Summer Shocks 1984: Dreamscape

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Dennis Quaid, political assassination and snake men!


Summer Shocks 1984: Dreamscape

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o' lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn't about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

Summer Shocks 1984: DreamscapeBy 1984, the slasher fad was on the decline but for proof of horror's continued success one only had to observe how adeptly horror had infiltrated other genres. In the summer of 1984, horror was cross-pollinated to excellent effect with comedy and fantasy in blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Gremlins (both of which hit U.S. theaters on June 8 that year) and to not-quite-as-excellent effect elsewhere with science fiction and action (Firestarter). My favorite genre splicer of that summer, though, was Dreamscape.

With its brisk, breezy tone, appealing cast, beguiling special effects, and deft mix of genre elements, movies didn't come much more entertaining in the '80s (or since then, for that matter) than Dreamscape. This is a movie that literally has it all. As directed by Joseph Ruben (who co-wrote the screenplay with Chuck Russell, based on a story by David Loughery), it's a speculative sci-fi mind-bender, a jump out of your chair horror movie (with some not-so-shabby PG-13 gore), a light romance, a political thriller, and an action film to boot. It's Dreamscape, man!

Dennis Quaid plays Alex Gardner, a roguish type who makes a tidy, if slightly crooked, living using his psychic abilities not to change the world but to make a killing at the racetrack. One day, he's hauled against his will into a government-funded project headed by his old mentor Dr. Paul Novotny (Max Von Sydow). Novotny's project involves the new technology of dream-linking and with his already formidable mental abilities, all it takes is a room full of sci-fi hardware to get Alex past that subconscious threshold.

Other talented psychics have been dream-linking their asses off prior to Alex's participation and for both good and bad, their experiences give Alex an idea of what he may be in store for. One psychic suffers a mental breakdown after going into a child's nightmare and has to be carted off in a catatonic state. On the other hand, an encouraging success story comes from the project's resident hot shot, the "Neil Armstrong of dream-linking," Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly of 1979's The Warriors, adding yet another memorable villain role to his résumé).

Summer Shocks 1984: DreamscapeNovotny clearly doesn't believe in psychiatric screenings when it comes to selecting viable dream-linkers as Tommy is not the kind of person who should be allowed into anyone's head. He's a full-on sociopath and anyone who meets him in their dreams is going to need more theapy afterwards – if they survive the ordeal – than they ever did before. Tommy's reptilian demeanor (appropriate, given the form he takes on in the film's climax) doesn't mix well with Alex's affability and the competition between them only escalates when Alex proves to be just as proficient a dream-linker as Tommy, if not more so.

Before long, it's clear that when it comes to Tommy, Alex is going to have a lot more to contend with than just a surly attitude. It turns out that Tommy is the pet psycho of Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), a high-ranking government agent who is busy hijacking Novotny's work for his own political schemes. Blair believes the President (Eddie Albert) is becoming too influenced by recurring nightmares of a nuclear holocaust and will weaken the US's military might because of it, signing a peace agreement with the Russians. A eerily prescident precursor of such right wing demigouges as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Blair will hear none of that peace talk and while he brings the President to Novotny's clinic on the pretense of curing his nightmares, what he really intends is for Tommy to get into the President's dreams and assassinate him (in Dreamscape, as in A Nightmare on Elm Street, the old wives tale about dying in your dreams and dying at the same time in real life proves to be true). It's up to Alex to prevent this political coup d'état and in the end Dreamscape comes down to a psychic battle to the death between Alex and Tommy (who busts out some green-glowing neon numchucks) inside the President's nightmare of a nuclear-wasted Washington D.C. with the fate of the free world at stake.

Taking its cues from the previous year's adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone (1983), the screenplay for Dreamscape shares that film's episodic structure as Alex spends the bulk of Dreamscape solving the problems of various characters, as though we're watching Dreamscape: The Series. Whereas in The Dead Zone, John Smith tells a nurse her house is on fire, catches a serial killer, and prevents a student from falling through the ice of a frozen pond; in Dreamscape, Alex helps a steel worker with their fear of heights, helps a middle-aged husband who thinks his wife is cheating on him, and helps a young boy defeat the snake-like creature of his nightmares. In both films, these smaller stories serve as warm-up exercises towards a much bigger challenge for their protagonists as an apocalyptic political threat (in The Dead Zone, it's the presidential aspirations of Greg Stillson, in Dreamscape the hawk-like machinations of Bob Blair) is coming to a head and only Johnny and Alex's respective powers will be able to avert it.

Summer Shocks 1984: DreamscapeWhile their narratives run along similar lines, Alex is like the happy-go-lucky version of King's tortured psychic. Johnny's lot in life makes him miserable and his abilities make him an outcast while Alex is perpetually sunny, using his abilities to make money and score women. Johnny lives like a recluse, Alex spends his time in bars or at the race track. Johnny doesn't get the girl, but Alex does – finding the time to put the moves on Dr. Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw at her most attractive). Johnny sacrifices his life to prevent the Earth's possible future nuclear annihilation. Alex saves the world without a scratch to show for it, kills his last remaining enemy, and goes on a romantic train ride as the end credits roll. Dead Zone is like a Greek Tragedy while Dreamscape is pure wish-fulfillment. Alex is so lucky, in fact, that not only does he not have to hold down a real job but his "work" requires him to go to sleep. Talk about living the dream!

A few months after Dreamscape's summer release, Wes Craven's original A Nightmare on Elm Street arrived in theaters (Craven's script had made the rounds in Hollywood for years prior to being made and it's possible that Dreamscape took some inspiration from Craven's long-languishing project – just check out the Freddy-esque finger knives that Tommy sports in one scene!) but while Craven showed an uncanny fidelity towards recreating the true 'rubber reality' of dreams, Dreamscape's more bourgeois approach was fitting for the kind of high-tech but non-edgy Saturday matinee-style cliffhanger entertainment that it aimed to be (even its poster was drawn by artist Drew Struzan, famed for his posters for Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars series). With Elm Street, Craven kept the audience off guard by having the line between the real and the unreal be invisible (often we're not sure whether an Elm Street character is dreaming or not) whereas each dream in Dreamscape kicks in with trippy fanfare, taking us with Alex inside a cinematic funhouse, tricked out with exaggerated sets, extreme lighting and tilted camera angles.

Summer Shocks 1984: DreamscapeWith its Cold War elements now the stuff of nostalgia (who would've thought that all those years the US and Russia spent in a prolonged nuclear stalemate would turn out to be the good old days?), Dreamscape is like a relic from another era. That dated quality applies to its FX as well but that's a good thing. Dreamscape is from a time when FX artists were forced to be resourceful, resorting to a multitude of methods in order to realize the demands of a script. In Dreamscape, there are miniature effects (the nuclear-blasted D.C. landscape, complete with a wrecked Capital building and Lincoln memorial), stop-motion (the fabulous Snake Man, who in full body shots looks like something out of a Harryhausen film), gnarly looking masks and prosthetic make-ups (the radiation scarred survivors), optical FX, stock footage, and even the simplest of in-camera effects, like time lapse photography. I love all the old-school movie magic that's on tap in this film and find it to be intractable from Dreamscape's considerable charm.

Unfortunately, Dreamscape has never attracted the kind of hardcore following that films of similar vintage like Tron or The Thing or Blade Runner have found. It's never had a cool cachet attached to it. As cult films go, it's kind of square. It's not one of those films that fans quote lines from or that is hailed as having raised the bar for FX. Still, I'll always love it and continue to hope that one day it'll get its proper due as a cult classic.

What can I say? I'm a dreamer.

 


Other horror films released in the summer of '84:

 

Firestarter (May 11th)

Ghostbusters June 8th)

Gremlins (June 8th)

C.H.U.D. (August 31st)

 


SUMMER OF 1979:

 

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

 

 


SUMMER OF 1980:

 

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

 


SUMMER OF 1981:

 

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

 

 


SUMMER OF 1982:

 

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)