Bad Dreams (1988) Retrospective

In 1975, a cult called Unity Fields commits mass suicide by fire at the behest of its psychopathic leader, Franklin Harris. Only one young woman named Cynthia, a child at the time of the fire, refuses to commit suicide and barely survives the burning of the house where Unity Fields’ cultists lived. Nevertheless, she lies in a coma for thirteen years. After awakening in a hospital, Cynthia is plagued by horrific flashbacks of her childhood at Unity Fields, and is forced to attend experimental group therapy sessions for borderline personality disorder at the facility, led by Dr. Alex Karmen. Karmen is not sure that Cynthia belongs inside the group’s dynamic, but his peer and mentor, Dr. Berrisford, convinces him to help Cynthia to gradually accustom to urban life in a world that has changed a lot in thirteen years. Eventually, Alex sympathizes with Cynthia’s story and tries to help her overcome her fears and feelings of estrangement.

Cynthia is disturbed by a vision she has of Harris drowning Lana, another patient, in a baptismal ceremony; moments later, Lana is found drowned in a swimming pool. Cynthia’s visions become more vivid, and Harris begins to appear to her with his flesh burnt. When her roommate, Miriam, is discharged from the hospital, Cynthia has a vision of Harris in the elevator with her; however, the doors close before she is able to warn her. Miriam is found dead on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, having leapt from a window in what appears to be a suicide. Alex reassures Cynthia that she is not to blame for the deaths, but she is frequently visited by visions of Harris, who claims to have killed his friends and pressures Cynthia to commit suicide, saying that the only way to stop anyone from dying is to take her own life and join him in and Unity Fields’ victims in the afterlife.

A male and female patient who are lovers are later killed by the blades of an industrial fan in the utility room of the hospital, which Cynthia also attributes to Harris. She believes Harris has come back from his death to kill those around her. Ralph, a troubled masochist patient with tendency for violent outbursts, becomes enamored with Cynthia; founding himself on the edge after the deaths of his fellow members in the group, knocks down a policeman who was watching him, and goes to talk to Cynthia, who was spending the night with Dr. Karmen in order to feel safe. When he is distracted, Ralph and Cynthia take an elevator to the basement of the hospital. There, during an apparent episode of psychosis and violence, he commits suicide by stabbing himself multiple times in the abdomen.

Awakening from sedation after the incident, Cynthia finds Harris sitting in her room, calling her his “love child,” and urging her to commit suicide. Shortly after, Harris apparently visits Gilda (a clairvoyant patient who asked Cynthia to fight the person who is haunting her, and to stay alive) in her room. Instead of allowing him to kill her, she drinks formaldehyde she stole from a supply room, effectively killing herself. Meanwhile, Dr. Karmen discovers his corrupt peer, Dr. Berrisford, has intentionally laced the therapy group’s drugs with psychogenic substances, in the hope that it will effectively make the patients suicidal, and thus corroborate Berrisford’s research. Alex realizes that Cynthia’s suicide is the ultimate goal for Berrisford, so he orders the nurses to call the police and Detective Wasserman, who was investigating what happened at Unity Fields before the suicides began. Alex confronts Cynthia, insisting her visions of Harris are not real. He is surprised by Berrisford from behind, who knocks him out and takes Cynthia with him.

Dr. Karmen wakes up and pulls the hospital’s emergency alarm, which elicits chaos. Cynthia goes to the rooftop, where Alex finds her standing on the ledge, with Berrisford at his side, encouraging her to jump. She leaps from the building, but before hitting the ground below, awakens back at the house in which the Unity Fields members committed suicide. There, she is confronted by Harris, who welcomes her; however, it is only a vision, and she awakens to Alex holding her by the arm as they both dangle over the ledge. Berrisford, knowing that Dr. Karmen has discovered his plot, stabs Alex’s hand and attempts to push him to his death as well. His attempt is thwarted by the arrival of the police and Wasserman, who help Alex and Cynthia to climb back. Berrisford uses the distraction to grab one of the cops revolver, and readily insists that Dr. Karmen is responsible for altering the patients’ medication and the suicides. Alex explains the police that things are the other way around and shows how Berrisford stabbed his hand. Knowing that all of his schemes have failed, Berrisford pulls the stolen revolver and pretends to commit suicide, but quickly points the gun towards Alex. Before he shoots, Cynthia finally confront his fear of Harris, realizing that Berrisford is a totally different person, and reacts by charging and pushing him over the ledge to his death.

The authorities retire from the rooftop. While being comforted there by Dr. Karmen, Cynthia has another brief vision of Harris climbing back from the edge of the building and trying to grab her, which scares her for a second. Alex shakes Cynthia and reassures her that her nightmares are over and there is nothing to fear anymore. She calms down and they both tightly embrace one another.

Gale Anne Hurd, producer of the blockbuster ALIENS, is someone with Hollywood clout. With her kind of support, it’s easy to understand why the Fox hierarchy gave an unknown NYU graduate with only his thesis film and a number of rock videos to his credit the shot at directing a $4 million feature.

Bad Dreams also had another ace up its sleeve. “It’s a pretty simple project in terms of locale and therefore has minimal logistical problems,” Fleming says affably. “That’s probably why Fox agreed. The story is also strong in character and very dramatic in terms of the interactions within a confined space.”

The movie, produced by Hurd, stars Bruce Abbott, Jennifer Rubin, Harris Yulin, and Richard Lynch, who plays the evil antagonist, a supernatural Charles Manson figure who won’t stay dead. Bad Dreams begins in the early 1970s. Unity Field is a large old house surrounded by lush countryside. A commune left over from the ’60s, its group philosophy is one of free love, not just in terms of random sex but in becoming “One with the Family.” What appears a peaceful lifestyle, however, has dark undercurrents. Cynthia, a 13-year-old child of the flower generation, wants to leave. But Harris (Lynch), the charismatic leader of the group, has other plans for her. She is special.

Hurd doesn’t see Bad Dreams as a combination of other films’ sequels, either. “It is an incredibly compelling screenplay,” she raves. “A real page turner, and it deals with areas that I don’t think this particular genre has examined before. Creating new genres is something that appeals to me very much-tackling subjects that converge and may have been treated separately on a number of occasions, but never together. In this movie we’re dealing with several ideas. If you want to compare it to other films, then I see it as combining One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Haunting. The elements we have that are normally connected with a genre movie are very much part of the drama as it unfolds, rather than just being there for shock purposes.”

“The 1960s are kind of an exotic era,” he opines. “The ’50s were rather innocent, the ’70s rather boring, and it’s something that really hasn’t been tapped. I mean, it’s starting to; it’s becoming a faddish thing, especially in music, but not really in movies. It was such a weird period of change. I have very vivid memories of that time. My parents were part of that culture, though more Bohemian than hippie. So it seemed an interesting point to start from.

“I’m not really a horror movie kind of person,” he continues. “I don’t favor them over other types of film. I like movies, period. So it wasn’t a commercial consideration to aim for this kind of picture as my debut, horror movies being fairly safe bets financially. When we started writing the script, which was originally called Spirit, it was just too weird to be considered really commercial. It has horror elements, but I see it more as a psychological thriller. Bad Dreams has comedy, suspense, a lot of different things. It’s a weird mixture of tones.”

Fleming, like Hurd, is not attracted to the genre because of what has gone before, but because he feels there is much potential still to be explored. “If you just stick to the formula, what can you do but make it more or less within those limits?” he shrugs. “But if you play with people’s expectations, switch them around, then you have more freedom, and hopefully the audience has more fun. This film seems to be going in one direction, then it switches gears, then it does it again. For me, that’s very exciting. Don’t get me wrong, this story has horror in it, but this movie is a cross-pollination of elements.” Fleming emphasizes that this picture will not be typical. “There are a fair number of effects,” he admits. “But this is not an effects movie per se. What will be shown is meant to be real, not something fantastical.’

Bad Dreams’ makeup-FX are being handled by Michele Burke, who won an Oscar for her work on Quest for Fire. “We have a throat slitting, numerous burn makeups, false heads, severed limbs-the usual type of effects for a horror film,” explains Michele Burke, who quickly credits Richard Snell as her main Bad Dreams FX assistant. “There are about 15 or 16 main effects I’ve had to design and construct. Not major sequences that require complicated setups, but they act as certain punctuation marks throughout the story.”

The most demanding effect Burke had to contend with was Richard Lynch’s character, Harris. ‘His makeup is intended to be the most dramatic, since he frightens both Cynthia and the audience,” Burke points out. “He is a ghastly apparition, yet a very realistic one. Harris is basically a char-broiled human.”

For research purposes, Burke visited the Brothman Burn Center, where Michael Jackson received treatment after his accident on the infamous Pepsi commercial. “It’s one of the leading centers for burns,” Burke informs us.
“I spent quite a while there. Then I brought Andy Fleming along to show him a specially arranged slide show of people who have been hideously scarred. From that point, we could gauge just how Harris should look.

“We have two mechanical hands,” the artist goes on. “There’s one that looks like a normal hand; Tim Lawrence did the mechanics for that.

“A character slams it down onto a knife, it moves, then it is pulled off the blade. They wanted to do this in one take, so that’s what we came up with. The second is a mechanical skeletal hand that appears at the movie’s end. Additionally, there is a hand with a finger that suddenly bursts into flames. Harris points it at Cynthia, the finger ignites, then he blows it out. And there’s a burning head for Harris, but that’s not articulated, because it’s for a quick intermediary shot of him as the film cuts from a medium shot of several roasted bodies to him.”

Let’s not forget the sequence where the remains of two minced characters flow out of an air vent. Cue buckets of gore, meaty body parts including a mangled arm, and the corridor walls run red. “I think the body bits were coagulated chunks of Campbell’s vegetable soup to soak up the blood,” Burke reveals, laughing. “I understand it looks like lumps of gore-drenched vomit.”

Fleming does not deny Bad Dreams’ scare factor, but stresses his emphasis on characterization. “You always have people who fall by the wayside, as it were, who are killed off in this kind of story. But what I want to convey is that it’s not just a body count-these are people you care about. The characters in this film are confined by their neuroses in one way or another. They are real, tragic people, and I want the audience to feel for them.”

“I don’t think we’re hurting for lack of rehearsal,” Fleming continues. “I’ve been in situations where you rehearse and rehearse, and you end up stale.”

“This is a complicated film,” Jennifer Rubin continues. “There’s a lot of symbolism in the script. The house represents the family and the fire represents incest, and Dr. Berrisford (Harris Yulin) is a father figure.”
Pretentious? Maybe. But Rubin is very excited about her first starring role. “There are so many things going on within this one character. There’s the drug thing, the incest stuff, the love part and,” she rolls her eyes, “the blood! I’m just the girl whom everyone wants to manipulate, so I’m caught in the middle of all this weirdness.”

With all that going on in the story, Rubin found preparing for her part highly problematical. “I was going to read all those ’60s books, like Timothy Leary’s stuff where he talks about taking acid and the flashback experience, ’cause certain scenes in the script brought to mind all the ‘horror stories about people who took too much LSD. Well, I tried, but I couldn’t get into any of that stuff. It didn’t really mean anything on paper. You need to have that experience firsthand, and there was no way I was going to take a lot of drugs to find out.

“It is a real psychological role,” Rubin adds. “I said to the director, “Look, I really need to be directed in this movie. You’re going to have to draw out what you need, ’cause I’m not going to open my mouth until you do.’ It probably sounds like I felt real awkward. I wasn’t, but certain scenes need to be played a specific way, and that’s just what I needed. This is the first movie where I’ve had to rely entirely on the director to get me through. Since the character’s background is rather hazy, I need his vision to push me through.”

All of this makes the role sound like a very challenging one. “It’s quite frightening in terms of the different time periods,” Rubin concurs. “I could have put my hair 10 different ways. Seriously, I was going to do the early scenes where Cynthia is a teenager, and we tried out various hair pieces but it didn’t work. She wouldn’t appear as vulnerable as she needs to be.”

Whatever the script’s demands, director Andrew Fleming has nothing but praise for the young actress. “Jennifer’s excellent,” he extols. “She was my first choice for the part, but the studio, 20th Century Fox didn’t want her. They wanted a name.”

“I don’t think they realized just how heavy this script is,” Rubin frowns. “And, quite honestly, I don’t think a ‘name’ would have been enough to make it work. This role is a serious actress’ dream. Andy believed in me, and I believed in the script. He fought to have me in the film, which I really appreciated, especially since it’s his first feature.”

They tried to spin it off from the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. I signed a three picture deal with Fox in the hopes that it would work. When you deal with those kinds of pictures, you can’t get cheap. But they called it a no-frills production, which is exactly what it was. It could’ve taken off. but you have to put the money up on the screen, so it didn’t take off. – Richard Lynch

“There’s some good, strong material here,” adds Bruce Abbott. “It’s a different type of film than Re-Animator, but very enjoyable.”

“I did some research for the Bad Dreams role,” he discloses. “I won’t say at what hospital, because it wasn’t really legal, but I got to attend a number of in-patient therapy sessions through a medical friend who allowed me to sit in. Not just group meetings; I was also able to see how the therapists and staff meet afterwards to discuss progress. Everyone studies a little psychology in college, but I figured it would be beneficial to get some firsthand experience, since these doctors study for 13 years. I needed a crash course in watching the inner workings, especially to see what borderline personalities are like, so I could make comparisons with the script. The doctors need to get very close to their subjects, yet remain detached at the same time. It was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen.”

Abbott got the part of Alex Karman in Bad Dreams through the recommendation of the movie’s producer, Gale Anne Hurd, whom he knows socially. Both Abbott and his wife, actress Linda Hamilton, are close friends with Hurd and her husband, writer/director James Cameron.

Bad Dreams director Andrew Fleming agreed immediately with Hurd’s suggestion. “Bruce is a fine actor,” Fleming states. “I’d seen ReAnimator, so I knew what he was like. He has the right looks and the acting experience to pull something like this off. Bruce can be very professional one minute and do off-the wall stuff the next, which is just what we needed. Alex’s character starts off seeming very straight and orthodox. Then, as events in the story switch around, he becomes more manic.”


Andrew Fleming

Gale Anne Hurd

Andrew Fleming
Steven E. de Souza

Andrew Fleming
Michael Dick
P.J. Pettiette
Yuri Zeltser

Jay Ferguson

Jennifer Rubin as Cynthia Weston
Bruce Abbott as Dr. Alex Karmen
Richard Lynch as Franklin Harris
Dean Cameron as Ralph Pesco
Harris Yulin as Dr. Berrisford
Susan Barnes as Connie
John Scott Clough as Victor
E. G. Daily as Lana
Damita Jo Freeman as Gilda
Louis Giambalvo as Ed

Shock Cinema#036

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