Welcome back to Terror Tapes; the weekly feature that would have served us well had we launched Horror Squad back in 1981. Each week I fly in the face of modern technology and submerge myself in a sea of videotape. My goal is to see any and all horror titles that were abandoned in the great format upgrade...for better or for worse. Sometimes I will discover gems whose relegation to forgotten formats represents a true tragedy of technological advancement. Conversely there will also be occasions when I wonder why anyone bothered to recommend a given title for home viewing in the first place; as audiences would have surely been adequately assaulted by the film in theaters.
Today's tape: Nightmares, 1983 Nightmares is an anthology horror film from the early 1980's. It is made up of four vignettes but unlike most anthology horror films, it offers no wrap-around story to link them together. The first story, "Terror in Topanga," is about a serial killer loose in a small town. The second story, "Bishop of Battle," is about a world-class video game player who makes it his mission to reach the final level of the world's toughest game; at his own peril! The third story, "The Benediction," is about a priest who looses his faith and decides to leave his desert parish; an infernal error. Finally, we have "Night of the Rat." This final story is about a family dealing with a massive rodent problem; or a problem with massive rodents. To adequately review this film, I am going to break it down segment by segment.
Terror in Topanga
This is definitely the weakest of the bunch, which is why it is so surprising that it kicks off the film. I'll admit that it opens with a fantastic kill, but beyond that it is not only disproportionately tame but also extraordinarily dull. What is so amazing about this subdued violence is that it completely belies the reason this entire film exists. Apparently these segments were originally written for the short-lived horror television series Darkroom but were declared to be too intense for television. None of the stories, as it turns out, are all that intense--even if Darkroom had aired on Nickleodeon--but where each of the other three segments find creative compensations for their subdued violence, "Horror in Topanga" does not. The character who risks her life to obtain a pack of cigarettes is impossible to empathize with which drains all semblance of tension and the ending is lazily derivative of a tired American urban legend.
Bishop of Battle
This was probably my favorite of the group. This is the segment that boasts the film's tentpole celebrity: Emilio Estevez. This segment is also, as much as all of these fit this same description, the most derivative of the bunch. It is clear that the writer was a big fan of Tron because this story is just an inversion of the concept. Instead of someone getting sucked into a game and having to contend with the parameters of that game within the cyber world, "Bishop of Battle" offers a release of videogame constructs into our world and then forces the unfortunate hero to contend with them in a shopping mall. For all of its aping of Tron, I really enjoyed "Bishop of Battle." It was well-told, well-acted, and undeniably entertaining. I especially love the ending and its "twist."
The person who should have been considered the tentpole celebrity of Nightmares is Lance Henriksen who plays the disenfranchised priest in this segment. I really enjoyed this sequence and would probably designate it as my second favorite. Though it makes about as much sense as trying to brush your teeth with a library card, I liked the idea of a truck being the manifestation of the devil. Not to sound like a broken record or anything, but "The Benediction" is also quite derivative. It is essentially the movie Duel, a personal favorite of mine, with a more complex backstory for the besieged motorist. The one twist on the otherwise blatant Duel plagiarism was that the truck had the ability to burrow underground as if it were a 1974 Ford Graboid.
Night of the Rat
This was a weird little piece. The father of the family was played by Richard Masur (The Thing, It) and the mother by Veronica Cartwright (Alien) so immediately my geek sense was tingling. The basic premise of this segment is pretty dopey, but it's the unexpected additional twist that makes "Night of the Rat" so interesting. It's not just that there is a giant rat in their house, but that the rat has telekinetic powers and begins tormenting the family indirectly. It added an extra level of menace to the monster in their home. I guess the running theme of Nightmares is one of reconstructing various other films, and to look at "Night of the Rat" with that lens one would instantly notice some suspicious similarities to Poltergeist. The whole setup, including the cute little blond girl, smacks of a Poltergeist ripoff. What really creeps me out about this parallel is that the little girl in this segment, much like the ill-fated actress who played Carol Anne, died very young.
Overall I'd have to say Nightmares is one of the best films I've watched for this column. It is incredibly entertaining and most of the performances are at least decent if not impressive. Though every segment manages to find something to steal from another source, casting doubt on its originality, it's almost more of an homage piece than a malicious attempt to capitalize on those sources. While this film did have a DVD release at one time, good luck finding a used copy for less than $50 since it went out of print. Once again, VHS saves the day...hooray!