The Film: 2/5
Note: This portion is taken from my review of an earlier DVD edition of the movie. The A/V quality and special features are different on this release and those sections have been adjusted to reflect what upgrades are offered here.
Having both been previously issued on now out-of-print discs by Anchor Bay Entertainment, two also-rans of 1980’s horror that have gained minor cult followings in the years since their respective theatrical releases get crammed together on another of Shout! Factory’s double feature Blu-ray sets. How do these films hold up over the years? Or maybe the question is, did they ever hold up to begin with?
The movie opens in 1975 when the members of the love cult Unity Fields, under the leadership of the charismatic Harris (Lynch), commits mass suicide by immolation. Only reluctant follower Cynthia (Rubin) barely manages to survive the resulting blaze but she ends up in a coma. Thirteen years she wakes up to a world that has practically forgotten her. To help Cynthia readjust to society she is invited to join a therapy overseen by idealistic psychiatrist Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott) that includes the spacey wiseass Ralph (Dean Cameron), sweet-natured but lonely Lana (E.G. Daily), chain-smoking tabloid reporter Miriam (Susan Ruttan), and the strangely intuitive Gilda (Damita Jo Freeman). But not long after she awakens Cynthia is plagued by horrifying visions of her former leader Harris everywhere she goes. Even in her sleep she can’t escape his grasp. As she tries to deal with the visions with the help of Dr. Karmen and chief physician Dr. Beresford (Harris Yulin) her fellow patients start committing suicide under mysterious circumstances. Are these deaths merely isolated incidents, or has Harris returned from beyond the grave with the intention of taking Cynthia with him to the other side?
Directed by Andrew Fleming (The Craft, Hamlet 2) from a script he co-wrote with 80’s action scribe Steven E. de Souza (48 Hrs., Die Hard), Bad Dreams is a rather pedestrian but still enjoyable attempt to cash in on the success on the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise while retaining some interesting ideas and a narrative ambiguity that could have paid off masterfully in more experienced hands. Fleming and de Souza had an interesting plot on which to build a first-rate psychological horror film but the surprising lack of tension and little empathy the story has for its characters keeps it from coming within 100 miles of minor classic status. Its ambitions are never fully realized despite the wealth of filmmaking talent on display. Fleming may have been a novice when he stepped behind the camera for Bad Dreams but he still shows a bit of directorial flair at times and the cinematography by Alexander Gruszynski (Tremors, Madea Goes to Jail) has a cool and distant aura in the night scenes that enhances the horrific events happening at the hospital.
Rubin makes for a decent if unexceptional lead. You don’t get much of a read into who her character is before she lands in a coma that will consume a large portion of her life, and you get even less once she wakes up. Plus due to the short running time and the attention paid to the film’s overabundance of supporting characters Rubin is given little to do but be the damsel in distress for the majority of her scenes. Abbott, a veteran of the first two Re-Animator movies, does what he can with his part but it’s an underwritten hero role with little dimension outside of the bog-standard “sensitive, handsome doctor” archetype. Longtime character actor Yulin floats through the film with little purpose. The actors playing the other patients fare slightly better in the acting department, in particular the always sorely underrated Dean Cameron, who gets the lion’s share of Bad Dreams’ most quotable dialogue. His best line comes midway through the film when the deaths start and he dryly asks, “If I die does my mom get a refund?” Cult film vet Sy Richardson (Repo Man) also shows up from time to time as a cynical police detective investigating the deaths. Richard Lynch does fine sleazy work as the supposed villain of the movie; he can do more with a wicked laugh and that memorable face of his than most actors can with every performing trick in the book. Plus he gets to be the single most frightening image in the movie when Harris shows up in effective burnt face make-up that makes him look like a lost cousin to the skinless Frank from Hellraiser and the Tar Man from Return of the Living Dead.
There are some clever moments sprinkled throughout the movie, like a pair of middle-aged patients who sneak off to fool around like horny teens in a slasher flick only to end up sharing their love straight into a turbine fan, and a cameo by Charles Fleischer that further shows the Nightmare on Elm Street influence. The films of Dario Argento also seem to have made an impact on Fleming’s direction. Shame that his movie desired to be like one of Argento’s best but ultimately turned out to be more like one of Argento’s worse. The soundtrack is pretty cool to listen to, combining an atmospheric score by Jay Ferguson with psychedelic pop tunes like “Time Has Come Today” and “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night”. The Guns ‘n’ Roses hit of the time “Sweet Child of Mine” plays over the end credits.
From across the Canadian border we get this sordid little homicidal stalker flick from the producers of Scanners, featuring ol’ Darryl Revok himself as a sicko with a penchant for cross-dressing and talking women with minds of their own. Headstrong television newscaster Deborah Ballin (Grant), an advocate for non-violence, is embroiled in a media firestorm for her vocal support of a woman on trial for the murder of her husband because she was the victim of spousal abuse. Ballin sticks to her guns much to the consternation of her producer Gary Baylor (William Shatner) but her stance also arouses the rage of psychopath Colt Hawker (Ironside), who violently attacks Deborah in her home but doesn’t kill her. She is rushed to the hospital and placed under the care of nurse Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl) while she, along with Baylor and the police, attempt to make some sense out of all this. Meanwhile Hawker, pissed that his first attempt to kill Ballin failed, makes plans to return to the hospital to finish the job. The only thing that can save Deborah now is summoning the courage to face her fears and bring Hawker‘s reign of terror to an end.
Watching Visiting Hours for this review was the first time I had ever seen the film. For years I only knew the film by its notorious reputation, from its subtlety terrifying classic poster image of a death’s head formed from the lighted hospital windows (a motif repeated in one of the TV spots included in the DVD extras) to its status as a “video nasty” in the United Kingdom. So even though I knew going into this movie that it wasn’t a relentless gore fest at the very least I could expect a cool suspense flick with a unique villain and a resourceful heroine (played by an Oscar winner to boot). The premise was irresistible and who could resist a movie featuring two of Canada’s greatest exports-Michael Ironside and William Shatner?
Well it turns out that I can, now that I’ve actually seen Visiting Hours. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so disappointed in a movie that had been built up to be better than it ultimately was and a very long time since a movie bored me as much as Visiting Hours did. Here’s a film that had a metric ton of potential to be a creepy little fright flick but was crushed under the weight of its own pretensions. For starters the sequence where the psychotic Colt Hawker (sounds like the kind of moniker given to the lame ass hero of an Italian Rambo rip-off) first attacks Deborah in her home is so needlessly drawn out and redundant because we know from the beginning that not only will he not kill her right away but that the hospital will be the battleground for their ultimate confrontation. By the way, I’ve never found a hospital to be an effective location for a horror film. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to the hospital so many times and even in the dead of night at the smaller hospitals there’s plenty of staffers on duty and security prowling the premises. I am a firm advocate of suspending disbelief when it is called for, but I’m not that stupid.
After Deborah gets taken to the hospital the movie starts to drag big time as Hawker seems to lose interest in finishing what started, preferring to terrorize hookers in his apartment and stalk and murder people who have little or nothing to do with the central conflict. He actually goes out of his way for most of the movie to not even approach Deborah while in the hospital even though she’s not being heavily guarded and therefore ripe for the kill. Of course I know that if she was killed there wouldn’t be a movie, but Hawker doesn’t even fucking try. It kills what little tension and suspense had managed to build up faster than Colt Hawker kills anybody and thus the entire movie becomes a colossal waste of time. It’s a real shame because the movie had a perfect villain in Colt Hawker (maybe change that name) with a gloriously gonzo performance from Michael Ironside to match. In the pantheon of great movie psychos trapped in lame movies Ironside ranks with the late Nicholas Worth from Don’t Answer the Phone. Even when Hawker is doing something completely out of character he’s still much more fun to watch than the rest of the movie thanks to the actor’s performance.
The rest of the cast don’t fare as well but I would attribute that to the lackluster script by Brian Taggert (who wrote the excellent killer rat movie Of Unknown Origin) and the insipid direction by Jean-Claude Lord, later to direct Eddie and the Cruisers II and not much else of note. Lee Grant, an Academy Award winner for the 1975 comedy Shampoo, is good enough of an actress that she makes her character’s actions believable and handles even the most absurd moments of the movie with class and intelligence. The same can’t be said for Linda Purl; I’ve only known her from her run on Matlock and nothing else. Purl’s one of those actresses perfect for TV movies because she shows up, says her lines, and goes home when the picture wraps. Her performance and her character are both unnecessary and they distract from an already jumbled plot. I never cared what happened to her in the movie. William Shatner’s performance is a pure paycheck grab but at least he and Grant has a nice professional chemistry and his character is rarely as insufferable as Purl’s. Harvey Atkin (Meatballs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) puts in a nice appearance as a garrulous patient who tries to strike up a bond with Deborah.
Both films are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen transfers remastered in 1080p high-definition for this release. The picture quality is a huge step up from the previous DVD, with smooth flesh tones, sharpened details, and a stunning lack of visible print damage. Colors are strong and vibrant. Bad Dreams retains its English 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks from the earlier DVD but upgraded to DTS-HD Master Audio, as does Visiting Hours’ English 2.0 soundtrack. All three tracks perform their assigned tasks with strength and dexterity; the 5.1 option for Bad Dreams is robust and clearly the only way to go, but the 2.0 proves just as effective on standard television sets. Dialogue and music come through the speakers with wonderful clarity and zero traces of distortion or degradation, and the various elements of the sound mix blend well without overwhelming each other. English subtitles are included for both films.
Bad Dreams’ extra features were all ported over from Shout!’s 2011 DVD set and begin with the retrospective documentary “Dream Cast” (21 minutes), which brings back actors Rubin, Abbott, Lynch, and Cameron to discuss their involvement in the film, from the casting process to filming to contemporary reflections. A featurette highlighting the make-up effects (2 minutes) was produced for the electronic press kit, as were some behind-the-scenes footage (9 minutes) and a promotional short (4 minutes). The superior original ending is presented here sourced from what appears to be a VHS workprint copy. The original red band theatrical trailer (2 minutes) and a brief photo gallery round out the extras for this half of the bill.
Visiting Hours originally received scant attention in the bonus features department and Shout has seen fit to rectify that grievous mistake with a whopping 78 minutes’ worth of new interviews. The longest belongs to screenwriter Brian Taggert (44 minutes), but producer Pierre David (11 minutes) and co-star Leonore Zahn (23 minutes) also get ample time to share their thoughts about making the sordid Canuck chiller. A 32-second radio spot, two minutes of television spots, and a photo gallery were held over from the previous DVD. Closing out the supplements are trailers for four other releases from Shout!: The Dungeonmaster, Dark Angel, Futureworld, and The Incredible Melting Man.
Two mediocre 80’s horror movies get crammed onto one affordable Blu-ray. The amount of unfulfilled potential in these movies just blows my mind. At least Bad Dreams makes for a nice guilty pleasure flick in the end, but man these movies could have been so much better. The increased A/V quality foe both films and the new bonus features produced for Visiting Hours make this an easy double dip for fans everywhere.