If you loved horror anthology shows, the 1980’s were a magical time: throughout the decade, fans of small-screen horror were treated to a revived version of The Twilight Zone, Tales From The Darkside, Friday The 13th: The Series, Amazing Stories, etc. Universal Studios even took a pilot film for this kind of series and refashioned it into a theatrical release called Nightmares. The results didn’t win over many critics but found a cult following via cable and VHS screenings — and they hold a certain nostalgic pull for ‘80s horror anthology buffs.
Unlike most horror anthologies, Nightmares dispenses with a framing device altogether and just unfurls a series of four stories. “Terror In Topanga” involves a housewife (Cristina Raines) going on a late-night cigarette run and finding herself at the mercy of a serial killer. “The Bishop Of Battle” revolves around a teen (Emilio Estevez) who tries to beat the final level of a videogame that gives the segment its title, only to find it has some unusual tricks up its sleeve. “Benediction” is a Duel-inspired tale about a priest (Lance Henriksen) who has lost his faith fighting off a mysterious, homicidal truck. Final tale “Night Of The Rat” pits a suburban family (including Richard Masur and Veronica Cartwright) against a resourceful and possibly unearthly vermin.
Both mainstream and genre critics have snubbed Nightmares over the years. In fairness to them, it’s not out to redefine the genre. The stories are simplistic in terms of plotting and characterization, the scares are pretty low-octane throughout all the stories and the special effects vary in quality (“Night Of The Rat” is the most criticized segment in this respect). Some fans also feel cheated by the fact that the film has lightweight, t.v. quality overall: a bloody murder was added to the beginning to bump it up to R-rated status but otherwise the film is light on violence or any other objectionable content for something released during the slasher-movie era.
That said, that lightweight, t.v.-friendly quality of Nightmares is exactly what makes it catnip to viewers who grew up on a steady diet of horror anthology t.v. shows. There is a definite “comfort food” appeal to the modest, fast-moving tales collected here, all of which benefit from a shivery score by Craig Safan (the scariest thing about the film) and sturdy, economical direction by t.v. and movie vet Joseph Sargent.
It also helps that the cast is quite likeable. Raines enjoys having a scream queen moment in “Terror In Topanga,” which also includes bit roles for William Sanderson and Lee Ving(!). Elsewhere, Estevez does a dry-run for his Repo Man performance in “The Bishop Of Battle” and Henriksen’s unexpectedly soulful performance in a familiar type of role gives “Benediction” a weight it would not otherwise have. On the latter note, Masur and Cartwright give energetic, professional performances in “Night Of The Rat” that go a long way towards bolstering its questionable visual effects.
Finally, children of the ‘80s will feel a definite sense of nostalgia when watching this of-its-time film. In this respect, Nightmares hits a true nostalgic high with “The Bishop Of Battle,” which goes all in on the early ‘80s trappings. Though simply plotted, it does a great job of capturing the “Pac Man Fever” era of video gaming and the mania it bred in kids. Further period flavor is added by Estevez listening obsessively to ‘80s West Coast punk via his Walkman, particularly Fear and Black Flag, and there’s even a cameo from a young Moon Unit Zappa. Topping it all off are the best special effects in the film via some wild, Tron-influenced optical FX that lend the segment some nice, distinctly Reagan-era eye candy.
Simply put, Nightmares might be an underachiever in legitimate critical terms but anyone who grew up on ‘80s small-screen scares will find that is has plentiful nostalgic delights to offer alongside its horror-lite cheap thrills.
Blu-Ray Notes: This title just made it to the high-def realm via a blu-ray edition from Scream Factory. In a particularly nice touch, the viewer is offered both widescreen and full-frame versions. Both versions offer a nice uptick in color and detail so it comes down to whether of not you’re nostalgic for VHS-era framing. The mono audio is presented in lossless form and offers a quality presentation of a straightforward mix.
A few extras are also thrown in. The biggest is a commentary track that features producer Andrew Mirisch and star Cristina Raines, with Shaun Chang serving as moderator. Mirisch and Raines’ memories sometimes fail them but they offer some interesting details on the film’s genesis as a t.v. project and its unusual path to the big screen as well as some fun casting stories (the tale about Lee Ving’s casting is pretty interesting). Chang keeps the participants going with a steady stream of questions and supplies plentiful trivia to bolster their recollections.
The bonus features are rounded out by a fun trailer that sells the movie aggressively and a couple of radio spots that use the kind of old-school creepy narration favored by the trailer.