Thursday, August 18, 2011

Nightmare (1981) review


Baird Stafford (George Tatum), Sharon Smith (Susan Temper), C.J. Cooke (C.J. Temper), Scott Praetorious (young George)

Directed by Romano Scavolini

The Short Version: Grim and grotesque lower tier psychological slasher flounders at the bottom rung mainly because of its oppressively nasty atmosphere. Outside of some less than sterling performances, Scavolini delivers a shockingly adept horror picture that leaves viewers in need of a wash after its finished. The film has acquired a few branches of controversy over the years (including fan reaction leading up to, and after its imminent DVD release) which added more volumes to the legend and mystique of this disturbing and generally grotty little mini masterpiece.

***WARNING! This review contains images of a sexual nature and graphic violence***

Suffering from a major psychological trauma surrounding a gruesome double murder when he was a child, George Tatum is seemingly rehabilitated after years of being pumped full of experimental drugs while penned up inside a secret medical facility. Deemed normal, George is released out into the world again. He immediately sets out on a journey to Florida for some unknown purpose. As the three doctors who were treating George desperately attempt to locate him, it becomes quickly apparent that he is anything but cured as the deranged madman leaves a trail of mutilated corpses along the way.

This visually and audibly arresting psycho sleaze picture is one of the nastier examples of exploitation from the early 1980s and one that's accrued a great deal of controversy along the way. Scavolini's movie draws from a couple of influences--those being HALLOWEEN (1978) and MANIAC (1980). Several scenes from Carpenter's movie are replicated here among them being the frantic doctor who shouts about a maniac being allowed to "walk out" and the killer going home to the scene of an earlier crime. Also the slaughter of two horny teens killed by Tatum (wearing a mask, no less) recalls the scene where P.J. Soles and her lover are executed by Michael Myers even down to the method in which one of them is killed.

Scavolini does get a bit carried away with the "Look Out, He's Behind You!" boo moments typified by the slasher film, but they are effective especially when aided by the surprisingly moody cinematography by Gianni Fiore. Some of these moments are of the 'fake scare' variety and others milk the required tension for all its worth. The film has an unusually high amount of these scenes and the sheer number of them ultimately squeezes the terror out of them after the first half dozen or so.

Regarding William Lustig's infamous tale of filth, NIGHTMARE aspires for the same level of repugnance and achieves as much even if it's a bit more rough around the edges when compared to Lustig's seminal serial killer saga. A portion of the film takes place in New York City and Scavolini takes full advantage of the seediness of the cluttered, dirty streets aligned with movie theaters, drug dealers, porn shops and prostitutes.

While NIGHTMARE echoes similarities to some of the genres most recognized movies it also seems to have been something of an inspiration on other films, too. Of far lesser quality, the film TRICK OR TREATS (1982) seems to have derived its plot from one of the main characters here, a mischievous brat who enjoys playing irresponsible and mean spirited pranks on his parents, friends and babysitter. TRICK OR TREATS is about an equally annoying little prankster who makes Halloween night a living hell for his babysitter till an insane killer shows up. The gory main set piece of NIGHTMARE that sets up all the succeeding carnage looks to have influenced a scene of similar savagery from Juan Piquer Simon's "laudable" and laughable trash classick PIECES also from 1982. The ending of NIGHTMARE brings to mind the ending of HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1987), itself a reflection of the opening of Carpenter's supreme cinematic achievement.

Despite some below average acting, Scavolini is obviously attempting something different from the average slasher picture with this twisted character study even if it does get somewhat lost in a pool of blood and viscera. The director successfully creates a sincerely grimy atmosphere that frequently strangles the viewer with an almost pornographic level of nastiness. One scene in particular finds our deeply disturbed traveler sightseeing down New York's infamous 42nd Street where he entertains a few peepshows. One that peaks his interest is a phone sex operator attempting to arouse him over the line while she ecstatically plays with herself. George gets noticeably excited and unhinged all at the same time resulting in him collapsing into a seizure and frothing at the mouth. The atmosphere of the sequence is wholly unsettling. The sight of a woman graphically masturbating while an onlooker gets the shakes and pukes up white foam doesn't sit well on the stomach especially when this scene is flanked by the all too real gritty appeal of the infamous grindhouse strip of New York City.

The special effects are crude, but effective and one of the most notorious legends surrounding NIGHTMARE concerns the involvement of the 'King of Splatter', Tom Savini. The major effects sequence that formulates the thrust of the movie was the one that Savini sat in on. According to award winning make up effects artist, Ed French, Savini was a Technical Advisor and nothing more. For years, photos showing Savini coordinating the decapitation scene contradicted with his proclamation that he had nothing to do with the movie. Reportedly, his involvement began and ended with advising newcomer French and Les Larraine during the shooting of this spectacularly repulsive sequence shot in New York. Cleve Hall (ELIMINATORS, TERRORVISION, EVIL SPAWN) did the gore effects during the bulk of the shoot down in Florida. While none of these judiciously bloody scenes are overly convincing, they are shot in such a way they remain revolting displays of barely-a-budget, quick fix craftsmanship.

The opening ten to twenty minutes irrefutably live up to the films title dynamically orchestrating an uncompromising sense of unnerving distress with its combination of superb musical stings married to shots of squalor, intense suffering and gruesome, nightmarish visuals. The most disturbing murder in the entire film would have to be the death of a random woman whose throat George graphically slashes while imagining his father engaged in rough sex with an unknown, if scantily dressed female (the credits refer to her as 'George's mother', but the film never states this). He then begins to plunge the knife multiple times into the girls stomach while both blood and her last gurgling breath leak freely from her crumpled form. The scene is played in slow motion as George continuously plunges the knife into flesh--his blade taking on the form of his penis--with each thrust a look of gratification shows on his face. The implications here are both morbidly fascinating and queasy at the same time. George isn't totally without regret, even if he's long fell over the brink of sanity.

After killing this woman, he cries over her corpse pleading how sorry he is. He takes her remains, puts them in a garbage bag and takes her down to the beach where he cradles the lifeless body in his arms while he screams and cries some more. Scavolini's script has dutifully designed an incredibly disturbed sicko even if the only explanation for his mania is witnessing his father engaged in sadomasochism when he was a boy. This unification of a child seeing the sexual act with becoming a deranged murderer was also seen in BLOOD RAGE (aka NIGHTMARE AT SHADOW WOOD [1983]) and went equally unexplained, and to an even lesser extent.

NIGHTMARE has something else that many similar movies don't have and that's a sense of scope by way of its covering so much ground from one state to another. It goes from New York through Pennsylvania, to North Carolina and South Carolina before finally settling in Florida for the rest of the feature. The filmmakers were at least cognizant enough to add some flavor to our North to South spanning serial killer by letting us in on radio announcements that tell us just where our murderer on a mission is. As already mentioned, the footage of 42nd Street alone are worth the price of admission allowing those who never experienced it full force to gawk at the plethora of porn shops and movie marquees promoting such pictures as THE STREETFIGHTER (1974), FADE TO BLACK (1980) and FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (1978).

Baird Stafford is frighteningly pitiable as something of a 'Frankenstein's Monster' in that he's purportedly been "rebuilt" by the use of experimental drugs. Stafford's character is anything but likable, but the actor is successful at eliciting a modicum of sympathy for this sick person in a way that Joe Spinell's MANIAC (1980) wasn't allowed to do. Both films make for a supreme double feature for cinema sadists and both could make for a good dueling comparison.

NIGHTMARE (1981) had been just that for some of those associated with it as well as those who attempted to distribute the film; the UK being one example. It wasn't a regular occurrence that a film could result in a prison sentence if you were selling copies of it. The film never reached levels of notoriety like that in America, but it did enjoy a (un)healthy life on videocassette finding an all new audience through Continental's release of the film in one of those colorfully explicit big boxes. It was later released again under the boringly titled BLOOD SPLASH and, like the actual trailer for the film, carried a huge blurb on the back of the box proclaiming the involvement of Tom Savini, a controversial piece of information that has now finally been put to rest on the recent 30th Anniversary DVD release from Code Red.

The 2 disc set is packed with extras as well as three different cuts of the film to choose from. Considering it took so long for this movie to finally surface on DVD, its release was just as problematic as all the other problems surrounding the movie itself. In a bid to both please and piss off its fan base, Code Red has populated this set with a playfully bitter sense of humor--such as including a 95 minute interview with Romano Scavolini in Italian WITHOUT English subtitles. Not only that, but the second disc sporting the superior print has a label that looks like a bootlegger's DVD-R!

The turmoil surrounding the compilation and inclusion of this interview is no doubt a reflection of the love/hate relationship CR has with its relatively small buying market. Fans of these niche titles can be fickle and difficult to please, but both giving them the product and giving them the finger isn't the most logical, nor mature thing to do. Still, it's great to have the movie on the shiny disc as well as the other extras including interviews and commentary.

Exceptionally well made, Romano Scavolini's penetratingly grotesque semi-masterpiece of psychotic horror is let down by one or two logic missteps and its performances which vary wildly. These myriad other roles rarely register when eyes aren't bugged out, screams pierce the soundtrack or the loud sound of gargling blood emanating from a savagely slashed throat aren't pulverizing the viewer into submission. It's not perfect, but for such an unusually ambitious low budget affair, what it accomplishes outweighs its shortcomings. An exploitation favorite, NIGHTMARE delivers the grotesque goods and is a bonafide disturbing movie that may make you feel like a shower after it's over with.

This review is representative of the Code Red 2 disc limited edition DVD

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