That’s Nightmare in a Damaged Brain to you, bubba; give that respect to a film infamous for being a U.K. Video Nasty for several years - an elite list to get onto, yet one with little rhyme or reason - while still remaining relatively unknown. But time has been kind to this wonder, a slasher that would sit comfortably on a shelf beside Maniac, A Clockwork Orange, and Soul. If such a shelf exists.
Released stateside in late October, Nightmare didn’t do much or make an impression; it showed up in the middle of the slasher wave and got swept away with the tide. No matter; tides will come and go, but the nutbar psychology of Nightmare will stick around as long as folks like their grease with a bit of hair in it.
See if your bells start clanging with the familiar: a boy walks in on his dad tied to a bed and being whipped by his dominatrix, and then witnesses them brutally murdered; the boy awakens into a man, screaming loudly as sweat pours down his face. He pulls back the sheets to find a woman’s head, bloodied and unblinking, staring back at him, and he awakens yet again. Mental illness: fueling horror films for generations! Our perspiring perpetrator, George Tatum (Baird Stafford - Dog Tags), has recently been released from prison for doing bad things to a good family, and a secret government cabal (okay, one cigar chomping guy) has pumped him with a heady cocktail of meds that calms his violent and lurid impulses yet gives him wicked dreams.
Meanwhile in Florida, the Temper clan go about their normal business, which involves mom Susan (Sharon Smith - Blast-Off Girls) mostly yelling at her troublesome C.J. (C.J. Cooke) for a practical joke taken too far, or just because she’s a stressed single mom of three and he’s the easiest target. Either way, George starts to have visions of C.J. and vice versa, and before you can say ‘Griswold’ George is on his way from New York to Florida. Being the perpetual wolfcrier, no one will believe C.J. of the impending danger; is he brave enough to take on George?
Okay, it’s Choose-A-Place To Go Adventure Book Time! (I changed it a bit, because I have no money for lawsuits. Or biscuits.) This one must be on me, because I watched Nightmare twice - in a row - and I didn’t make the connection that George is Susan’s ex and the father to her children. Because I’m not sure it’s there. It would make sense, but I somehow missed it. Anyway, if he’s daddy, the story is flatlined - even by 1981 standards; he’s just heading home. But the film shows a connection between George and C.J. that if familial would give credence to the Kink Is Thicker Than Water Theory (no shaming over here), while adding another log on the Fire of Genetic Evil for good measure. There’s some resonance there.
But, if we head towards a negative Maury test for George, then it’s a psychic link between two strangers, which sounds creepier to me; I would (I hope) be able to have a fair idea what’s going on in my dad’s head (if he was alive, that is), but someone I didn’t know? Forget it.
Not that Nightmare makes really any deal at all about their shared visions (hence my confusion as to parentage, a point of which I’m having a hard time letting go, apparently), but knowing that the two forces are destined to meet does add a dash of classic storytelling to the mix, and writer/director Romano Scavolini isn’t afraid to let some of his cast give sub-par performances; a brave stance really, and to be commended. He is also a firm believer that subtlety is a fool’s errand, or gold, or whatever, I’m an idiot. The point is, when he wishes to introduce a set piece, he shovels a slit throat right down yours in extreme close-up. (A shy boy, he isn’t.) But don’t thank Tom Savini, who claims he only consulted on the project even though early prints had him featured; if I were him, I wouldn’t be too worried about viewers confusing this work with his.
I think the real appeal of Nightmare is its earnest attempt to weave a “nurture versus nature” narrative that actually plays pretty well; George’s future is shaped by his past, while C.J. is beholden to his father. Or the stranger. (The spookier one.) And the film does offer up moments for both father and son - or two strangers, let’s put a pin in that, okay - that showcase their pain individually, and ultimately as a family. (Or an upgrade from stranger to acquaintance.) I can’t exactly offer up ‘poignant’ - C.J. is too close to Eight is Enough stunt casting, and George’s anguish is manifested in the occasional moan to the heavens with a forecast of heavy sweat through the entire film. But what Nightmare may lack in couth - I didn’t even mention George’s trips to the peep show - it gains in beheadings. Balance is important.
Nightmare is available on DVD from Code Red.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971)