Friday, October 19, 2012

The Films of 1983: Nightmares

Although originally produced for television, the theatrically-released horror anthology Nightmares (1983) gave the bigger-budgeted Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) a run for its money, at least in terms of quality. 

Where The Twilight Zone movie sought to remake familiar old stories, adding just a few new details and stylistics in the process, Nightmares, directed by Joseph Sargent, lunges full-bore instead into horror territory. 

It does so by exploiting the then-popular slasher sub-genre for one macabre tale (“Terror in Topanga”), and the 1983 obsession with evil computers/technology for another (“The Bishop of Battle.”)  

But commendably, all the tales featured here express something critical about our human nature.  This social commentary is light and non-preachy (which is good), and it focuses like a laser on our foibles.  Two stories concern the perils of addiction, one revolves around spirituality or belief, and another concerns the blowback that occurs when we don’t treat others as we might want to be treated.

Though not without faults, Nightmares is probably a better movie, pound-for-pound than Twilight Zone: The Movie.  In part this is so because Nightmares seems to know and understand precisely what its mission should be: to scare the living daylights out of the audience

Homage and tribute (the motivating forces in Twilight Zone: the Movie) are valid and respectable filmmaker choices on an intellectual or cerebral basis, but at some point, audiences want -- at a basic level -- for a horror movie to consistently scare them. Twilight Zone’s final tale, George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” accomplishes that task ably, but it’s too little too late

By the same benchmark of generating goose-bumps and screams, Nightmares largely succeeds.  Technically, it isn’t always more than workman-like in its visual compositions, but one can still appreciate that Nightmares wastes no time and no breath on anything but delivering horrific business.

Greetings Earthlings…try me if you dare…”

In Nightmares, the viewer experiences four ‘bad dreams” or macabre tales. 

In the first, “Terror in Topanga,” a suburban wife (Christina Raines) makes a late night run for cigarettes even through a psychotic killer has been reported loose in the nearby Topanga area.

In the second nightmare, “The Bishop of Battle,” a video game arcade jockey J.J. (Emilio Estevez) attempts to beat an impossible video game, “The Bishop of Battle,” by reaching its storied 13th level.  He achieves his goal, but the outcome is not what he might have wished for.

The third tale, “The Benediction, stars Lance Henriksen as Father Frank McLeod, a priest who has lost his faith and re-discovers it, unexpectedly, after a run-in with a malevolent pick-up truck apparently driven by the Devil.

Finally, “Night of the Rat” features a nice suburban family -- the Houstons (Richard Masur, Veronica Cartwright, and Bridgette Anderson) -- unexpectedly battling an over-sized and quite bothersome rodent in their house: a monster rat. 

“Terror in Topanga”

The first story in Nightmares is one based on a widely-disseminated urban legend, and one first reported in 1968.  This story is known as “the killer in the back seat,” and it universally involves a woman who goes out alone at night and comes to learn that there is a killer hiding in her car. 

Many variations of the story involve the woman driver discovering her dark passenger only accidentally, when someone she distrusts (such a suspicious-seeming male gas station attendant…) finds a crafty or unexpected way to notify or rescue her.  In large part, the moral of the urban legend is probably two-fold.

First, and in undeniably sexist terms, women shouldn’t go out alone at night.  And secondly, don’t judge a book by its cover.  That creepy guy with the lazy eye might save your life.

However, “Terror in Topanga” adds a new wrinkle to this familiar old tale by involving a timely vice as the reason of the night-time road trip. Here, Raines’ character can’t make it through the night without a cigarette, and despite the warnings and the danger, she blunders ahead and her path crosses, inevitably, with the psycho-killer.  The particular moral of this story is: don’t smoke.  Smoking will kill you.  And if the cigarettes don’t do it themselves; then the addiction surely will.  Raines’ character puts a fine point on this theme when she notes “Non-addicts cannot understand.”  Indeed.

“Terror in Topagana” is short and sweet, and authentically scary. I’m sure you’ve felt this sensation yourself, but there’s a special adrenaline rush, when you drive out alone at night…when everyone else is slumbering.  Maybe you’ve got to pick up someone at the airport.  Or maybe you just want to be alone and take a drive on a country road.  Regardless, there’s electricity in the night air, and a feeling that you are somehow “alone” and stealing time as the rest of the world sleeps.  “Terror in Topanga” expresses this feeling very well, and then layers in the terror expertly.  First, we learn a serial killer is on the loose. Then we get our red-herrings (like the creepy gas station attendant), and finally, we get the didactic message.  A pack of smokes isn’t worth dying for.

Horror movie fans may note that Urban Legends (1998), also opened with “the killer in the back seat” tale.  If you’ve seen Nightmares, then the Urban Legends opening scenario plays like a moment-by-moment remake…and not necessarily an improvement.

“The Bishop of Battle”

As I’ve noted in my other “films of 1983” pieces here on the blog, malevolent video games and computers were the flavor of the day for blockbuster films in this era.  Movies from Blue Thunder to WarGames to Superman III to Never Say Never Again all featured the thematic and narrative through-line involving dangerous technology run amok. 

In the same vein, Nightmare’s second tale, “Bishop of Battle,” gazes at the video game arcade culture of the day and pinpoints another addict, J.J., and his electronic world.  Unlike Raines’ character in “Terror in Topanga,” however, J.J. is addicted to video games; so much so, in fact, that his grades in school are dropping and he’s on the verge of losing his girlfriend. J.J. (Estevez) even physically looks like a drug addict with his sweaty palms and brow, and red-blood shot eyes. 

J.J.’s addiction leads him to an obsessive, non-stop campaign to beat Level 12 of the “Bishop of Battle,” a video game domain with attack ships, enemy soldiers, and whizzing laser beams.  Eventually, J.J. does win the challenge, but the game strikes back, manifesting its minions and world in our consensus reality. 

The story’s surreal (yet oddly disturbing…) sting in the tail/tale finds J.J. now enslaved inside the video game world, the (controlled) avatar for all future players.  His life is perpetual servitude to the Bishop, and again, that’s a metaphor for addiction.  The habit is your master, here literally and metaphorically. 

“The Bishop of Battle” is likely the best remembered of Nightmares’ four tales, and I submit that’s because at the time of the film’s release it felt like the most cutting-edge story. Video games were a national obsession at that point, and many parents and authorities loudly and publicly wondered if video games could be bad for youngsters.  Like all the best horror tales, “The Bishop of Battle” effectively exploits a contemporary societal fear, whether or not that fear happens to be rational or realistic.

“The Benediction”

Nightmares’ third story feels like an unholy hybrid of Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) and the 1977 Universal movie, The Car.  Here, the ever-intriguing Lance Henriksen stars in what is essentially a one-man show, grappling with the Devil made manifest in…an automobile.   

Whatever the role, Henriksen never fails to hold the screen with his magnetic, powerful presence, and “The Benediction” is further aided by some good photography of the desert locales. 

This story concerns faith, and one man’s “test” of faith, in particular.  Henriksen’s face and eyes -- which carry a lot of expressive, experiential mileage -- allow us insight into this man’s character and past, even when there is precious little dialogue to help the actor out.

It does seem silly, however, that the Devil would choose this particular victim to go after on the isolated highway, considering that Father McLeod has already abandoned his faith.  It seems like the Devil has already won in this case, so why put-the-pedal-to-the-medal and drive the fallen priest back into the arms of a belief system he has already rejected? 

A cleverer ending to the segment might have revealed that God was behind the attacks…masquerading as the Devil.  Sure that surprise would have offended some folks, but it would have made more sense, and lived up to the proverb that God moves in mysterious ways.

Despite the nonsensical nature of the story, one can admire the streamlined efficiency of “The Benediction.”  It’s just one character with a compelling problem, an open highway, and a malevolent pick-up truck.  Horror doesn’t need much more than that in terms of elements to thrive, and so “The Benediction” is worthwhile, especially since Henriksen occupies the center of the drama with such authority.

“Night of the Rat”

Nightmares fourth and final story finds a nice suburban family overcome by a giant rat.  A yuppie dad transgresses badly and kills a giant rat baby, leading the over-sized rat mommy to launch a vendetta against his own child.  In short, this story is about how one’s actions can boomerang back.

I recall that when I first saw Nightmares on VHS in 1983, I felt that “Night of the Rat” was the scariest story of the movie, and therefore the best note to go out on.  However, today the special effects don’t entirely convince, and there are even better giant rat movies from 1983 I could recommend instead, like the outstanding Of Unknown Origin.   The cast here is terrific, undoubtedly, but the final moments disappoint.

Interestingly, both rat films -- Nightmares and Of Unknown Origin -- involve yuppies battling vermin in their perfectly-constructed, perfectly-ordered worlds, a commentary, I would submit, on the flimsy values on which the yuppie (young upwardly-mobile professional) movement was based. 

When your operational premise in life is me first, me second and me third, it’s all-too-easy to throw a monkey-wrench in it.   But again, perhaps that’s the point of both stories.  In “Night of the Rat,” a yuppie who prizes his family treats another family badly, and comes to regret it.  In some senses, it’s a story about empathy, a concept totally missing from the yuppie philosophy.

Nightmares features no wraparound story, no narrator, and precious few explanations about its diverse, interesting monsters (serial killer, video game demon, the Devil, and a giant animal…) The film proves a nice contrast, in that way, to the over-girded, bloated and schizophrenic Twilight Zone: The Movie. 

While it’s true that this anthology didn’t have the Twilight Zone’s monetary resources to rely upon, this movie just hangs in there, plugging and plugging, expertly telling one basic but solid horror story after the other.   It’s a low-budget pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. 


  1. Speaking as a life-long genre fan from that era, I do not think that the comparison of 'TZ: The Movie' and 'Nightmares' is even close. 'TZ: The Movie' had all the scares of a 'ABC After-School Movie'...remember those?

    'Nighmares' is a B-movie fave of mine. “Terror in Topanga” was the best. However it was “Night of the Rat” that grabbed my attention because it featured 2 actors from my favorite horror films at the time. Masur (The Thing) & Cartwright (Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

  2. I agree with Trent, the comparison only boils down to both films being anthology, tonaly, they are both very different. You gotta remember, Twilight Zone the T.V. show wasn't always about scares, sometimes it was just weird, or bizarre, or dived into fantasy, Nightmares on the other hand was intended as purely a horror movie in every way. Enjoyed your review, I saw this one in theaters when I was about eleven, scared the crap out of me back then! Haven't seen it since....but I'm looking forwad to it!

  3. This may be my all-time fave horror anthology film. Or at the very least, a close second after CREEPSHOW. John, you certainly did this film justice. It is a hard one to find with the Anchor Bay DVD going OOP a few years back but it is well worth tracking down. “Terror in Topanga” is probably my fave. I love horror films about urban legends and there are so few good ones out there but this self-contained story is a keeper due in large part to THE SENTINEL'S Cristina Raines.