Directed by Joseph Ruben.
Starring Dennis Quaid, Kate Capshaw, Max Von Sydow, David Patrick Kelly, Eddie Albert and Christopher Plummer.
Alex Gardner, a psychic, is recruited by a secret government programme in which, with the aid of technology, they can enter and influence people’s dreams in the hopes of helping the dreamers overcome their psychological issues.
Earlier this month we took a look at the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film in which a psychopathic killer invaded the dreams of hapless teenagers and murdered them. However, Elm Street was not the only dream-based horror to hit cinemas in 1984. Slipping under the radar was Dreamscape, a genre-bending adventure/horror hybrid that is one of the most criminally underrated films I’ve watched all month.
The story of Dreamscape plays like a combination of Inception and Elm Street. On one side, we have a government programme that allows people to enter a subject’s dreams and interact with them, possessing the ability to alter the dream world if necessary. In Dreamscape’s case though it is less to steal or implant ideas into their minds, but more so understand what their dreams are trying to tell the subject and help them overcome the issues caused by them For instance, a man with gross feelings of inadequacy dreams that literally everyone and the vicar is sleeping with his wife. On the other side we have the inevitable abuses that would arise from using such technology, although instead of Freddy Kruger invading dreams, it’s a shadowy division of the US government who wants to use the technology to train an army of dream-based assassins.
The film manages to balance these two very different sides of the story well, with the film explaining the logic behind the dream tech and its implications in a way that is simple and to the point without being bogged down by too much exposition, something that, let’s face it, Inception had a bit too much of.
Dreamscape is not just a horror film but it’s also a sci-fi conspiracy thriller. This mixture is surprisingly well realised, with the splitting between the waking world and the dream world allowing the genres to balance themselves evenly. While it’s the least interesting of the two sides, the waking world acts a solid conspiracy thriller filled with all manner of political intrigue, paranoia, shady government types and plenty of decent action sequences of Dennis Quaid being chased by hired goons. It’s nothing spectacular or anything, but it does keep things moving along nicely, with the plot being engrossing much like a good paperback.
The dream world is where things get much more creative as the horror elements come to the forefront, with the nightmares created by the film-makers being intense, terrifying, a little goofy but always fun. A mid-film highlight is a child’s nightmare in which he is terrorised by a creature dubbed the “Snake Man” a rather silly looking but still pretty damn terrifying monstrosity that chases our hero throughout a twisted version of a family home.
The look of the scene is brilliant, boasting creatively weird production design as we are taken through a warped house of slanted doors, crooked bending hallways and never-ending staircases floating in an endless void. The atmosphere of the scene is also fantastic, with the build-up to the eventual reveal of the “Snake Man” being compounded with the constant thunder and lightning that rackets up the tension to breaking point. When the “Snake Man” finally arrives to pursue our heroes, he is mostly kept off-screen, shown only as a monstrous scaly claw or as a frightening hissing shadow, until he is fully revealed in all his nightmare-inducing albeit somewhat goofy-looking glory.
While the film boasts a handful of intense and elaborate nightmare sequences, the scariest, however, also happens to be the simplest. A major subplot concerns the US President who has been suffering from a recurring nightmare in depicting a nuclear apocalypse, apparently caused by his actions.
One such nightmare takes through us through the eerie emptiness of a ravaged post-apocalyptic wasteland, with a blood-red sky with the silence being broken by the cries of disfigured children crying ‘why did you do it?’. It’s a short scene, but fucking hell does it leave an impression, no wonder the poor bastard wakes up screaming.
The only real issue with the dream scenes is that we don’t get enough of them and when we do get them the film-makers don’t manage to take full advantage of the nearly limitless potential that such a concept offers.
The finale is perhaps the only scene where the film fully embraces the concept giving us a fantastic action/horror set piece in which Dennis Quaid’s protagonist attempts to protect the President while being pursued by a psychopath through a nightmare, with the setting changing between post-apocalyptic train ride with zombies to an underground cave filled with demonic dogs. Funnily enough, the psychopathic dream killer also has knives for fingers.
The cast on hand is solid with Dennis Quaid making for an effective leading man, even if he does seem to be trying to be a kind of Harrison Ford/Jack Nicholson hybrid in the way he delivers dry witticism with a Chesire Cat-like grin. While Kate Capshaw and Max von Sydow also give solid performances as Quaid’s allies, the film is stolen by a deeply sinister performance from Christopher Plummer as the film’s shadowy government type villain. There is something about Plummer’s unflinchingly calm and cold demeanour that I found bizarrely unnerving because, despite him not really doing anything to make him seem all that crazy or evil, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy whenever he appeared on the screen.
The only real area where the film really drops the ball is the music department with Maurice Jarre’s score which, in more bombastic scenes, feels like he’s trying to batter you over the head with a synthesiser. I understand the need for intense music during a chase, but we don’t need it for a leisurely driving scene, especially when it sounds like the keyboard player is having a fit.
With great performances, especially from Quaid and Plummer, creative, fun and often genuinely scary nightmare sequences, Dreamscape is a hugely entertaining slice of underrated 80s sci-fi horror adventure that I think is due for a cult revival. Check this one out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★