At the end of Bad Dreams, as GNR’s Sweet Child of Mine starts up over the end credits… I thought, at least director (and co-writer) Fleming has good taste in music. Turns out he didn’t want the song and a studio exec with a better ear put it in the film.
Bummer. It would’ve been nice to be able to pay the film a complement, even if it was a backhanded one. Bad Dreams is a crappy horror movie. There are more offscreen peculiars one could discuss but I’m going to skip them because it’s not a worthwhile rabbit hole. Though maybe it’d be a good inclusion in a piece about late eighties movies, including critical response, cable, home video, whatever.
But I’m not interested enough. I suffered through it real-time. Just like I suffered through Bad Dreams real-time.
The film is not about bad dreams, though we occasionally get to see some bad dreams so Fleming can “reveal” the story back a few minutes and a character here and there reincarnated. It the first shock death didn’t happen… well, Bad Dreams might have had an entertainingly wacky third act. Good thing Fleming turns back the clock so as to avert that possibility. Wouldn’t want Bad Dreams to be entertaining. At all.
There are a lot of problems with the film and most of them involve Fleming, either in the writing, in how he composes shots (safe for pan and scan and home video), in how he doesn’t direct the actors. Top-billed Jennifer Rubin ought to be able to get something out of the part—she’s a coma patient, awake thirteen years after her seventies cult (led by a bad, but appropriately creepy Richard Lynch—the nose hairs alone are blood-curdling) did the mass suicide thing. Only it’s apparently supposed to be a secret lost to time. The police couldn’t confirm any gas cans so they thought the house just exploded on its own, even though there were apparently documentaries about the cult where they talk about how they all want to die. I mean, Sy Richardson is godawful as the cop, but it doesn’t seem like he’s supposed to be any stupider than anyone else in Bad Dreams. The film’s characters are really dumb, with the supposedly smart ones (shrinks Harris Yulin and Bruce Abbott the stupidest of all), but… the mass suicide thing isn’t a stretch. Yet Fleming treats its reveal like a big deal. Or as big of a deal as you can when you’re shooting scenes soap operas would be embarrassed about.
I occasionally wondered if Bad Dreams started its life as some kind of TV movie—it has a lot of supporting characters, who are all one shade of bad (Susan Ruttan’s pretty awful, Elizabeth Daily’s not good, Dean Cameron tries hard and fails) but some of it’s obviously Fleming’s fault. It couldn’t make it as a TV movie, not in acting, directing, writing. Not even in the eighties. Though the terrible costumes definitely make it in the eighties. Young empathetic but clearly incompetent doctor Abbott—who doesn’t think Rubin needs any mental health care after waking up from the coma because he wants to romance her and tells her about it frequently in the second act—wears his denim collared shirt with a tie. The scariest thing in Bad Dreams is Abbott’s wardrobe.
The plot has Rubin in a mental hospital because they can’t find her family so she doesn’t get to leave. They don’t address the aging in the coma thing, from tween to twenty-something. The film’s got zero curiosity about its characters. Cameron, Daily, Ruttan, they’re all in group with Rubin; Abbott runs the group (badly), falls for endlessly traumatized Rubin. The film’s characterization of people getting mental health treatment is real bad. Real bad. Even if you factor in its the eighties, Abbott and Harris don’t even worry about people around the hospital dying until at least four in. Bad Dreams exists in the universe where lawsuits haven’t been discovered yet.
Technically, everything’s pretty bad, quite frankly. Alexander Gruszynski’s isn’t as incompetent as Jeff Freeman’s editing. Jay Ferguson’s music? Bad. The film also loads up The Chambers Brothers’s Time Has Come Today whenever there’s a flashback, which feels often. Fleming’s not just inept, he’s also obvious. His filmmaking is unpleasant to watch. And the cover of My Way when Cameron has his big—and terribly directed—freakout set piece? Icky bad.
Bad Dreams, in general, is icky bad. It’s got nothing going for it. Not even the eighty minute runtime. It’s too dumb even for eighty minutes.
And I didn’t even get into the lousy Bates house knock-off, which ends up being there for Fleming to pretend he’s Andrew Wyeth. Fleming does such a bad job of it, you forget he’s showing an actual ambition for once.