Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a man with special abilities to enter the dreams of sleeping clients and influence their subconsciouses is hired by a high-profile client to investigate his dreams and find out important information, but encounters pushback both external and internal that could lead to him never being able to escape the dream world. I’m talking about Inception, right? Wrong. That’s the plot of 1984’s Dreamscape, an underrated sci-fi horror fantasy that’s coming out on a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from the good people at Scream Factory.
Dennis Quaid stars as Alex Gardner, a psychic who abandoned a government research project years ago and now gets by as a hustler, making bets on races for which he can foresee the outcomes. He’s recruited by scientists (Max von Sydow and Kate Capshaw) for a new project in which he will be psychically linked with sleeping patients so he can enter their dreams, first to treat nightmares and later to potentially influence their waking behaviors. Eventually, Alex discovers an assassination plot against the president, who has been having nightmares of a nuclear war for which he fears he will be responsible.
Dreamscape is, like, 75% awesome. It’s the kind of science fiction fantasy that’s bursting with imagination, not just in its premise (which, as we can derive from the box office success of Inception 25 years later, is a clever one), but particularly in its execution. Each dream sequence feels new and different, which is by design. Screenwriter David Loughery says on the Blu-ray’s special features that he designed each dream to feel like another genre, so there’s one that’s more action-based and one that’s more comic and one that feels like a romance and one that’s very much a horror movie. The way that director Joseph Ruben constructs each of the scenes is just short of brilliant—a wonderful mix of rear-screen projection and optical effects, nightmarish practical makeup effects (like a giant snake monster or a horde of zombie-like nuclear holocaust victims), bold lighting, and throwaway details that really do reproduce a dream state in a way not dissimilar to what Wes Craven was doing with A Nightmare on Elm Street that same year.
If it falls short anywhere, it’s in some of the political intrigue; it just doesn’t live up to the visceral impact of the film’s wild, inventive visuals. Still, those concerns are pretty easily shrugged off when the debate over some of these moral and political issues is being had by Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow, or when the endlessly twitchy David Patrick Kelly is playing a weirdo psychic dream assassin hired to take out the president—who, it must be mentioned, is played by Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame. What I like most about the movie is that it never abandons its imagination, never stops trying to surprise us with wild imagery and ideas. It had been so many years since I last saw it that I had forgotten how good it is—or maybe it’s a case of the movie working better now than it ever has before.
Fun fact: this was the second PG-13 movie ever released, having missed being the first by just five days when Red Dawn hit theaters with the brand new rating. In the wake of some shockingly violent scenes in both Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom earlier that summer, the MPAA created the new rating for movies considered too intense for the more family-friendly PG, but not so strict as to keep audiences away with an “R.” I’m no shrinking violet, but Dreamscape really should be an R movie. There’s very little onscreen gore, but some of the scenes are so dark and so scary that it’s a wonder I was allowed to watch this on cable growing up.
There’s also some pretty strong sexuality (one scene has Kate Capshaw sitting on a train and literally spreading her legs open for Dennis Quaid) and multiple F-bombs. I mention this not to complain about the content, but more to lament a time in the 1980s when movies could be darker and edgier than they are now. Sure, PG-13 movies these days can show entire cities reduced to rubble or armies of people mowed down by machine gun fire, but as long as no blood is shown, it’s fun for the whole family. The PG-13 in Dreamscape means that the movie is going to treat us like grownups and take us to some messed-up places.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray marks the second time Dreamscape has been released in the format, but the first time with new bonus features and a brand new 2K scan that brings the movie’s crazy visuals to life more vividly than ever before. The 1080p transfer is clean and bright, even during the optical shots (which can often show damage and debris even in otherwise pristine transfers). While the 2K remastering is less forgiving of some of the effects than cable TV or VHS ever were, I won’t ever complain about some of the more obvious fakery—not only am I just into those kinds of effects, but the movie gets away with it by putting everything in the context of a dream.
The commentary from producer Bruce Cohn Curtis, writer David Loughery, and makeup effects designer Craig Reardon has been carried over from the previous release, as well as a still gallery and a brief camera test of the “snake man” monster that appears multiple times in the movie (read again: this movie has a snake man monster). New to the disc are an hour-long retrospective documentary, interviews with star Dennis Quaid, producer Bruce Cohn Curtis, and producer/co-writer Chuck Russell, and a featurette on the creation of the snake man, plus the original theatrical trailer.
Dreamscape is a cool movie—the kind of imaginative, genre-bending sleeper that was a regular fixture in the 1980s but more or less fell through the cracks once that decade came to an end. It’s never going to be the best-known or best-loved movie about entering dreams, but it has a great cast, terrific special effects, and an endless supply of imagination. I’ll take a movie like that any day of the week.
Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 4/5