A Science Fiction film that predates “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “The Matrix” and “Inception” yet has key ideas that each of those films exploit as their main plot devices. This is a thriller with horror elements and a good dose of 70s conspiracy thinking behind it. It also stars several notables who are recognizable in other more well known films. The special effects are dated but they worked well at the time and the story does make you do a little thinking as you go along.
The film has some dark aspects to it and those might have been explored in more depth with greater meaning if this was an attempt to make an artistic statement. With the pulp marketing of the poster and an August release, you can tell it was really designed to make money not art. There is however a lot to admire in what is accomplished here. It was not successful at making much money but it is successful at being entertaining.
Alex Gardner is a gifted psychic who abandoned the researchers who were studying him, for a life of winning at the race track and sleeping with women in meaningless relationships. Alex is played by the ever youthful Dennis Quaid. After appearing in “Breaking Away” and “The Right Stuff” big things were predicted for Mr. Quaid. He starred in a series of Science Fiction, Action, and Thrillers in the 1980s and never broke out the way some of his contemporaries did. I think I heard someone speculate that in exchange for his ever youthful appearance, the devil he made his deal with took career success as payment. Whatever Crossroads he waited at at midnight, they did not steal his talent. He is a very good actor and his pictures just have not had the luck that he might hope for. “Dreamscape” is one of those films that should have been more financially successful and more well remembered, instead it remains a relic of the past.
The mentor that Alex abandoned in his late teens was Dr. Novotny, a man who has found a new scientific endeavor that he wants to recruit Alex to participate in. If Dennis Quaid has a portrait of his aging and corrupted self in an attic somewhere, it might lay alongside a similar painting of Max Von Sydow. He has been making films since the late 1940s and up until ten years ago, looked about the same age for that fifty year span. Here he is cast in one of the countless Doctors or Professors that he has played in supporting roles over the years. He is a genre vet with roles in: “The Exorcist”, “Flash Gordon”, “Conan the Barbarian”, “Dune”, “Judge Dredd”, and “Minority Report”. He has excelled at playing the older mentor even when he was not older. As usual he acquits himself very well in this piece.
The new project involves projecting one person into another persons dreams. Ideally this would help to diagnose psychological problems and better treat the suffering patient. As a psychic, Dr. Novotny believes Alex will have an easier time projecting himself into the dreams. Of course there are some reasons for his reluctance to participate. Alex makes a joke out of the lab where the link to the dreamscape is made, “Nice place you got here. Who’s your decorator, Darth Vader”.
Hesitant to sign on, Alex meets Buddy, a little boy whose terrifying nightmares are slowly causing him to wither and potentially die. This is the part of the film that introduces the horror element because there is a monster in Buddy’s dreams. The creature does get dealt with and Buddy will recover, but now there is the hint of evil to come in later visits to other dreamscapes. Alex’s willingness to help Buddy starts to thaw the feelings of the previously resistant Jane DeVries, Novotny’s associate played by Kate Capshaw. This was Capshaw’s second film this year and she is a lot more subdued in it than she was as the shrieking Willie in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom“. As the story continues she will aid Alex with the main plot later on and become a romantic interest as well but she is never the woman in distress who needs rescuing. Even the romantic angle is muted for most of the story and she is mainly a scientist who is a part of the project. She provides scientific and psychological exposition for the most part, rather than the warm embrace that Alex seeks after an adventure. In the one clearly comic sequence in the picture, she interviews a couple having sexual dysfunction, and sends Alex into the husband’s dream to discover what gives. What he discovers in a strange sex dream is that the man has feelings of inadequacy and believes everyone is banging his wife. These two trips into the dreamworld of others are designed to set up the main confrontation that becomes the engine of the plot, a conspiracy surrounding the President of the United States.
There are three other characters that are important to the story and a fourth that exists only in two scenes for the purpose of exposition. Bob Blair is the government spook behind the whole project. He is played with unctuous professionalism by Christopher Plummer. Like Von Sydow, Plummer is a veteran of films like this. His genre films include “Star Trek VI”, Twelve Monkeys” and “Somewhere in Time”. As the head of a secret government intelligence agency, he has the President’s trust but he himself does not trust the President. In a topical reference, the President is considering an arms treaty with the Russians which would, in the view of Blair, severely put the U.S. at jeopardy. It seems that the President has been having nightmares himself about the end of the world and his role in it. Blair has a confederate in the project, a second psychic, Tommy Ray Glatman, a disturbing psychotic who killed his own father. In the 1980s, if you wanted a psycho in your movie, you hired David Patrick Kelly. He has the deep set eyes and high cheekbones that signal danger and in most of his roles he usually was. Like Alex, Tommy Ray has mastered the process of entering into a persons dreams but instead of rescuing them, he is learning how to kill them. So it is Blair’s plan to assassinate the President in a way that it will look like natural causes and he can then prevent the arms agreement he finds so abhorrent. The third major character is the anxious President himself. Eddie Albert was probably best known for the moronic but highly successful “Green Acres” TV show. He was also a two time Academy Award nominated best supporting actor, and he adds some gravitas to the story here. The opening of the film features his nightmare vision of nuclear destruction. It is highlighted in deep shadows and reds with a haze lingering over the building fragments that still stand. Even more horrifying though are the images he sees of his dead wife running from the explosion in NYC and the irradiated surviving children that pursue him in his dream.
The special effects in the movie are primarily optical effects, sets, and make-up. The main monster that haunts Buddy and reappears at the climax of the film is a combination of practical make-up, puppetry, man in a suit, and stop motion animation. As I said before, it largely works although it will seem dated to sophisticates who demand seamless CGI creations to suspend their disbelief. To me the most interesting effects used to create the dream scenarios were the set designs, lighting and camera angles. When Buddy and Alex are fleeing the monster, they open a non-symmetrical door, and stare down a frightening dark void with a staircase that they then begin to descend.
The greatest degree of creativity was spent on the make up effects and the set designs and it pays off in scary situations in the movie. This was the second film after “Red Dawn“, to be released with a PG-13 rating. It had been my belief for a number of years that it was actually the first PG-13 film. In researching, I did find that most accept that it was the Kids fighting the Russians movie which was first but a couple of places that I looked also suggested that “Dreamscape” was the first in the category to be released. You can clearly see why this movie was PG-13. While the record for violent acts was held by the other contender, there was nothing in that film quite as explicit as the murders that take place in the dream world. Foreshadowing Freddy Kruger and echoing Temple of Doom, a man with steel fingernails, rips the heart out of another man and then while it bleeds and beats, monologues and makes a bad joke. The premise of the movie is clearly a good one as indicated by the number of films that have used similar concepts in the last thirty years. The movie would be ripe for a successful remake or even better, a cable TV series that followed the adventures of a group of people who can do dreamscaping. There are incredible possibilities that might include a “Scanners” like culture and conspiracy with an on the road adventure along the lines of “The Fugitive” or “The Incredible Hulk”. Either way, it is the concept here that needs to be revived rather than the basic plot of this particular thriller.
If I have one complaint about the film it is the music. Maurice Jarre has more than a hundred film credits and three Academy Awards, all of them for orchestral scores. The electronic score for this movie seemed inconsistent to me. There is not a distinctive theme. Sometimes it sounds like someone is just noodling around with the synthesizer rather than deliberately trying to heighten the tension or make characters memorable. In addition to “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr, Zhivago”, my favorite score from him is “The Man Who Would be King“. I was disappointed that not a single note stands out in a nondescript electronic score. Perhaps the real reason his work here is under done is that he was also working on another 1984 film score that would win him his last Academy Award, “A Passage to India”.
I did listen to a podcast concerning “Dreamscape” on Forgotten Filmcast. I’m going to be a guest on the show next week and I wanted to hear how the show worked. It is a great way to spend an hour, so I’d encourage you to subscribe. The reason I mention it though is that Todd and his guest Tom, both noticed how the marketing of the film apes the Indiana Jones film. Of course the film features Kate Capshaw, and there is a little boy in the story, but the idea that he is a substitute for “Short Round” in the poster seems a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, both posters are from my favorite poster artist Drew Struzan, so maybe the parallel is not that big of a leap. They did remark however that Dennis Quaid never carries a torch in the film as is shown in the poster. I’m afraid I have to correct them.
I hope Todd and Tom will not think me a smart ass, I just wanted to let them know that I was paying attention to both their comments and the movie.