Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #791
Number of Views: One
Release Date: September 9, 1983
Sub-Genre: Horror Anthology
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $6,670,680
Running Time: 99 minutes
Director: Joseph Sargent
Producer: Christopher Crowe
Screenplay: Jeffrey Bloom, Christopher Crowe
Special Effects: Wayne Rose (uncredited)
Cinematography: Craig Safan, Mario DeLeo, Gerald Perry Kinnerman
Score: Craig Safan
Editing: Michael Brown, Rod Stephens
Studio: Universal Pictures
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Cristina Raines, Emilio Estevez, Lance Henriksen, Richard Masur, Veronica Cartwright, Tony Plana, Anthony James, William Sanderson, Lee Ving, Louis Giambalvo, Mariclare Costello, Moon Unit Zappa, Billy Jayne, James Tolkan, Timothy Scott, Robin Gammell, Rose Mary Campos, Bridgette Andersen, Albert Hague
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Dry Kill Logic “Nightmare”
 Craig Safan “Nightmares”
 Black Flag “My War (Radio Tokyo Session)”
 UB40 “Rat in Mi Kitchen”
Picture the scene. You are all alone in a long, dark tunnel. At the end of this dingy passage is a sign that clearly says EXIT and you’re on your way towards it, at this very moment. However, for some bizarre reason, it feels as though you’re wading through thick pea soup. Every movement feels labored and the destination appears to be growing ever more distant with every weary step you take. Something is making you feel uneasy but you’re not entirely sure what exactly. All the while, there’s a voice in the back of your head advising you, with increasing urgency, to glance over your shoulder. You resist repeatedly, until which point as a black cat crosses the path before you. This, in itself, could be a grave omen but it’s the fact that this particular feline seems stuck in reverse gear that endorses the chills down your spine. Growing ever more unsettled, you give in to the mysterious voice in your head and swing around 180 on the spot. And this is what greets you.
Don’t wish to alarm you, but I’m reasonably assured that the foul creature in hot pursuit, snapping at your heels with row upon row of razor-sharp teeth, is not of this world. Even more disconcerting is the fact that it’s gaining ground at an alarming rate and doesn’t appear to be requesting a belly tickle. Running for your life might be an idea, as would screaming from the very pit of your stomach, and flailing your limbs like an octopus with detachment issues. By my estimations, you’re about three lengthy strides from your objective and one final push should see you clear of any imminent threat. Can you feel this vile beast’s hot breath on the back of your neck? Then may I suggest shifting at a less leisurely pace? What do you mean, you can’t? Is it muscle cramps? Run, damn you, run. You’re going to die horribly you fool. Almost there now. This is going to be a photo finish. Oh my God, I can hardly bear to watch. LOOK OUT!
Is it over? Did we win? Jesus H. Christ and his apostles, that was a close shave. Don’t do that to me again, I’m not sure my frail heart could withstand another white knuckle ride like that. I can see I’m not the only one rattled. Indeed, your heart appears to be pounding even faster than mine. Perhaps it would help if I reminded you that you’re tucked up safely in your bed and the whole ordeal was nothing more than a terrifying nightmare. So why the cold sweats then? It’s over now and normal life can resume as planned, effective immediately. Your life was never actually in danger. It may have been a little too vivid an experience for your liking, but there’s nothing our boundless imaginations enjoy more than the free rein that sleep encourages. We always wake up in the end. I know this may come across as flippant, but I don’t really get what all the fuss about when it comes to nightmares.
The way I see it, such uninvited phantasms should equate to every horror buff’s wet dream. It’s like a lifetime of free rentals, when you think about it. I mean, we’re the first to bitch and gripe when a film fails to come good on its audacious claims of being “the scariest movie you’ll see all summer”, yet one teensy-weensy little dose of the night terrors and we’re sobbing into our pillowcases like John Merrick before memory foam was patented. Are we men, women, or mice? Granted, certain nightmares may hit a dash too close to home and stir up unfavorable emotions, but there’s much to be said about headlining your own fright flick, if you ask me. Hell, I’m the first to scarf down a bowl of spicy meatballs and wedge of cheddar prior to bedtime, in the hope of persuading suchlike night terrors out of their murky crawlspaces. Nightmares? As you may have fathomed by this point – I bloody well love ’em.
One VHS sleeve that always sticks in my mind from my days biting ankles is that of Joseph Sargent’s conveniently titled 1983 four-piece, Nightmares. Back then, a cunningly designed sleeve made all the difference and, with hundreds of glossy contenders for my affection, could mean the difference between securing my rental or becoming lost amidst a sea of intrigue. Oddly enough, this one never actually made it to my basket, and I couldn’t even tell you why that was as it remained on my radar right through my adolescence. The best I can come up with is that it was all a little too handsy for my liking and, like any petulant teen, I refused to buckle to its demands. Whatever the reason, Sargent’s anthology never quite managed to introduce itself to this wide-eyed boy formally… until now that is. Cue sinister music.
It’s somewhat ironic when you think about it. As a child, I stashed a notebook beneath my bunk before lights out, desperate to jot down the details of each nightmare before memory ceased its serving. Three decades later and the only thing that has changed is that notebooks are no longer bound together by spiral, and instead, powered by good old electricity. You’re joining me just as my primary inspection of Nightmares has drawn to a close and I now feel way better equipped to report my findings.
The burning question is – were those persuasive palms doing their darnedest to welcome me to the party or rubbing themselves together at the prospect of supplying yours truly a dry face slap? Have I built it up too much in my head? How much slack am I expected to cut it on account of my being so frightfully tardy? Will it appeal to my 43-year-old self like it would’ve back in 1983 or will it stink like an old lady fart passing through an onion?
Nightmares actually started out as a pilot for an untitled NBC anthology series that never came to fruition and comprises four segments, each of which are based around urban legends. There is no wraparound, no common theme connecting the parts together, just a quartet of unrelated tales of terror targeted at a late night cable audience. However, a number of familiar faces pop up to help us overlook the fact that Sargent’s effort is unremarkable from stem to stern. How does Cristina Raines, Emilio Estevez, Lance Henriksen, Richard Masur and Veronica Cartwright grab you? For as much as there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen countless times before, you certainly can’t gripe at the casting.
With barely a how do you do, we are thrust straight into our first story, Terror in Topanga, whereby an escaped mental patient wastes no time in snuffing out a patrolman by the roadside. Our attention then switches to fidgety housewife Lisa (Raines) who, against her husband’s sound advice, decides to make a late night run to the store for a pack of smokes.
After swinging into a gas station to fill up, she encounters its shady looking attendant (William Sanderson) and, if it’s all sounding mighty familiar by now, then that’s probably because it’s basically the intro for Jamie Blanks’ 1998 teen slasher, Urban Legend, preempted by a decade and a half. Mildly suspenseful, our opener benefits from a suitably panicked turn from Raines and the fact that it doesn’t see fit to outstay its welcome.
Pocket change at the ready as The Bishop of Battle is up next and is widely regarded as the standout. Our subject here is J.J. Cooney (Estevez), a totally self-absorbed teen whose gaming prowess has made him something of a celebrity at his local arcade. Day after day, they gather round excitedly to marvel at this man machine’s obscene joystick wizardry.
When J.J.’s not hustling Latino thugs for their loose coinage, he’s attempting to reach the elusive thirteenth level of a harder than nails game called The Bishop of Battle and earn himself some fresh bragging rights in the process. However, his infatuation for bagging that all-important top score is beginning to veer ominously towards unhealthy obsession and even his loyal bespectacled sidekick Zock (Billy Jayne) cannot seem to talk sense into him. Things aren’t faring much better back at home and, while his exasperated parents ground J.J. until such time as his grades improve, he can’t hear their bullshit rules over his Walkman.
Should you be familiar with Otto from Alex Cox’s Repo Man, then you should be all too familiar with the narcissistic punk strain of Estevez we’re getting for our quarters. Moreover, if you’re like me and pumped far too much currency into arcade machines as a kid, then you should be more than aware with the wretched “one more go syndrome” with which he is blighted. J.J. may be a prick, but he’s an affable prick, and his perilous quest for video game supremacy actually benefits from the woefully dated vector graphics pounding our senses relentlessly from all sides.
Time for a spot of repentance next as The Benediction introduces us to disillusioned priest MacLeod (Henriksen) who is suffering from something of a crisis of faith and all set to hang up his vestment. Wracked with guilt over the death of a young boy that he feels some way responsible for, MacLeod takes to the open road and unwittingly finds himself the plaything of a mysterious black Chevy 4×4, hell-bent on imparting some good old-fashioned fender to fender road rage on his jaded ass.
Henriksen is predictably excellent as a man tormented by both demons of his past and the speed demon of his present, but this is effectively Steven Spielberg’s Duel with a respray and doesn’t fare particular well in the Bishop’s slipstream. That said, the hellish 4×4 in question does admittedly know some fairly cool tricks.
Perhaps they’ve saved the best for last. With personal darlings Masur and Cartwright slipping into the carpet slippers of bickering suburbanites Steven and Clair Houston, Night of the Rat is snout and whiskers in front of the competition before the vermin has even been unleashed. Steven is your average chauvinistic husband, the type who would stitch his daughter’s severed leg back on rather than stump up for unnecessary surgery costs. Stubborn as a mule with Val Kilmer complex, he flat refuses to view the rampant rodent terrorizing his family as a threat, much to his long-suffering spouse’s mounting distress.
The casting of Cartwright in the overwrought wife role is simply genial as I happen to think that her feverish turn as Lambert in Ridley Scott’s Alien is long overdue some serious back paid credit. Night of the Rat may be by far the longest of our four tales, but it’s fascinating watching Clair’s last tether of sanity dwindle away, while it finally dawns on her husband that rodent pellets shouldn’t come the size of a meat loaf and he begins to rue not leaving this particular infestation to the exterminator he just sent packing.
However, the real star here is the titular culprit itself albeit sadly for all the wrong reasons. It’s unintentional comedy abound as we are presented with a regular rat of the Ratatouille breed, blown up to gargantuan proportions and literally superimposed over the backdrop.
It’s ironic that a film boldly titled Nightmares leaves us with tears welling up in our ducts from laughing so hard but, over thirty years on, it’s moments such as these that lend Sargent’s anthology much of its retrospective charm. There’s nothing whatsoever in the way of originality and the most memorable thing about this painfully middle of the road effort is the striking cover art. Therefore, should you be afflicted with perpetual night terrors and approaching your wits’ end, then my advice would be to watch this movie and your dreams should be sweet forevermore.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10
Grue Factor: 1/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Alas, one mangled feline is all she wrote. What a nightmare. That said, as a self-confessed cat lover, this shot may well haunt my dreams perpetually.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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