Saturday, April 2, 2016

#228: Bad Dreams (Andrew Fleming, 1988)

In his first feature film, writer/director Andrew Fleming breathed some kinetic new life into the basic slasher film template, which was on its moldy but still financially successful last legs in 1988. (Wes Craven's Scream -- a film I hate -- kick-started a second wave of slasher flicks in the late '90s, most of which I have little to no interest in.) Fleming's film, like most slasher films, sees a group of people slowly picked off by a psychotic killer, but that's where the similarities end.
Fleming opens his film with a wide shot of a sunrise in rural California, slowly revealing a parked hippie van and a large home to the tune of the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today." Inside are members of what appears to be a '60s-style commune, under the leadership of the creepy Harris (the late Richard Lynch, reliably awesome character actor for when you needed a creepy dude or an action movie bad guy). We will find out that this hippie dream has continued way past its sell-by date (the mid-'70s) and that these never-say-die hippies are actually an always-say-die apocalyptic death cult about to commit mass ritual suicide by fire. Not cool, dudes.
The death hippies burn themselves up, but there is one survivor, Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin). She languishes in a coma for 13 years, but finally wakes up in the late '80s. Without family, friends, money, or any life experience outside of the death cult, she is placed in a Los Angeles mental health facility, where she becomes a member of a borderline personality therapy group under instructions from the institution's director, Dr. Berrisford (veteran character actor Harris Yulin), though she seems more well adjusted than the other members.
The group members include the perpetually smart-assed, self-harming, prone-to-violent-outbursts Ralph (Summer School's Dean Cameron), pathologically shy Lana (Pee-wee's Big Adventure's E.G. Daily), Book of Revelations religious fanatic Gilda (sometime actor and full-time dance choreographer Damita Jo Freeman), suicidal ex-journalist Miriam (Susan Ruttan), and perpetually ashamed Connie (Susan Barnes) and her boyfriend, dangerously impulsive Ed (Louis Giambalvo). The therapist leading the group is kindly Dr. Alex Karmen (Re-Animator's Bruce Abbott), who falls for Cynthia, in the least of the film's many professional ethics violations. Hanging on the periphery is a detective investigating the fire and its many deaths, Wasserman, played by a favorite of mine, Repo Man's Sy Richardson.
Since Cynthia was the only survivor, late cult leader Harris feels she owes him her life. He appears to her from the other side and begins taking out the therapy group members as revenge for her failure to commit to the death cult's final sacrifice. Is he really appearing? Is he a figment of her imagination? Or is something more sinister going on in the facility?
Fleming's direction is confident and energetic, and Bad Dreams doesn't look like the work of a first-timer. The movie is silly and implausible, but it's also creepy, exciting, funny, and suspenseful, and the cast of enjoyable character actors fills the frame with life. (One other cast note: comedian and Roger Rabbit voice Charles Fleischer has a funny cameo as a pharmacist.) Its blend of tones and plots (hippie death cult, mental hospital patients, slasher movie, comedy, nightmare vs. reality) shouldn't work, but it does. I really enjoyed this one.
It's fitting that the film has so many unexpected moments of humor, because Fleming has largely worked in comedy since. I was not a fan of his second film, Threesome, a clunky comedy/drama about college and sexual experimentation starring Lara Flynn Boyle, Josh Charles, and a pre-evangelical Stephen Baldwin, but I enjoyed his third film, The Craft, and the episode of Arrested Development he directed, and I've heard good things about his comedies Dick and Hamlet 2. He's currently working on a comedy with Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan. Fleming's co-writer on Bad Dreams was Steven E. de Souza, one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. His credits include 48 Hrs., Commando, Die Hard, and mega-flop (but liked very much by me) Hudson Hawk

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