Like Masters of Horror on Showtime, Nightmares and Dreamscapes is a collection of unusual horror stories sans voice-over or narrator, as would be featured on the Twilight Zone, for example. Instead, there is simply an “umbrella” of unity holding the various episodes together. On Masters of Horror, that umbrella is the inclusion of the cinema’s finest horror directors. Here it’s tales (or short stories) of the macabre from Stephen King, still horror’s most successful novelist.
The stories on Nightmares and Dreamscapes run an impressive gamut of styles. “Autopsy Room # 4" stars Gretta Scacchi and Richard Thomas, and concerns a man wheeled into the morgue at a South Carolina hospital after he’s suffered an apparent fatal heart attack on a golf course. Turns out, the corpse (Thomas) isn’t so dead after all...he was bitten by an unusual snake and left paralyzed. The audience hears his desperate thoughts throughout the episode, as the doctors come perilously close to cutting him up. Yes, this is the old chestnut (seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1960s and in Wes Craven’s film The Serpent and the Rainbow in the 1980s...) about a man who appears dead, but is conscious, alert and feeling everything as he is about to be dissected or buried alive. In previous stories, what’s saved the poor wretch’s life is a biological reflex action: a tear rolling down his cheek at just the right instant. Since this is Stephen King, and this master of horror has a wicked sense of humor, the reflex in “Autopsy Room # 4" is something quite different and unexpected. Just as he is about to be cut open, Thomas experiences an...erection for all to see.
“You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” is a totally different sort of entry. Here, bickering married couple Steven Weber and Kim Delaney take a trip through the Pacific Northwest and end up taking a very wrong turn...into a Norman Rockwellian town called “Rock and Roll Heaven.” There, Janis Joplin is a waitress in a local diner, Ricky Nelson is the short-order cook, Otis Redding is the town sheriff, and Elvis Presley is the mayor. Turns out there’s no escape from this corner of the Twilight Zone...oops, I mean “nightmares and dreamscapes,” and the couple is doomed to an unending rock performance by the genre’s greats. This is a fairly disappointing and nonsensical story, and one that fails to scare in the slightest.
One reason why “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” fails so egregiously is that the writer (scenarist King and writer Mike Robe) fail to make any connection between the personalities of the “victims” and their eventual fate...trapped in rock limbo. In classic Twilight Zone episodes such as “Nick of Time,” which finds a superstitious William Shatner held in thrall to a fortune telling machine, there’s a clear connection between personal foible and ironic twist of fate. No such relationship is forged in this episode of the Stephen King series, and so the episode is without real suspense or character interest. In fact, it comes off campy and ludicrous at times. What's the point?
More genuinely thoughtful (if not terribly frightening...) is another chiller, “The End of the Whole Mess,” a stirring story that asks pertinent questions about human nature and the time we live in. Ron Livingston plays Howard Fornoy, a man spending his last minutes of life recounting for a camera (in a video journal...) how the world is going to end. He tells the invisible audience the life story of his brother Bobby (Henry Thomas), a child prodigy - a Da Vinci or Einstein - who finds his “true north” in trying to cure the ultimate human disease. No, not cancer or AIDS. Instead, he hopes to cure “ meanness” and develops a calmative that suppresses human aggression and makes people unwilling or unable to fight. He calls his invention “pacfist white light” and he is able to deliver it to the world, with catastrophic results. See, there’s a side effect he didn’t reckon on. The calmative also causes early Alzheimers...and so the whole population is doomed.
Because it airs on basic rather than premium cable, Nightmares and Dreamscapes is less gory and graphic than Masters of Horror, but the stories are at about the same middling level. Some are stirring and interesting, but most are simply run of the mill. And very few actually scare. These two series are nice to have around in the age of pabulum like Supernatural, but watching both anthologies, it’s clear that ironic (and classy...) touch of Rod Serling is missing. And missed.