Dreamscape Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Dreamscape Review

    “When you dream that you die, you die in life, at the very same instant. Now we can go into an enemy's dream, kill him, and make it look as if he died in his sleep. Do you realize what that means?”

    “That means no-one's safe from you.”

    One of the great things about another home video format is the amount of back-catalogue material that is being dusted-down and re-released for, potentially, a raft of newcomers to enjoy, as well as for old fans to rediscover. Whilst the bonuses of a hi-def makeover may be scant and rather lacking for some of these titles - as we shall see later - the fact that some of these now-overlooked gems are resurfacing is still a cause for celebration. 1984's Dreamscape definitely fits the bill with its “ahead-of-their-day” ideas, fun blend of action and horror, intrigue and fantasy, surprisingly solid cast, boasting very likeable leads and finger-on-the-button stance of authoritarian suspicion.

    At around this time, there were plenty of pseudo-SF big concept movies that had hit the screen. There was Doug Trumball's sophisticated Brainstorm, there was Tron, we had Altered States from Ken Russell and Videodrome from David Cronenberg, as well as the likes of Looker and Runaway, that all funnelled bold and often dangerous ideas onto the screen, pushing the envelope of celluloid science and providing cultural and technological observations as pertinent as their own outlandish imagery. But one of the more enjoyable and slightly more maverick of the bunch that came along was Joseph Ruben's fondly recalled adventure, Dreamscape. Starring the always personable Dennis Quaid and Kate Capshaw - who never looked more gorgeous - alongside an unusually heavy and high-brow cast that includes Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow, the tale just about pre-dates the Elm Street franchise, being released a couple of months earlier but having, very suspiciously, a very similar central notion and even a claw-fingered antagonist that just may have been, at the script-stage, the genesis for the phenomenally iconic figurehead that the Wes Craven series spawned. I only caught up with the film on video cassette, but became instantly smitten with a story that seemed to offer a hell of a lot for your money, from straight-ahead action to political subterfuge, from a couple of very welcome sexy bits to some quite bravura horror sequences. You couldn't really fail to have a good time with it and even if it sort of fell by the wayside in the wake of the much bigger fantasy blockbusters that came along soon after - The Man In The Hat's second two instalments, a trio of Back To The Futures, and, of course, Mister Krueger, himself - it has never lost that intrepid, slightly cheeky attitude that made it such a pleasure to watch all those years ago.

    Quaid plays a smug but likeable chancer who uses his latent psychic abilities to predict the winners at the race track and avoid the racketeers who want to exploit him. Having turned his back on the research organisation fronted by Sydow years before, he suddenly finds that his talents have gotten him into deep water and that the timely intervention a new government project, again presided-over by Sydow's fatherly Dr. Paul Novotny, is possibly his best escape route. Being a psychic, he should have seen that coming. Drafted into a groundbreaking research program that seeks to place an individual into the dreams of another, with the interactive abilities to change the things that are happening within that subconscious environment, Quaid's uncanny gifts immediately make him something of a darling around the labs, and especially with the adorable Dr. Jane DeVries, played by Capshaw. All of which brings him into conflict with the resident wunderkind dream-explorer, Tommy (David Patrick Kelly, so memorable in The Warriors and Commando) who takes the hump at the new kid on the block stealing his limelight. Patients come in with severe sleep disorders - emotional anxiety, inferiority complexes and, of course, the quintessential monsters in their dreams - that these new-fangled dimensional warriors endeavour to cure. But whilst Alex genuinely tries to help these people, learning the tricks of the trade as he goes, Tommy seems to have a different plan and, perhaps, a far more sinister puppet-master than the benevolent Novotny.

    Everyone, it seems, is prone to have bad dreams. But when you happen to be the President of the United States, and your endlessly recurring nightmare is of a blasted, irradiated nuclear wasteland populated with angry mutants that your final solution created, and this ghastly image begins to affect your day-job to the point where you want to make a deal with the Russians (early 80's, remember?) for unilateral disarmament ... then certain, shall we say, less humanitarian-minded folk are apt to get involved. Thus, when Eddie Albert, who plays what must surely be the most sentimental and conscience-addled president in the movies, is brought to Novotny's lab for help by his stern-faced right-hand-man, Plummer's immediately suspicious and hackle-raising Bob Blair, you just know that some sort of showdown is going to happen. And even if that showdown is to take place within the boundaries of one man's brain, the fate of the entire planet may well be at stake.

    Whilst the film is bound over, by budget and by the speculative ambitions for such a concept, to keep its dream conflicts to only short-burst scenarios, these scenes are still very intriguing. Mingling comedy and fantasy in the early stages, and arrived-at via a nifty, retro-TV-style swirling tunnel of light-clouds, they become more serious and deadly as the movie goes on. Whereas a high-rise rescue becomes as much a terror for those afraid of dodgy matte-lines as it does for those suffering from vertigo, and a clandestine assault upon a suspected cheating housewife leads to a surreal fantasy of penile insecurity, traumatised little Buddy's nightmare is wonderfully recreated via Caligari-esque off-kilter sets, a raging hellish tempest and a rickety, gnarled staircase that descends seemingly into an epic void of Stygian blackness - in short, the out-and-out horror that would go on to become Krueger's surreal and sinister calling-card. Although only a brief sequence, there is a fantastic sense of utter dread summoned up as the poor boy's dream-monster arrives to terrorise both him and Alex, who has obligingly gone into his slumbering mind to help him. Utilising stop-motion animation from Craig Reardon (which does, if we are honest, look quite hokey and quaint nowadays and not unlike similar moments in Evil Dead II) and actual animatronics, the creature, a hideous snake-man that towers above Quaid and makes a meal, out of shot, of the boy's father, does, against all the odds, become a very effective bogeyman who lurks over the unfolding events like a true nemesis. Reardon and his crew may have worked on a low budget, but their creativity was quite inventive - with some moments splendidly eerie and threatening, such as the President's evocative dreamscape of a fire-decimated city and the haunted denizens that still inhabit its ruins. There is something about this miniature-set devastation that reminds us of George Pal's The War Of The Worlds and The Time Machine, something positively radiant and retro, the decimation of a city and a civilisation as decorative as it is appalling. The addition of a ravenous pack of demonic-eyed hell-hounds is a nice touch as well, though not depicted quite as effectively as the ravaged-faced ghouls commuting across the scorched earth to Hell. Reardon would come into his own with his makeup for The X-Files show, as well as numerous other genre movies like The Gate, The Goonies and Meet The Applegates.

    The story is typically one of authoritarian distrust. Plummer's odious scheming is obviously clichéd, his shady involvement and callous disregard for human life - seemingly, by implication, almost all human life - just one of those points on the hidden agenda of virtually every nefarious government organisation as depicted by Hollywood. But Plummer's icy stoicism makes this work. I've discussed his qualities in other reviews, but it is worth repeating just how effective he can be when portraying someone who is polite and erudite, but also ruthlessly efficient and coldly despicable. For someone who once characterised such noble heroes as the Duke of Wellington and Sherlock Holmes with commendable dignity, it is alarming how good he is at twisting our trust around 180-degrees and rubbing away the veneer of dependability. Ruben brings what is, ostensibly, a very intimate narrative - I mean what could be more intimate and personal than laying your innermost feelings bare and allowing strangers into your head? - into a parallel dilemma that has far-reaching implications for us all. There is something of a Scanners-like paranoia running through the core of the story. Gifted individuals are exploited by both the well-meaning and the dastardly. Manipulation is the name of the game, and whereas Cronenberg's mind-blowers are eventually forced to form their own underground movement and fight back, Rubin's are more self-centred and egotistical, loners more by personal choice than by confusion and fear over their mental conditions. Perhaps the greed and go-getting drive of the 80's plays a part in this. Tommy wants to be the best, wants to have status and liberally celebrates his powers. He seeks a path that will make him legendary. Alex is happy enough to exploit his talents in a more happy-go-lucky fashion - women, money, women - though this proves to be no less self-satisfying. Thus, even though the film is morally black and white in terms of the main agendas and trajectories of the characters, there are enough little grey areas for even the good guys to fall into that make the narrative less clean-cut and more engrossingly murky.

    There are some pitfalls, however. A stumbling block is Cheers' George Wendt who becomes the economical, and equally expendable plot-shifter who comes in from the periphery of the story (quite literally, as it happens) to help Alex, and ourselves, get to grips with the skulduggery at hand. Somehow this just smacks of contrivance, and the unsure footing of the trio of writers in hoping that the audience can accept that a corrupt government agency would be capable of such dark deeds. Wendt would shortly go on to provide amiable support for William Katt in the deliriously daft horror-comedy House - and let's hope for a BD release of that one, soon. Somehow, playing it serious, he doesn't quite cut it here. It is possibly the film's only major critical weak spot - well, that's if you can accept the rather shoehorned-in motorcycle chase and the comedy mobsters at the race-track. Ruben, who also co-wrote the screenplay, alongside David Loughery and Chuck Russell , would go on to direct the cult favourite thriller The Stepfather, with Terry O' Quinn in 1987 and then achieve great success with the runaway hit Sleeping With The Enemy in 1991. Chuck Russell, as it happens, would go on to enjoy some more dream-terrors by directing Freddy's third entry, Dream Warriors, as well helming the actioners Eraser and The Scorpion King.

    Whilst you could certainly argue that Capshaw merely supplies the stereotypical glamour, Quaid more than fulfils his promise as the middle-morph face between Steve Martin and Harrison Ford, with equal amounts impetuosity and charisma. After the depressing downward spiral of Jaws 3 could have dragged him under, the actor who would go on to star in Wolfgang Petersen's highly atmospheric Enemy Mine and Joe Dante's expertly entertaining Innerspace, as well as the more commercial hits of Suspect and The Big Easy, brings an authentic warmth and home-grown heroism to the role. And he remains, to this day, one of those dependable names that can't help but entice you towards productions that you sort of know in-advance are probably going to be really rather naff and sub-par - such as Pandorum, GI Joe and Legion, perhaps. The role of Alex isn't exactly testing him, but it allows his easygoing persona to shine through.

    Horribly dating the film even more than the frizzy big perm that Capshaw sports is the glassy electronic score from Maurice Jarre. The experimental and distinctive composer behind the classic music of Lawrence Of Arabia, The Man Who Would Be King and the terrific Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome dovetails right into the Synclavier synth-bed of folding textures and, ahem, “jarring” bleats and blurts of jangling, keyboard-mixed exotica. It is not a bad score at all, but it is one that now sounds quite silly and self-conscious. The kind of score that wants to permanently remind you that we are dealing with computers, electrodes, scientific gizmos and technology. Tangerine Dream must have been busy scoring Streethawk at the time!

    I always remember the old UK version that was cut by the censors for graphic violence (a freshly torn-out heart thrust, still beating, at us) and use of martial arts weapons (Tommy exploiting his Bruce Lee obsession with dream-world nunchuks in a particularly impressive display for David Patrick Kelly). This US disc, of course, contains these elements, although as the makers state in their commentary, the gauzy, soft-filtered sex scene in a dream train carriage between Capshaw and Quaid was already pre-cut prior to the film's cinematic release ... and the footage has, sadly, not been reinstated. Weird thing is, I'm sure that my old British VHS recording from off the TV actually had more of this sequence in it! But I was just an easily excitable schoolboy back in those days, so my recollection could be getting clouded with wishful thinking. And, besides, that tape has long since been lost in the mists of time, so checking whether this is true or not isn't very likely.

    Today, Dreamscape remains something of a groundbreaker in terms of concept. I cannot shake the firm belief that Wes Craven was heavily influenced by it and that, without it, Freddy, as we would come to know and love him, would still just be a fragmentary glimmer in the cult director's own dreams. The film is agreeably tacky with that full-on 80's vibe, but the ideas are great and the effects, for their day, are quite elaborate. Combining SF with horror, Ruben's fantasy-flick is actually a lot more than just a guilty pleasure. Don't be taken in by that ridiculous Raiders-style cover-art, though. This re-release poster art was brought into play only after Kate Capshaw attained “Fortune and glory” in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. The film is fun and it is an adventure, but this illustration of intrepid, flaming-torch derring-do can't help but give the wrong impression. Viewed today, it is a colourful comic-book escapade that forged new ground for the genre, supplies a gleefully creepy monster and some darkly Machiavellian villainy, a couple of semi-exciting chase sequences and the effortless affability of a leading man who always seemed to be the second-best that studios could get hold of, yet has always proved to be a consistently rewarding on-screen presence.

    Joseph Ruben's Dreamscape is great fun that manages to mingle the kitsch with the inspired, and the fantastic with the fun.

    The Rundown

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