Nightmare!

The dream you can’t escape…alive!

NIGHTMARE (1981)

A very sweaty man in tighty whiteys writhes around in his bed before waking up and finding a bloody severed head at the foot of his bed. The freshly severed head then opens its eyes, which causes the man to begin screaming. It was all just a dream – or a NIGHTMARE, if you will. The sweaty man in question is a criminally insane psychopath named George Tatum (Baird Stafford). George is a homicidal schizophrenic who suffers from mild amnesia, dream fixation, and seizures. After being arrested for the sexual mutilation and murder of a family in Brooklyn, George Tatum is sent to a mental hospital where he is force fed a cocktail of experimental hypnotic drugs.

The doctors hope to cure George of his reoccurring dreams and violent episodes by keeping him doped up and subjecting him to radical behavior modification techniques. The secret experiment is prematurely dubbed a breakthrough success and the doctors believe that they have completely rebuilt his damaged mind. The next logical step is reprogramming George for future government and lucrative private sector use. Before George can be sold to the highest bidder, the doctor in charge of the experiment foolishly decides to release him into the general public on his own recognizances. This proves to be a deadly mistake.

George Tatum is still incurably insane. The drugs can only temporarily suppress his desires to mutilate and kill, they cannot completely erase the twisted memories from his mind. George begins cruising the NYC sex shops and the lurid sight of whores touching themselves behind glass is enough to make him fall to the ground and begin foaming at the mouth like a rabid animal. George then hops into his car and begins the long drive from New York to Florida. George is strangely determined to track down a single mother named Susan Temper and her three children, and he is more than willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. For the Temper family, George’s twisted dreams become a real life nightmare that they can’t escape alive.

Writer and Director Romano Scavolini is the mastermind behind this eternally controversial 1981 slasher flick. His inspiration for the story came from an article in the New York Times, which described how the CIA had been administering experimental drugs to schizophrenics. Scavolini used this disturbing idea as the basis for a horror story, and “Nightmare” was the end result. What makes this film so disturbing is the fact that there has been plenty of real life George Tatums. He is not the boogeyman, or a masked mauler who strikes without any real reason or motive. George Tatum is a psychopath, and one of the most convincing in horror history.

Baird Stafford does a fantastic job in the lead role of George Tatum. He might have been a little too convincing as a psycho, as he only went on to star in one other movie seven years later. The highlight of this flick for me is an incredible sequence where George Tatum suddenly appears behind a unsuspecting victim that is talking on the phone. Baird has just the slightest hint of a smile on his face, and you know the worst is about to come. He slits the woman’s throat and Scavolini treats the audience to a loving close up of her gushing wound. Blood spurts from her throat as she gurgles and struggles to breathe. Then George sits on top of her and begins slowly plunging the knife into her body. What makes this scene really stand out is the way that George appears to be fucking her with the knife. Sweat pours from his hair as he reaches his climax, and the scene is punctuated with a nasty shot of George licking the blood off his hands. Unforgettable.

The rest of the cast is horrible, although it’s hard for me to decide if I dislike the actors or the characters that they are playing. The character of Susan Temper is one of the most thoroughly unlikable and unsympathetic I’ve ever seen. She’s a stressed out single mom who spends the majority of the film sleeping, fucking her bearded boyfriend Bob on his boat, and yelling at her children. There’s a scene where she completely abandons her children and thoughtlessly leaves them locked outside of their house while she frolics with her lover miles away. Of course, with children as wretched and annoying as hers it’s somewhat easy to understand why she acts like she does. Her two daughters are chubby dimwitted little pigs that never stop screeching and squeeling. And then there’s the one and only C.J.

C.J. Temper is a purely evil little bastard with a Dorothy Hamill haircut. He’s also a rotten little schemer that loves to pull elaborate, mean spirited pranks on his family, friends, and babysitter. He smirks as the police are called in to investigate his dirty deeds. He later pours ketchup all over his body and pretends that someone stabbed him, which causes his frantic mother to almost kill herself racing home. Just when you think you can’t hate this little fucker any more, he then has the appalling nerve to mock the brutal death of his best friend! It’s almost impossible not to despise him and root for his violent demise. C.J. manages to be a formidable foe though, and proves to be an expert shot as he arms himself with a handgun and precisely blasts through a small hole in a door with the trained skill of a professional marksman.

No discussion of “Nightmare” would be complete without mentioning the Tom Savini related controversy that surrounds the film. Romano Scavolini claims that Tom Savini was the special effects supervisor for the film. Tom Savini claims that he never worked on the film because he was too busy working on Creepshow at the time. Despite Savini’s dismissal, there are several photos of him on the set that prove he worked on at least one scene in the move – the centerpiece decapitation by hatchet.

This incredible scene is the bloody highlight of the film. It is shown in pieces throughout the film, and then shown in its entirety at the climax. Fans of “Friday The 13th” will find this decapitation to be a very close recreation of the classic Betsy Palmer head slice. Watch the blood flow, watch the twitching hands in front of the body. It’s trademark Tom Savini. There’s really no denying that he created that effect. How much, if any of the rest of the film he worked on the other hand was debatable. The rest of the effects in the film are all effectively gruesome, but they are perhaps not quite up to snuff with Savini’s usual work.

Tom Savini was furious when his name was splashed all over the posters for “Nightmare,” and he successfully sued the production to have his name removed from the ads. His name still appears in the credits of the film though. Savini claims that the producers offered to pay him for his name value only, not for his work. He found this distasteful and dishonest and refused. Romano Scavolini on the other hand is adamant that Savini was the special effects supervisor on the film, and claims that Savini refused to have his name on the film because he wanted the credit to go to his friend and assistant Lester Lorraine (RIP) instead. Regardless of who you choose to believe, the photos prove that Savini worked on the film in a small capacity. It remains one of the great slasher controversies to this day.

“Nightmare” was also a source of much controversy in the UK. The film was banned by BBFC as a Video Nasty, and the head of UK video distributor Oppidan served six months in jail for selling an uncut version of the film! This is the only time in history that someone went to jail for distributing a horror film. Angry critics and bad reviews savaged the film in every country it was released in. The New York Daily News wrote three separate articles attacking the film. Despite, or more likely because of this controversy, the film quickly became a box office success during the glory days of the 80’s slasher craze. Variety reported that the film earned over 4 million in 28 cities throughout America and Canada, which is quite respectable for such a vile, low budget slasher flick.

I consider NIGHTMARE to be one of the very best 80′s slasher flicks. It works in a big way because of how brutal and realistic it feels. There are a lot of other slasher flicks that are faster paced and have better acting and higher production value, but very few can compare in terms of sleaze, splatter, and an overall sense of shock and disgust. If you want to go inside the mind of a schizophrenic killer, this is a must see flick. This is also essential viewing for all fans of slasher flicks. After many years of delays and seemingly endless bouts of online mudslinging, Code Red has finally released their 30th Anniversary Edition 2-disc special edition. The package includes an incredible THREE different versions of the film, as well as a number of bonus features. I was excited to finally have a chance to see what all the fuss had been about…and sadly, I was let down as usual by Code Red.

Code Red has a long and ugly history of shitty business practices that should already be well known to hardcore fans of slasher and exploitation flicks who spend quality time on the internet. My personal issues with the company (?) have always been the fact that they promote “upcoming” dvd releases of films they either do not own the rights to, or do not possess the proper materials to produce a release. For example, years ago Code Red prematurely promoted a dvd release of THE MUTILATOR, only to eventually turn around and blame the film’s director for not providing them with a pristine, dvd worthy print of the film. Even worse, Code Red has a nasty reputation for petty, message board bullshit. The owner of the company loves to go online and talk shit to the random horror geeks who would DARE ask him where those special edition dvd releases he’s been promoting for years are. He also loves to complain bitterly about the fact that no one buys his releases when they finally come out, as if he has been generating good will or a good name for his company in general.

Regardless, I was excited to finally possess a special edition NIGHTMARE dvd, and I still am. However, this release is incredibly flawed, rushed (which is incredible, considering how long it took), and unsatisfying. For some bizarre reason, Code Red decided to include THREE different prints of the film, split onto two discs. Both of the prints featured on the first disc are very poor looking. This is another fun example of Code Red hyping up their upcoming special edition dvd release, and then stumbling around afterwards for years looking for acceptable prints to release. Both of the versions of the film on disc one feature  scratches, dirt, jumps, and sound issues. The 2005 (?) restoration of the film looks marginally better, but is poorly color corrected and features pink title credits. To add to your viewing displeasure, the commentary track with actor Baird Stafford is incorrectly timed and does not match the action on the screen. Frustratingly enough (and this release is pretty goddamned frustrating), the 2011 Telecine restoration of the film featured on disc two is the best looking of the bunch – by far. To the point where the entire first disc is rendered worthless. Disc two looks better, and features the longest running time of the bunch, including two extended scenes that were cut from the vhs releases. Frankly, this is ALL Code Red had to release. The other two versions of the film are overkill.

That strange sensation of ineptitude carries over to the special features, including the miss-timed commentary track I mentioned earlier. The biggest disappointment of the entire release is a 95 minute interview with Romano Scavolini, done in Italian…WITHOUT English subtitles!  Where are the subtitles you ask? Don’t ask Code Red! They just went ahead and filmed it in Italian without knowing the logistics and costs of getting it translated and subtitled in English! Then they spent an entire year online citing that interview as the sole reason the dvd wasn’t being released. Hilariously enough, according to Baird Stafford and others, Romano Scavolini has a perfect command of the English language, and the interview easily could have been done in English in the first place! It would be funny if it wasn’t so fucking sad. All I could think when slogging through this overstuffed and half baked “special” edition release was how much better it would have been if ANYONE ELSE in the world had put it out instead of Code Red. Imagine this film in the hands of Blue Underground, or Synapse. You would likely get a proper looking dvd release, with quality, well produced special features. Released in mass quantities with total love for the film and the fans, and not out of spite against the same fans you desperately want to fill your pockets. The final verdict on this one? Download the 2nd disc. Fuck Code Red. Don’t support bad horror business.

KEEP THE BLOOD FLOWING!!!    

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4 Responses to “Nightmare!”

  1. Great review. I really like this flick. Only a few films, incuding this and Maniac, succeed in capturing the world thru the eyes of a psychopath. No wonder the world was not, and never will be, ready for these films. I know I was (foaming at mouth) 🙂

  2. My top five, in honest order of how good they are at going inside the head of a killer: Maniac, Nightmare, Don’t Go In The House, Driller Killer, Don’t Answer The Phone

  3. Yeah Brain….excellent review, I haven’t been able to pick this up yet, and I knew that Code Red would fuck it up! I don’t know if you remember, but I was the first one that got into it with that douchebag that runs that “company”? I let him have it, and he gave me all the bullshit excuses that he has since. I guess i will break down and get it because I really want it on DVD, and you did say there was one decent print in the set. All I have is a DVD-R that I made from the big bos VHS, which I now find out is cut. You are right, I so wish that Synapse would have done this!! Keep up the good work!

    • I also have had my share of run ins with Mr. Code Red. He is a first class douche for sure. I trashed this release, and deservedly so, but in all fairness – all three prints are watchable at the very least, and the print on the 2nd disc is the best looking of the bunch. I would still recommend picking it up, because it’s likely the only dvd release this film will ever see. Good luck on finding it for a decent price though! Last time I heard, this was already going for $99 and upwards on amazon!

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