The disfigured knife-wielding Freddy Kruger is still considered the ultimate eighties dream-stalker. But three months prior to Nightmare on Elm St coming out in US cinemas, Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape used a similar hook to Wes Craven’s film – the notion that you can invade other people’s dreams – but used an intriguing political conspiracy thriller veneer. A modest success at the time – its box office was certainly dwarfed by Craven’s iconic offering – but the film has cultivated a cult following, resulting in the recent obligatory special features-heavy HD re-release.
The film opens with a jolt as the President of the United States (Eddie Albert) wakes up drenched in sweat and hysterical following another of his apocalyptic nightmares. From there, we’re introduced to Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) a gifted psychic who has been using his powers to win at the race track and pick up women. He’s reluctantly roped into assisting at a science institute by his old teacher Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow). Here he puts his powers to good use participating in a program to allows psychics to link with the minds of others by projecting themselves into the subconscious during deep sleep. Created primarily to help diagnose and treat surfers of sleep disorders, Christopher Plummer’s shady government agent (are there any other kind?) Bob Blair may have different designs on the project.
Dreamscape’s juicy set-up offers up a number of fun scenarios for the filmmakers to play around with. At one point Alex ventures into the subconscious of a husband whose feelings of sexual inadequacy have manifested themselves in a surreal anxiety-ridden adultery scenario, while he also helps combat a snake-like bogeyman who haunts the dreams of a young teenager. Perhaps it’s of little surprise that one of the scribes here, Charles Russell, would go on to co-write and direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, considered by many to be the best in the long-running series. Ruben – something of a journeyman with a couple of memorable features under his belt – is able to successfully balance the more outlandish fantasy interludes with the staging of the real world suspense when the thriller machinations kick in.
The film’s ace up its sleeve, however, is in the casting of The Warriors’ David Patrick Kelly who plays Alex’s nemesis at the institute, whose psychic powers are possibly even greater than that of his rival’s. Kelly’s pinched features and shrill voice made him an asset as a villain for hire back in the eighties, and he’s suitably unnerving and downright creepy in here. He only has to be present on screen for the film to suddenly take on a menacing atmosphere. Further bolstered by an atmospheric synth-y score by Maurice Jarre, Dreamscape often comes close to straddling the line between ridiculousness and engrossing, yet it’s never less than entertaining and in many ways, is worthy of a place amongst those more popular, era-defining fantasy offerings.