Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: N is for Nightmares (1983)

From the silents, to sound, to color, the anthology format has been around since the beginning of motion pictures. In fact, a staple of cinematic horror, the anthology -- a series of unrelated vignettes linked together by a common theme -- would seem to have a brief renaissance during each passing decade, going through a period of waxing and waning, but really seemed to catch fire in the 1960s, where you had Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1964) and Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962).

And then the format really took off in England, where Amicus was busting hump trying to compete with rival Hammer Studios and found great success, drawing inspiration from the small screen terrors of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the four-color shocks of EC Comics, with tales of the macabre and ironic consequences in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Torture Garden (1967), then surging into the 1970s with The House that Dripped Blood (1971), Tales from the Crypt (1972), Asylum (1973) and The Vault of Horror (1973) until the cycle essentially ended with Tales that Witness Madness (1973).

The format was dusted off again in the 1980s when author Stephen King and George Romero teamed up for Creepshow (1982), which was followed up with the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), and Cat’s Eye (1985), which was also based on a bunch of King’s short-stories. Somewhere in the middle of all that came Nightmares (1983), which promised to bring four of your worst bad dreams to life that you’d never forget and, ergo, would never be the same. Allegedly.

Now, unlike a lot of its à la carte brethren, Nightmares eschews any kind of linking wraparound segment and just lets the audience cannonball right into the deep end of the pool after a brief opening credit sequence played out against a storm-ridden, Salvador Dali-esque hellscape as rendered by an Atari 2600, which dumps us right into the first of four segments, Terror in Topanga.

Cold opening or not, the blood is soon flying as a police officer is ambushed after a traffic stop and stabbed to death, the latest victim of a deranged killer who has been plaguing the area. This we learn by listening in on the 10 o’clock news as a mother struggles to put her rowdy children to bed, which also encourages citizens to stay indoors after dark until the killer is caught. But once the kids are tucked in, Lisa (Raines) realizes she’s out of cigarettes and tries to sneak out of the house to go for more -- only to be caught by her husband, who forbids this because, remember, there’s a psycho on the loose out there looking for his sixth pin-cushion

But, with nicotine being such a harsh mistress, Lisa manages to sneak out anyway. And after a few ominous twists and turns down a dark and lonely canyon road involving a suspicious looking hitchhiker and an even more suspicious spazoid-of-a store clerk at her destination, with a fresh pack in hand, a rattled Lisa heads for home only to realize her car is dangerously low on gas. 

Alas, with it being so late and all, the well-lit gas-stations in town are all closed for the night, leaving Lisa with only one option: the spooky secluded station on the side of that same canyon road -- complete with a suspicious attendant (Sanderson), who seems less interested in filling up her tank and more interested in getting the driver out of her car. 

At this point, it won’t take a genius to figure out where all of this is headed as the constantly absent-minded Lisa also forgot to lock her car when she went in for smokes at the other convenience store. Thus, like the well-worn urban legend of yore, the real threat has been hiding in her backseat all along; and so, of course, while she resists, the attendant, despite Lisa’s best misguided efforts at self-preservation nearly thwarting her own rescue, manages to save her from the real killer (Ving) in time.

From there, we abruptly cut to the next segment, The Bishop of Battle, where we find J.J. Cooney (Estevez) at the local arcade, hustling other gamers out of their quarters with the help of his friend, Zock (Jacoby). And Cooney needs all the quarters he can get his hands on, too, as he tries to conquer the hottest new video game, The Bishop of Battle. Seems no one has managed to reach the last level of the game yet. Rumors abound that a couple of guys one town over managed to crack this legendary 13th level, meaning it can be done, which Cooney echoes constantly as one attempt after another and quarter after quarter only ends in defeat. And so he plays on -- and on and on and on until the arcade closes and Cooney is forcibly evicted by the manager on a nightly basis.

Things have gotten so obsessively compulsively bad for Cooney his grades at school are even starting to slip, triggering an intervention with his parents, who ban their son from the arcade and ground him indefinitely. But sticking with the theme, here, Cooney sneaks out after dark and breaks into the arcade, where he finally manages to beat the game. But as he celebrates, things go staggeringly awry as the console seems to violently implode, releasing all the digital foes from the game into the real world who swarm and attack the disbelieving player.

And as the laser-bolts fly and the room is rocked with explosions, using the laser-pistol from the game, Cooney defends himself, destroying the arcade in the process. As this firefight rages on, Cooney manages to escape into the parking lot where he falsely believes he is safe until the Bishop materializes out of the ether and closes in on the terrified player.

Jump cut to the next morning, where a search for the missing teen brings his family and friends to the arcade, where everything appears back to normal, even the Bishop of Battle game, whose screen flashes to life with a few quick frames of Cooney’s face before he turns into a digitized character, who claims to be the new Bishop and challenges the next player to insert a quarter as those gathered around watch agog.

Next, we crash-cut again to our next tale of the supernatural, The Benediction, which focuses on a priest named MacLeod (Henriksen), who is suffering through a crisis of faith when he can’t come to existential terms with the Almighty always allowing bad things to happen to good people after the violent death of an innocent young boy. And so, no longer able to make good and evil compute properly, he quits his parish in a small desert community, packs up his car, and prepares to leave but not before another priest (Plana) tries and fails one last time at reconsideration, and then gives his friend a flask of holy water as a going away present to “keep him safe” on his travels.

From there, this morality play quickly morphs into a gonzo mash-up of Spielberg’s Duel (1971), where a psychotic trucker tries to run down a hapless driver, Elliot Silverstein’s The Car (1977), where a demonic hot-rod terrorizes a desert community, and Tremors (1990), for reasons you wouldn’t believe even if I told you, as the ex-priest is accosted on the road by someone (or some thing) in a black 4x4 (-- which, if I didn't know any better, appears to have been swiped off the set of The Fall Guy and painted black).

Some wild stunt driving ensues as the protagonist’s car is reduced to a pile of scrap, leading to a pretty intense game of cat and mouse -- or graboid and mouse as at one point the truck takes to the earth and starts plowing around like Bugs Bunny looking for Pismo Beach. (Told ya you wouldn’t believe it.) Anyhoo, remember that holy water? Yeah, me too, and so does MacLeod, who uses it like the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, which vaporizes the devil truck; and this miracle will eventually lead him down a road of personal salvation.

This redemption also leads us to our last episode, Night of the Rat, which dumps us in the suburbs where a husband and wife are kerfuffling over how to handle a most probable rat infestation. Seems Claire (Cartwright) and their daughter, Brooke (Andersen), have been hearing something crawling inside the walls and, assuming its rats, wants to call in a professional exterminator. Unfortunately, her husband, Steven (Masur), thinks she’s just hearing things at first and then refuses to cough up the money for professional help and buys a bunch of cheap traps instead. And while this proves moderately successful with the death of one rat, this seems to escalate the violence of the rest of the rodents as things start falling apart all around them.

And after finding what’s left of the family cat, Claire takes matters into her own hands and calls in an exterminator (Hague), who surveys the extensive damage and claw marks, and then finds evidence these vermin have chewed holes into the walls of the house, creating a virtual maze, with access to every room; and there’s even evidence they’ve been chewing on the power cables. But what really concerns the exterminator is the size of these bite-marks.

Fearing they are dealing with a Das Teufel Nagatier -- a nigh indestructible “devil rat," the exterminator tries to warn the couple of the real danger they’re in but Steven will hear none of it. This, of course, comes back to bite him in the ass as a night fraught with tension follows as things really go bump in the night. Sure, the segment kinda falls apart with the big revelation of the actual culprit as it menaces Brooke (-- a pig-sized, green-screened in rat), who seems to be able to communicate with it; and together, they teach this couple a much needed lesson in family bonding. And it was really hard to type that while trying to keep a straight face.

Okay, then, while anthology films kinda petered out in the 1970s the format found safe refuge on the small screen, thanks in most part to Dan Curtis, who sent many children to bed with a bad case of the drizzles back then, thanks to his telefilms Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Dead of Night (1977) and, to a lesser extent, the Kolchak films and The Night Stalker TV series. 

And at the dawn of the 1980s, when slasher films started lighting up the box-office, several TV executives were looking to cash in, hoping to draw in that same viewer demographic, which is why William Sackheim found ABC ready, willing, and able to produce his proposed horror anthology series, Darkroom, which I go into more detail here. But from the very beginning, that series would have trouble with the censors and caused a huge backlash from parental groups over violent and gruesome content, which soon found the network yanking Darkroom off the air after only seven episodes.

Now, for the longest time an entrenched rumor speculated that several of those unused or un-aired episodes of Darkroom that were deemed to be too unseemly were repackaged and released theatrically as Nightmares. Turns out that’s not quite true. Close, but not quite. Seems Nightmares can be traced back to producer Andrew Mirisch and screenwriter Christopher Crowe, who were hired by NBC to create their own horror anthology pilot to compete with their rival network. Both had some experience with this kind of format with the rotating tales in The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries, and both Mirisch and Crowe had worked on Darkroom in some capacity, which is probably how that long held assumption got started.

As envisioned, Nightmares would be a half hour show featuring a new self-contained tale each week. But to get it sold and go to series the duo hired prolific TV and feature film director Joseph Sargent -- Colossus the Forbin Project (1970), The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), to shoot the two-hour pilot movie. But when it was finished, the network got cold feet after the harsh reaction to Darkroom and decided to just shelve it.

However, someone at Universal got wind of this and decided to try and salvage the production costs by repackaging it as a theatrical release, even going so far as shooting some new graphic inserts to try and punch things up and harden its R-rating a bit, most notably the opening segment where the police officer is brutally killed, which seems rather incongruous with the rest of the production. According to the credits, Dean Mitzner, who had worked on TRON (1982), was the production designer for the video game sequence, which went so far over-budget it nearly sunk the pilot. And perhaps they should’ve saved some of that money to try again with the giant rat F/X at the end of segment four?

Mirisch and Crowe would fare better when they resurrected Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1985, where it competed with a similarly resurrected The Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories. And with the proliferation of syndicated packages and original series on pay channels, which tended to take less heat from network censors, the anthology format once more had a boom with Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, The Hitchhiker, Tales from the Crypt, Freddy’s Nightmares, and The Ray Bradbury Theater. One could almost consider it the golden age of the format.

The most frustrating thing about this kind of format, however, is trying to remember which segment belongs to what program or film. Was that a Zone or an Outer Limits? I don’t remember seeing Nightmares in the theater back in 1983 but I clearly remember the video game segment and that superimposed rat, which I honestly thought belonged to Tales from the Darkside, so maybe I did? Overall, the film ain’t all that terrible and actually overachieves in a few spots with some genuine chills but it just can’t quite shake its small screen origins. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the difference is blatantly apparent. 

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 14 down with 12 to go, making us officially over the hump!!!

Nightmares (1983) Universal Pictures / EP: Andrew Mirisch, Alex Beaton / P: Christopher Crowe / AP: Alan Barnette / D: Joseph Sargent / W: Christopher Crowe, Jeffrey Bloom / C: Mario DiLeo, Gerald Perry Finnerman / E: Michael Brown, Rod Stephens / M: Craig Safan / S: Cristina Raines, Joe Lambie, Lee Ving, William Sanderson, Emilio Estevez, Billy Jayne, Lance Henriksen, Tony Plana, Richard Masur, Veronica Cartwright, Bridgette Andersen


Brother Bill said...

"The most frustrating thing about this kind of format, however, is trying to remember which segment belongs to what program or film. Was that a Zone or an Outer Limits? "

A frustration referenced in the opening of Twilight Zone:The Movie... while discussing Twilight Zone plots, Dan Aykroyd mentions the one with the stopwatch that could freeze time (A Kind of Stopwatch) and Brooks (wrongly) insists that was actually an Outer Limits episode.

W.B. Kelso said...

Yes! I was totally referencing that. But post TZtM, it's like was that a MONSTERS? Or was it a RAY BRADBURY THEATER? Or maybe it was a TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE?

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