Greetings, horror fiends. Think about it: we spend our days working or doing whatever we have to, and every night we sleep to restore ourselves. But sometimes sleep is not restful at all; sometimes it’s worse than being awake. Sleep can be troubled, our dreams plagued with the anxieties of our daily lives, nightmares filled with demons of the things we fear. Today’s double feature focuses on nightmares and the monsters that call them home. No glove-wearing, crispy-skinned killers here kids, today’s double feature is Dreamscape and Dream Demon.
Dreamscape is the rare big-budget movie with star power that got made in Hollywood despite its horror roots. Directed by Joseph Ruben, Dreamscape stars Dennis Quaid, Kate Capshaw, Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, and David Patrick Kelley. The film focuses on Alex (Quaid), a psychic who makes money betting on horse races but whose luck is running thin. Dr. Paul Novotny (von Sydow) used to run experiments on Alex’s abilities and returns to offer Alex a chance to be a part of a government-funded experiment using psychics to enter other people’s dreams. He agrees and begins working with Jane (Capshaw), who is running the experiment with Novotny. Alex becomes smitten with Jane quickly.
Meanwhile, Bob Blair (Plummer) is the government agent funding Novotny’s experiment. Blair has been grooming another psychic, the psychotic Tommy Ray (Kelly), to explore the possibility of assassinating political targets in their dreams. Novotny is unaware of this aspect of Blair’s agenda; it’s Alex who becomes suspicious of Tommy Ray when he causes another test subject’s death while attempting to help him using dream therapy. His suspicions lead Alex to uncover an even larger conspiracy, one where Blair plans to use Tommy Ray to kill the President of the United States.
Marketed as an action film, Dreamscape’s copious amount of nightmare scenes and a generally horrific tone, it’s definitely Horror. The poster for the film is an example of this, as it clearly mimics the poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The idea here was probably something along the lines of, if Raiders could be so successful blending intense action and violence with charm and comedy, maybe the same would work for the disparate genre elements of this film. Dreamscape indeed combines fantasy and action sequences into its intense nightmare sequences. I saw this movie as a kid and was traumatized by some of the imagery, especially the snake man. Finally, the film’s score is dark and eerie, adding another layer to nightmares filled with monsters, dream logic spaces, and radiation-scarred zombies.
By comparison, Dream Demon is a horror film and focuses on being one. The story is of Diane, a young woman set to marry a young man named Oliver. Oliver is a minor British Royal, and because of that, Diane is being followed by the press. Diane begins having terrible nightmares whenever she sleeps filled with demonic twisted versions of people in her waking life, a strange blonde child who sometimes has wings like an angel, a man on fire in dark nightmare spaces, and darker versions of her flat. One day while two press members are harassing her, she is rescued by a woman named Jenny. She and Jenny become fast friends, and soon Jenny reveals she has recently discovered she is adopted and has come to her flat after finding out it was Jenny’s natural parents’ home. As Diane’s nightmares worsen, the two women discover they may need each other to uncover the mysteries behind Diane’s nightmares and Jenny’s past.
Dream Demon has an excellent dream logic quality and some gory effects to tell an unconventional ghost story. The nightmares feel very familiar to anyone that has ever had one. The settings and people in Diane’s nightmares are dark, twisted versions of what she usually sees. They feel honest. As the story unfolds, some of the things she encounters start to make a lot of sense. There are some plot holes, but not enough to destroy the film. Really just some head-scratchers. The effects range from blood spurting out of wounds to grotesque makeup that has a very 90’s, goopy quality. For example, one of the dream demons oozes this yellow pus-like goo, and it’s nasty. The story rides the line somewhere between a haunted house and a ghost story*. The performances are solid all around for such a small production, and I’d say the acting is better than what you might typically expect from a movie like this.
I really believe it is worth giving these two films a watch. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies generally overshadow any other dream-related Horror films, so it’s worth acknowledging there are some other great “Nightmare” films out there. Both of these are streaming on Prime, Youtube, and Apple TV, and you can also catch Dreamscape on HBO max and Dream Demon on Arrow TV. Arrow TV is still relatively new and is similar to Shudder, showcasing mostly Horror and adjacent properties.
*You may ask what the difference between a haunted house story and a ghost story is. Ghost stories often present spirits that, while they inhabit specific locations and act on the inhabitants there, can ultimately exist outside those spaces. On the other hand, Haunted houses can sometimes be psychically scarred by events but not necessarily inhabited by ghosts.