Bad Dreams at 35: Revisiting Andrew Fleming’s Nightmare-Themed Horror Debut

Way before Andrew Fleming gave us the 1996 teen witchcraft-horror cult classic The Craft, he made his directorial debut eight years earlier called Bad Dreams. If you live through the 1980s era, you might recall the latter being criticised as A Nightmare on Elm Street rip-off. It didn’t stop there as the lead actress of Bad Dreams, Jennifer Rubin also happened to star and made her acting debut in A Nightmare on the Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors a year earlier. Both movies even shared the same setting (the psychiatric hospital/asylum) and a main antagonist who has a badly burned face similar to Freddy Krueger and even haunted his protagonist in dreams.

I didn’t remember much about Bad Dreams when I first saw it on VHS back in the ’90s. But with the 35th anniversary arriving this weekend, I decided to revisit the movie. I have to admit the Nightmare on Elm Street comparison is certainly inevitable but even so, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying this movie and dare I say, an underappreciated gem from the ’80s era. The movie opens promisingly with a creepy start right from the get-go as we learn about a charismatic white-haired leader named Harris (Richard Lynch), who led a cult called Unity Fields. He has dozens of followers and the next thing we know, everyone’s gathering in a hilltop wooden house ended up in a fire. All died except for a young girl named Cynthia (Missy Francis), who miraculously survived the fire but has since been hospitalised in a coma for the next 13 years.

By the time Cynthia (now played by Jennifer Rubin) awakens, she finds herself in an asylum under the care of Dr Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott) and Dr Berrisford (Harris Yulin). She joins the group therapy sessions, where she met other patients suffering from borderline personality disorders. But instead of recovering, Cynthia is constantly haunted by the sight of Harris every now and then. The nightmares begin when one by one ends up dead in a gruesome fashion.

Richard Lynch as Harris in "Bad Dreams" (1988)

Andrew Fleming may have been a first-time director when he made Bad Dreams. But he already proved his worth as an ace stylist in the horror genre, giving us plenty of blood (at one point, we see blood gushing down from the air vents), violence and gore effects. The latter is worth mentioning for the burned-face makeup on Richard Lynch’s Harris and it also helps that his perfectly sinister turn hits the right spot. The movie also runs a lean 84-minute length, which helps a lot in keeping the pace brisk. Fleming, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Steven E. de Souza (yup, the same screenwriter who penned action hits like 48 Hrs., Commando and the first two Die Hard) may tread familiar ground in terms of its Nightmare on Elm Street-like structure.

And yet, no matter how derivative the story here in Bad Dreams, it manages to sustain my interest throughout the movie. Part of it has to do with the psychological-thriller aspect of the horror genre since the movie often plays coy with Cynthia’s condition. Is she just imagining things all this while or is the supposedly dead Harris terrorising her in the dream for real? We never really know until the climactic third act, particularly a subsequent reveal that at least Fleming made an extra effort trying to justify Cynthia’s increasingly disoriented state between her dream and reality.

The movie is also blessed with a mostly better-than-expected ensemble cast, notably Jennifer Rubin in her first lead role as Cynthia. She does a good job playing such a character with a traumatic past. As mentioned earlier, Richard Lynch delivers a terrific turn as the main antagonist, Harris but Bruce Abbott, who plays Dr Alex Karmen tends to overact in some scenes. Bad Dreams concludes with Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” during the end credits and as much as I love the iconic song, it sounds strangely random that doesn’t fit well with the movie. The song would go on to become one of Guns N’ Roses’ all-time hits after the single officially made its debut two months later on June 21, 1988.

Bad Dreams made its theatrical debut on April 8, 1988, where it opened at No. 3 at US$4.0 million in the first three days while Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice still held the top spot for the second consecutive week. It did moderate business at the US box office, grossing US$9.8 million against a US$4.5 million budget after 38 weeks of release. Andrew Fleming would go on to direct his next film Threesome in 1994, which turned out to be a dramedy rather than another stint in the horror genre. Of course, he didn’t abandon the genre that got him the big break in the first place with the aforementioned The Craft in 1996. Jennifer Rubin’s acting career varied from one genre to another but sadly didn’t really take off, even though I did like her in her later films like Saints and Sinners (1994) and Screamers (1995).