My sister can remember dreams. I myself cannot. It makes me jealous when she describes, in excruciating detail, nonsensical scenarios involving the New Kids on the Block, fireballs, and Barbie. If someone asked me to recount a dream I once had, I’d probably end up quoting Pee-Wee: I’m all alone...and I’m rolling a big donut and this snake in a vest... I do recall that on the verge of consciousness, I’ve been able to manipulate my dreams and take control. For instance, I could be in a life-threatening situation but as I'm awakening, I can make conscious, intelligent decisions. It’s better than the jumbled-up bullshit which comes from eating too many Reese's cups before bed. Just a bit of friendly advice. Never put twinkies on your pizza. But I digress.
Films featuring dreams and dream logic allow filmmakers to engage in flights of fancy that would otherwise be rendered illogical and pointless in a realistic setting. Without dream sequences, we would never have gotten Jonathan Pryce soaring through the sky in Brazil, zombie Nazis in An American Werewolf in London, Ripley’s close-call in Aliens, the shock ending in Carrie, and the Busby Berkley-inspired dreams of the Dude in The Big Lebowski. “It’s all a dream” may be one of the most reviled, cop-out clichés in the business, but there was a time when this kind of twist was acceptable, even riveting. Hell, most of The Wizard of Oz is a dream. David Lynch’s infatuation with dreams has ironically provided plenty of nightmare fuel for those unfortunate enough to let his imagery get under their skin. And Wes Craven’s ingenious A Nightmare on Elm Street spawned a long-lasting franchise which encouraged directors to come up with boldly stylized scenarios proving no one is safe, even in their dreams. What all of this boils down to is one simple fact: Christopher Nolan owes Dreamscape a check.
While Nolan’s hugely popular and influential sci-fi/action romp Inception (2010) may have dwarfed both the effects and scope of Joseph Ruben’s pleasingly fun 1984 sci-fi/adventure dream flick, there’s simply no denying the similarities. Ditto Wes Craven’s original Nightmare film, which came out soon enough after this one that it feels like more of a coincidence than outright plagiarism. The straightforward concept is irresistible: Someone is having problems related to their dreams/nightmares, so somebody can...uhhh...incept (sorry) themselves inside the person’s head to see what’s wrong and maybe even help them. Thanks to this novel idea, the possibilities for outrageous visuals and situations are literally endless. Of course, with a budget of only 6 million dollars and less-than sophisticated special effect techniques of the period, it’s clear they couldn’t go all out, but for what they strove for and actually accomplished, Dreamscape is quite an achievement.
Of course, you wouldn’t know it from the opening shot. An awful green screen effect no better than the kind you’d find in a video arcade photo booth shows us a woman helplessly jogging in-place as a nuclear explosion goes off behind her. Thankfully, it doesn’t last long and maybe the president shouldn’t be eating so many of those Air Force One peanuts. Remember, this is the 80’s and we’re in full-blown Cold War mode, so while the movie president (two-time Oscar nominee Eddie Albert, The Longest Yard, Roman Holiday)’s desire to sign a nuclear disarmament deal with Russia is bleeding heart wish-fulfillment, it’s still a bright and hopeful message to hang a plot thread on. Speaking of bright...
Judging by the Indiana Jones-style poster, likely designed in an attempt to capitalize on that year’s other Kate Capshaw fantasy Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, one assumes Dreamscape will be a family-friendly roller coaster ride. God knows nobody expected Temple to be as dark as it was, especially from Spielberg, but a little fantasy about people jumping into dreams? Come on! That’s kid’s stuff! Au contraire, because this bad boy is directed and co-written by a filmmaker who would end up producing a handful of dark films, both excellent (The Stepfather ,1987) and ridiculous (Sleeping with the Enemy, 1991). Let’s not forget that Ruben also helmed the infamous Macauley Culkin “kid from Hell” picture, The Good Son (1993), as well as the solid True Believer (1989), Return to Paradise (1998), and the batshit crazy The Forgotten (2004). He’s a credible, skilled director who often injects his films with a wonderfully nasty streak. This may explain why his production of Dreamscape, from a story by David Loughery (Stephen Herek’s fun The Three Musketeers, Passenger 57, and unfortunately, Star Trek V), and in collaboration with future Dream Warriors and The Mask director Chuck Russell (and The Blob remake), has a breezy, somewhat jokey atmosphere interrupted by moments of sexuality or harrowing suspense.
I don’t know which pervy lawyer came up with it, but young Dennis Quaid appears to be contractually obligated to remove his shirt at least 2-3 times per movie. While he’s always been a likable and winning performer, one often forgets how strong of an actor he is because of his good looks and ability to emote through the physicality of his often-hunky characters. While the glorious Breaking Away (1979) and The Long Riders (1980) provided a solid base for his eventual stardom, he would stumble slightly with the wonky Jaws 3-D (1983, and it doesn’t have the courtesy to be as enjoyably bad as Jaws: The Revenge) before his scene-stealing turn in Philip Kaufman’s monumental The Right Stuff (1983) led him to star in Dreamscape. While he never became a huge box office star, versatile work in The Big Easy (1986) and Innerspace (1987) led him to his big, go-for-broke Oscar stab, the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! (1989), a film I loved as a child but doesn’t hold up very well. By the early 90’s, he already appeared to see the writing on the wall, and his decision to take a supporting role in Postcards from the Edge (1990) and re-invent himself in the late 90’s as a character actor led to fine performances in Traffic (2000), The Rookie (2002), and his brilliant turn a closeted gay man in Todd Haynes’ lovely Far from Heaven (2002). Here, he plays boy genius and telekinetic cad Alex Gardner, a man who would rather use his psychic abilities to somehow pick winning race horses than use his powers to perhaps, I don’t know, solve murders?
After he uses his superior intellect to evade some thugs from the Secretariat fan club, he’s whisked away in an unmarked car by great character actors Peter Jason (They Live, Deadwood, 48 Hrs.) and Chris Mulkey (First Blood, the phenomenal The Hidden) and taken through the canyons to Thornhill College. He’s met by an old friend, scientific researcher Dr. Paul Novotny (Ingmar Bergman’s favorite actor Max Von Sydow aka Ming the Merciless), whom he left holding the bag nine years ago. The tall, not remotely Swedish doctor is working on a method of sleep monitoring in which one can enter the subconscious of the sleeping subjects and generally muck about with their psyche. Kate Capshaw, for whom 1984 was quite a year (Best Defense notwithstanding), plays second-in-command Jane DeVries. Lurking in the shadows is the big bad government guy Bob Blair, played by Kevin Spacey replacement himself, Christopher Plummer (spectacular in The Silent Partner), whose plot to murder the president in his sleep with the aid of a dream murderer (80’s scumbag David Patrick Kelly) is sure to be foiled by this cocky pretty boy.
Alex is initially reluctant and doesn’t look forward to the prospect of having “electrodes wired to my ass” or being “a cerebral peeping Tom.” Of course, after the aptly-named Tommy Ray Glatman (Kelly) intrudes on one of Quaid’s many shirtless scenes in a creepily homoerotic manner, he’s a bit more interested in one-upping the arrogant sociopath. Considering Tommy is a ruthless psychic sociopath who murdered his own father, it’s no surprise he, like many other killers, has three names. Later, Tommy causes an elderly woman to have a fatal heart attack just to see whether it’s possible to kill someone in a dream, then engages in some of the most aggressive sandwich-eating since Mike Starr in Dumb and Dumber (1994). When Alex accosts him, his venomous response is: “Let go or you’re gonna draw back a stump.” David Patrick Kelly is always aces when he gets to play someone with no moral scruples, even appearing years later as Charlie the Cleaner in John Wick (2014).
The president’s recurring nightmares, which include a visually-impressive red-tinted nuclear holocaust sequence and a decent jump scare courtesy of zombie-like burn victims, result in him taking up Blair’s sinister offer to try Dr. Novotny’s dream treatment. This all leads to a wild chase involving shifty government agents, a clever but ultimately doomed novelist played by George Wendt (taking a break from Cheers and who’d appear in House a year later), and even the return of the bumbling race horse guys. The final showdown occurs inside a train car traveling past the horrific wreckage of the nuclear explosions. The anti-war message here, while absolutely on-the-nose, is surprisingly well-handled. Tommy shows up with goddamn dream warrior powers (remember who co-wrote this thing) and scares the hell out of Alex and the president. It’s pretty cool in a low-fi way. He busts out claws and yanks a ticket taker’s heart out, leads a zombie rebellion, swings some wicked neon green nunchuks, and transforms into a giant snake creature to terrify Alex before he’s finally impaled by the motherfucking president and dies, Krueger-style, in his dream. The president is safe but somehow Bob will get away with it. Alex is ready to make his country proud, so he enters Bob’s dream and gives him a massive, deadly coronary. The film ends as most 80’s movies do, with Alex and Jane riding off into the sunset, although there’s a small amount of ambiguity as the ticket taker from an earlier borderline rape fantasy pops in, giving a Total Recall-probability that this could all be a dream. ...but probably not.
Dreamscape is shockingly influential, whether other filmmakers know it or not. Tarsem Singh’s visually dynamic serial killer flick The Cell (2000) takes obvious influence from Dreamscape’s concept, while a scene where Alex uses his psychic abilities to guess the colors on hidden cards is reminiscent of the earlier Ghostbusters, even though the two were released only a couple of months apart. Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006) imagines a Dreamscape-world in which a Tommy-type runs amok and wreaks havoc on the delicate psyches of his victims.
Clocking in at a brisk 99 minutes, Dreamscape is chockful of delightful goodies to keep it entertaining. “I know this is going to sound kind of sinister...” is a pretty hilarious line from Peter Jason as he drives Dennis to his unknown destination. Getting to see Max Von Sydow and Christopher Plummer square off is a delight and the revelation that Plummer plans on employing dream assassins and stealing secrets remains such a great, mostly unexplored idea. Plummer also turns out to be an exceedingly polite murderer, calmly stating, “I’m afraid he has to be killed.” So classy. Sydow even gets to play a little dirty pool and threatens to blackmail Quaid by informing the IRS of his gambling activities. This is all well-and-good, but we’re here for the dream sequences, aren’t we?
I’d say there’s a decent number of them to satisfy an impatient viewer. The erotic one in which Alex “enters” a sleeping Jane’s dream and they get it on for a bit is quite adult for this kind of film. Quaid literally spreads her legs apart. While 80’s action adventures had their fair share of violence and startling images, sex still remained an R-rated affair, even with nudity occasionally cropping up in PG-rated movies. This scene, along with some light gore, probably contributed to Dreamscape holding the distinction of receiving one of the first PG-13's from the MPAA’s brand new rating. Aside from the terrible-looking opening, most of the dreams/nightmares are well-shot and pretty inventive. Ruben has a lively camera-style, with a lot of push-ins provided by cinematographer Brian Tufano, who lensed Quadrophenia (1979), Billy Elliott (2000), Last Orders (2001), and a few early Danny Boyle features, including Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996).
The tunnel-like entry into the dream world is very appealing thanks to VFX artist Peter Kuran, whose wild resume includes everything from RoboCop, Beetlejuice, and Starship Troopers to more gloriously insane fare like Fear No Evil, Drop Dead Fred, The Wraith, Q: The Winged Serpent, and the masterpiece that is Brain Damage. While a dream involving a construction worker and Dennis Quaid falling from a building is fine but standard, the weirder stuff works best. A homely man has an inferiority complex and his dream is shot in a skewed wide-angle, wherein he and Alex discover his wife in bed with his brother while his children watch and various other characters show up to shtup his beloved.
The real centerpiece, besides the finale, is the recurring nightmares of Buddy (actor-turned-musician Cory ‘Bumper’ Yothers), which most closely resemble a subplot in The Cell. He draws pictures of a monster, who ends up looking nothing like that in the nightmare, but still, it’s a well-done sequence, complete with a scary storm and spooky house. The creature is a stop-motion monstrosity; an upright cobra-beast created by Emmy-winner Craig Reardon (Star Trek: DS9, The X-Files) that marvelously freaks Alex out and even wraps its tail around his leg until Buddy finally lops its head off. The production design in this scene is really something, with skewed doorways and a twisted staircase courtesy of art directors Clifford Searcy and Jeff Staggs. Maurice Jarre’s electronic-leaning score is standard 80’s fare, but it works, especially during the final dream sequence with red-eyed devil dogs chasing after Alex and the president.
Ruben’s taut direction, a script which doesn’t take itself too seriously, and a game cast add up to an innovative and ultimately ahead-of-it's time sci-fi flick.