Despite a handful of classics that are beloved to horror fans of a certain age, the slasher flick boom of the 1980’s was defined by a certain mediocrity. For every gem in this subgenre, you can name another three or four genre entries that range from “just passable” to actively bad. The barrage of filmmakers that tackled this subgenre, most driven by a gold-rush mentality, made too many similar variations on a simple set of elements too quickly for the slasher flick to maintain a consistency of quality – and the bad entries can really hurt.
One of the worst entries to emerge during that early-1980’s gold rush period of the slasher film was Nightmares, a rare Aussie entry into the genre. On paper, it seems like a decent premise: Helen Selleck (Jenny Neumann) is a young aspiring actress who gets a role in the stage production of a comedy. This means she’s got a lead actor who’s trying to romance her in the form of Terry (Gary Sweet) and a dictator-styled director (Max Phipps) who’s going to give her a hard time.
However, Helen’s got problems no one else in the play knows about: a prologue reveals a childhood trauma where she accidentally caused the death of her adulterous mother in a car crash. She’s dogged by flashes of the past trauma as she tries to grip with the rigors of acting – and the director’s psyche-battering techniques only make it worse. Pretty soon, a mysterious slasher begins bumping off people on the periphery of the production – and it looks like Helen and her coworkers are the next victims in line.
Unfortunately for the viewer, this simple but workable premise is crushed by the often baffling treatment it gets from the cast and crew. The first offender in Nightmares is the awful script from Colin Eggleston, who is better known for directing the Aussie revenge-of-nature favorite Long Weekend. You’d never guess he had a classic on his resume from his work here: the characterizations are as flimsy as they are unpleasant, the structure is too loose for its own good and the story doesn’t even try to set up any red herrings to obscure who the all-too-obvious killer is.
The cast seems at odds with the material. Neumann is downright awful as the traumatized heroine: her character is supposed to have a split personality but Neumann’s work is uniformly flat when portraying either side of it. When she’s required to show hysteria – particularly in a scene where she is supposed to cry then laugh during a rehearsal – she’s unintentionally hilarious. Sweet is passable as her love interest but seems way too chipper to fit into the film’s scenario. Most of the supporting cast fades into the background but Phipps is good in an arch role as the nasty director and John Michael Howson gives his flamboyant all to a role as a crippled, bitchy, corrupt and bisexual theater critic (the director was really working out his issues with critics on this film).
The direction doesn’t help much. Director John Lamond was better known for erotic, often comedic fare – Felicity and Pacific Banana, to name a few – and he’s an uncomfortable fit with the horror genre. He can replicate the surface tics of its style – Garry Wapshall’s prowling steadicam photography shamelessly apes Halloween and Brian May’s blood-and-thunder score cribs from Psycho – but there’s no inspiration in his work beyond trying to fulfill the demands of the slasher flick marketplace.
The one distinguishing characteristic of Nightmares is its high sleaze factor. Slasher movies are often attacked for offering a “have sex and die” message. Lamond not only plays into this assumption, he does so with balls-out bravado: there’s not one but two scenes in which naked, copulating couples are bloodily slashed up by the film’s psycho. These knife-facilitated moments of coitus interruptus are memorably over the top – but they also show a desperation that pervades the rest of this weak, trend-chasing film.
In short, Nightmares is bottom-of-the-barrel stuff as far as slashers go. Even genre aficionados will want to hold off on this one until they’ve exhausted their other options.
[Titles Confusion Department: please note that this film is not be confused with 1983’s Nightmares, which is a horror anthology featuring Emilio Estevez and Lance Henriksen. There’s also another Stage Fright – which has a similar plot with a slasher attacking the rehearsal of a play – but that’s an Italian film from 1987 directed by Argento protégé Michele Soavi… and if you confuse either film with Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, well, you’re just not paying attention.]