Rated PG-13 for language, violence, scary images and sensuality.
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Directed by: Joseph Rubens
Written by: David Loughery & Chuck Russell
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Kate Capshaw, David Patrick Kelly, Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Eddie Albert, George Wendt
Released in 1984, only months prior to Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm St, this low-budget sci-fi brain twister has spent decades as a minor cult item while Freddy and company dominated the subgenre of the dream-based thriller. Now, as conversations turn to the structured realism of Nolan’s Inception, I’m constantly hearing how it lacks the imagination and inspiration of Dreamscape. I may not completely agree, but it’s nice to see this inventive little movie getting some well-earned love.
The opening sequences of Dreamscape are terrifying and unforgettable; a woman in a tattered white dress runs towards the camera, hands outstretched, pleading to an unseen party as a fearsome mushroom cloud billows on the horizon behind her. Moments later, we are looking at the sweating face of Eddie Albert, whose unnamed U.S. president has been having nightmares of nuclear destruction. All of the fantasy tableaus are like that in Dreamscape, surrealistic and unnerving, and directly in service of the creepy plot that posits a world where gifted psychics become subconscious assassins.
Written by David Loughery and Chuck Russell, who would later helm Nightmare on Elm St. 3: The Dream Warriors, Dreamscape is about as good as B-movies came in the 1980’s. It builds progressively on itself and it works not just as a straight-forward adventure but also as a reflexive and engaging expression of subconscious fear born as physical anxiety. That’s pretty much the high-falutin’ way of saying ‘these dreams have teeth.’ The script moves on two levels—alternating between a high-tech political thriller and the carnival-themed dream sequences—and it ties both of them together with its charismatic lead, a then young Dennis Quaid.
Quaid plays Alex Gardner, a feckless but talented psychic who would rather be spending his time exploiting his gift at the racetrack than helping the benevelont Dr. Novotny (an impeccable Max Von Sydow) and the sexy Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw) pioneer their new form of dream therapy. The basis of this therapy involves psychics entering the subconscious of sleeping patients and helping them overcome their nocturnal demons. With just a few narrative twists, Gardner joins their ‘dream team,’ which also happens to include the volatile and sociopathic Tommy Ray (David Patrick Kelly), the current star player and private weapon of shadowy government puppetmaster, Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer).
The rest of the plot unravels with the systematic formality of a t.v. movie, but credit goes to Ruben, Loughery and Russell for building inspiration into the margins between the necessary chase scenes, psycho babble and government conspiring. Even these passages are en-livened by the resolve of Albert’s president, who in a neat twist decides that his dreams are omens that should preclude the disarmament of U.S. nuclear weapons, and Goerge Wendt’s horror novelist who has stumbled onto a real-life tale of covert terror. There’s no fancy camera work, but there is top-notch acting by heavies like Plummer and Sydow, and quirky chemistry between Quaid and Capshaw—and if we are honest—between Quaid and Kelly, who is sculpting the kind of schizo that would make Fred Krueger blink.
None of that though, is why Dreamscape is fondly remembered today, or why its worth talking about more than two decades later. No, the meat and potatoes of this one are the visually imaginative dreams and the way Quaid jumps directly into them, co-habiting with the dreamers themselves.
There is an interesting distinction regarding the way Ruben and his team of artists approach the magical confines of the dreamtime. Almost all of the sequences have a gist or problem that originates with the creator of the dream, making this virtual environment a test kitchen containing all the necessary ingredients for the cure. We see each of these dreams for the first time (with the exception of Albert’s apocalyptic nightmares) through Alex’s eyes, and get to experience his bewilderment, amazement or terror vicariously. Better still, Ruben introduces most of his dream sufferers to us in the real world first–including a nebbishy, impotent husband and a sickly, scared kid—so that we might anticipate the damage lurking underneath.
The easiest place for Dreamscape to collapse would be with the special effects, but even though quite dated by today’s standards, they do their job perfectly by letting our imagination do all the heavy lifting. With the exception of a generic early scene involving skyscraper construction and swinging steel girders, each dream is unique and original in its way. The insecure husband imagines the interiors of his home as the walls of a lurid funhouse, demented organ music spiraling up the stairs to the bedroom where all of his family and friends are witness to his cuckolding. Quaid and Capshaw take a soft-lit, phantasmal train ride that tilts their professional tensions into heaving passion without using the hokey tunnel metaphor.
Buddy, the boy with the monster in his dreams, has a subconscious that looks like it has seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari too many times. There are odd angular walls, a rickey spiral staircase and a vast dinner table with his father placed at the end. As Alex and Buddy flee the monstrous Snakeman he even references the powerless pop; ‘That’s my dad but he won’t help’. The reply– ‘I’m afraid the little bastard’s right!’ –comes right before the creature has his first snack. When Alex helps Billy overcome his isolation and helplessness, we see the Snakeman in all of his stop-motion glory. There’s something oddly beautiful about the saurian features and herky-jerky movements captured under sputtering flourescent basement lights.
In the final sequence of Dreamscape, Quaid and Albert run through the twisted wreckage of a ruined America, chased by demonic hell-hounds, radioactive mutants, and Kelly’s power-mad Tommy, who has a wicked arsenal of dream weapons. One of these is a clawed glove, gruesomely used to remove internal organs, and it is of particular note that this film released in August of 84 and Nightmare in November. I’m not suggesting rip-off but rather an interesting overlap in the ideas. At any rate, the one thing Elm St. didn’t have was glowing neon nunchakis, which Tommy wields with a Bruce Lee reference.
In these climactic moments the film bangs home the theme of taking ownership of our fears, passions and gifts and it even slyly suggests at ways in which we can avert complete corruption, only to be subtly warped by the same circumstances. Just look at the way Gardner ultimately solves the problem of Bob Blair. The fact that Dreamscape takes the time out to explore all the delectable nooks and crannies of its awesome concept is one of the many reasons I adore it. It may be the lesser known of the dreamstalker films, but in my eyes, it’s the better one.