthia summons her psychiatrist friend, Paul (Paul Muller, from Nightmare Castle and Eugenie de Sade), to have a look at her. Nevertheless, because Paul is an understanding, sympathetic listener, Anna feels safe to unburden herself of all her fears, worries, and discontents when she finally agrees to talk to him. And that’s most of the movie that remains after we deduct Anna’s dreams: Anna talks to Paul about what’s bugging her.
Anna’s conversations with Paul occasion a great many flashbacks concerning the girl’s past as a stripper in Prague, which is what she was doing when she and Cynthia met. Cynthia regularly came to see Anna perform, and her presence in the audience was inspiring in a way that the attentions of a bar full of male lechers never was; Anna did her best, most arousing stripping under Cynthia’s riveting gaze. Then one night, Cynthia came backstage to make Anna a proposition. Claiming to have connections Western European show business, she urged Anna to leave her current gig behind in favor of accompanying Cynthia to France (or wherever this is supposed to be). With her talent and Cynthia’s industry connections, Anna could be a star! Of course, that isn’t what actually happened. Rather, since taking up with Cynthia, Anna has lived a hermetic existence as the lesbian equivalent of a kept woman, growing increasingly unhappy and increasingly concerned for her mental health.
All of that raises a curious question: what the hell was Anna de Istria— that is, a girl with a noble title— doing dancing in a Prague titty bar in the first place? Well, Anna now confesses to Paul that her name and the identity that comes with it are something between a fraud and a fantasy. She invented them partly because they made her feel better about herself, and partly because a glamorous mystique came in handy in her former profession. That ought to be a bombshell revelation, because unbeknownst to us, Nightmares Come at Night is about to become a sexed-up copy of a Hammer mini-Hitchcock, with Cynthia and Paul attempting to gaslight Anna into murder so that they can gain control of her presumably vast wealth while she’s locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane. When Anna tells Paul that she isn’t really a slumming countess or whatever, she is in effect warning him that there’s no point to his conspiracy with Cynthia. And yet the doctor merely blows off her confession, saying that it makes no difference to him which identity Anna wants to adopt, so long as she sticks with just the one. Nor are Cynthia and Paul the only parties in line for disappointment now that we know there isn’t actually a family fortune in play. The perpetually pantsless girl next door (Soledad Miranda, from Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy) and her beardy boyfriend (Andrea Montchal, of The Demons and Dr. M Strikes) have been counting on Cynthia’s expected windfall to cash in the loot from their latest jewel heist.
In the end, though, both sets of conspirators go right on about their business as Anna’s nightmares grow bloodier and more disturbing. It’s a safe bet the dreams are about to turn prophetic, too, because Cynthia has gotten herself a guy on the side (Jack Taylor, from Orgy of the Vampires and The Ninth Gate), and he looks exactly like the victim in Anna’s most frequently recurrent nightmare. It’s an equally safe bet, however, that he won’t be the only target when the stabbing starts.
Technically, Nightmares Come at Night is my first Soledad Miranda movie— except that it’s just barely a movie, and Miranda is just barely in it. I therefore remain unable to form any opinion of Franco’s tragically short-lived original muse beyond that she had a really nice butt. And sadly, Nightmares Come at Night is so devoid of interest that that qualifies as a major highlight: “Boring dream sequence, boring histrionics from Diana Lorys, boring flashback— Oh, hey! There’s Soledad’s butt again!” The other major highlight— note that definite article; it’s there for a reason— is the incredible getup that Lorys wears during Anna’s nightmare about murdering everybody at a swingers’ party. A virtually non-existent confection of costume jewelry and gold lam( filaments, it makes me imagine and long for Jesus Franco’s A Princess of Mars. Otherwise, this is one of those movies that defy coherent criticism by lacking enough substance to engage on any intelligent basis. Nothing happens very slowly, and it’s entirely pointless to care.