Nightmares (1983) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Following a sort of Golden Era during the ‘60s and earliest ‘70s, horror anthology films briefly fell out of favour in mainstream cinemas. But, almost as if the zeitgeist itself demanded it, the practice popped up again in quick bursts throughout the ‘80s, including George A. Romero’s genuine hit, Creepshow (1982), Lewis Teague’s studio-financed productions, like Cat’s Eye (1985), and completely independent B-movies, like Jeff Burr’s From a Whisper to a Scream (1987), Eddy Lawrence Manson’s Night Train to Terror (1985), and Daniel Boyd’s bargain-basement near-classic Chillers (1987). Between the major and minor releases was Joseph Sargent’s Nightmare (not to be confused with John D. Lamond’s naughty Ozploitation slasher from 1980), which was distributed by Universal to little fanfare and minor box office receipts. Originally planned as a pilot for a TV series and partially culled from unused episodes of ABC’s Darkroom (a horror series that only lasted 16 episodes), these four shorts were relegated to movie screens, where they were, at the very least, free to indulge in R-rated violence.
Episode One: Terror in Topanga (written by Eddy Lawrence Manson) – Terror in Topanga is a sort of Halloween (1978) rip-off by way of Tales From the Crypt that sets the tone early with a truly brutal stabbing murder, before biding its time with tepid family drama. In true E.C. Comics fashion, the unassuming protagonist, played by a pretty and unassuming Cristina Raines (a few years from her appearance in The Sentinel in 1977), is torn between her paranoid fear of an escaped madman who is roaming the Topanga canyon area and her crippling addiction to cigarettes. One careless decision leads to another. Sargent does a decent job wringing as much suspense as he can from these amusingly mundane situations. Anyone who read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a kid can probably guess the twist ending.
Episode Two: The Bishop of Battle (written by Eddy Lawrence Manson) – In The Bishop Battle, Emilio Estevez plays a prototypical version of Otto the punk from Alex Cox’s 1984 classic Repo Man (he even listens to some of the exact same Fear and Black Flag songs!) named J.J., who is basically a card shark, except that he plays ‘80s arcade games instead of poker. He becomes so obsessed with a specific game called ‘Bishop of Battle’ and reaching its fabled thirteenth level that he breaks into the arcade to play it. But he gets more than he bargained for when the video cabinet breaks open and the vector graphic antagonists begin attacking him. Episode two is colorful, silly fun, enough to overlook its zero budget Tron (1982) ambitions. It has sort of a punk rock Amazing Stories (1985) vibe.
Episode Three: The Benediction (written by Eddy Lawrence Manson) – With its nightmare imagery, impressively dreadful tone, and a typically outstanding performance from Lance Henriksen, The Benediction is probably the best part of this mostly mediocre exercise. Henriksen plays a New Mexican priest who leaves his church after a crisis of faith. While on the road, he is menaced by mournful memories and a mysterious black truck. The Benediction succeeds where Elliot Silverstein’s more popular The Car (1977) fails thanks to more focused themes, more intense action (even though Sargent does a terrible job disguising Henriksen’s stunt driver), and, of course, its vastly shorter runtime.
Episode Four: Night of the Rat (written by Jeffrey Bloom) – Episode three may be the best episode, but Night of the Rat is an effectively wacky finale. A good horror anthology needs to end with a burst, rather than a fizzle. Veronica Cartwright, the wide-eyed queen of the cry-scream, is cast to type as a neurotic housewife who hears a rat in the walls of her suburban home. The situation grows dire as the rat eats her daughter’s beloved cat, tears up the electric wiring, and dribbles slime all over the house, eventually leading to an epic showdown. Night of the Rat is maniacal, energetic, spooky, and, ultimately, kind of touching. It is also notable because Richard Masur plays Cartwright’s controlling, cheapskate husband. Weirdly, supporting cast members from Alien (1979) and The Thing (1982) once co-starred in a monster rat movie.
Because it was originally conceived as four episodes of a television series, Sargent and cinematographers Gerald Perry Finnerman (first and second segments) and Mario DiLeo (third and fourth segments) designed Nightmares to work on a 1.33:1 TV screen. However, because it was released theatrically, it was matted to 1.85:1. The old Universal DVD was full-frame, but, assuming there would be fans arguing for either framing, Scream has split the difference here by supplying both a 1.33:1 and a 1.78:1, 1080p transfer. The basic image qualities are close enough that I’m specifically reviewing the widescreen version (in part because it is the first time the film has been available in this aspect ratio). This isn’t the cleanest transfer discussed on this page, but it also doesn’t suffer from blatant DNR enhancement. Details and patterns are tight, despite the consistent grain and soft focus, which, combined, lead to some clumping/print damage issues. The constant diffusion leads to some foggy lighting, but the neon and pastel colors are vivid enough to overcome a bit of bleeding and softening. The mostly pure black levels are somewhat weak on a couple of occasions. Head and foot room is a bit tight, because of the widescreen matting, but not enough for me to say that the full frame version is preferable.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is plenty expressive with only minor distortion and crowding issues. Dialogue and incidental effects sound a little flat, but not lumpy. The second episode is the highlight and is endowed with oodles of arcade noise, which alternates between generalized fuzz and more pinpointed beeps and laser blasts. The third episode is the weakest due to unusual discrepancies in clarity and strange echo/doubling effects. Composer Craig Safan (who worked on another video game-related flick called The Last Starfighter a year after Nightmares’ release) alternates musical styles between chapters admirably, creating four distinct scores in the process. The music tends to be the strongest audio element in most cases.
Commentary with executive producer Andrew Mirisch and actress Cristina Raines – This new commentary is moderated by Hill Place web blogger/critic Shaun Chang (who previously appeared with Raines on Scream Factory’s The Sentinel Blu-ray). Thanks in large part to Chang’s dogged interviewing tactics, the track quickly gets down to the brass tacks of the production, from conception through casting, filming, and post-production. Since she only appears in the first episode, Raines tends to take a back seat for most of the run time.
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.