There’s no denying that the 1960s was a transformative, important and turbulent decade. One of the most recognizable pop culture elements from the 60s was the nebulous counterculture movement, a loosely connected series of phenomena that covered everything from feminism, anti-war demonstrations and racial boundary pushing. One of the most noted (and arguably most derided) of these counterculture outcrops was the free love movement, especially the branch often just called “the hippies”. By the time the 1960s were coming to a close, the hippie movement, at times, seemed like a fulfillment of the promise of the counterculture. Then the 1960s fell apart in rapid succession. Woodstock wrapped up on August 18, 1969. It was, by most accounts, a wonderful experience. But the media were already covering something very different.
On August 9, Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Steve Parent were murdered by the followers of cult leader Charles Manson. The next day, they would kill Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. To the police and the American public, the identities of the killers would remain unknown for months. In December, arrests were finally made and the faces of the accused would be shown on television for the first time. But they weren’t the typical killers. They were flower children. They were the counterculture. The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, an outdoor concert devised as a kind of “Woodstock on the West Coast”, was held just 6 days after the arrest of the Tate-LaBianca killers. It was meant to be a peaceful festival but it ended infamously when an African American man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by the Hells Angels, a motorcycle gang that had been hired as security for the festival. The murder was caught on film and would later become the central narrative event in the David and Albert Maysles documentary GIMME SHELTER. The two concerts, Woodstock and Altamont, became metaphoric bookends for the counterculture movement. One was the fulfillment. The other was the death. When the shots were fired at Kent State in May of the next year, whatever was left of the movement was sullied forever.
The counterculture movement, tainted by the aftermath of the Manson murder trial, would forever be linked to psychopathy in the horror film. For example, there is an echo of the cynical, Conservative view of the counterculture movement in Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, a movie which concerns a brain dead (for the lack of a better word) horde arriving to challenge and overthrow the prevailing culture. Cult leaders became more sadistic than ever and more manipulative. Several Manson inspired films came out during the 1970s. Simply put, the aftershocks of 1969 were felt throughout pop culture for a very long time. When Jim Jones ordered the suicide of his 909 followers in his Peoples Temple compound in Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978, those aftershocks turned into tsunamis.
BAD DREAMS recognizes those shock waves. It also recognizes the capitalistic and objectivist elements of the 1980s, two newer cult-like cultural movements. It tells the story of Cynthia, a young woman who awakens from a 13 year long coma. Cynthia is in a mental institution under the care of Dr. Alex Karmen. When Cynthia was a teenager, she was a member of a cult that called itself Unity Field. They were a peaceful commune that believed in the solidarity of humanity, that they needed to give up everything about themselves and just love one another. One night, the leader, a man named Franklin Harris, decides to baptize his followers with kerosene. He then sets them, and himself, ablaze. The only person to survive is Cynthia. Trapped in the institution and forced to undergo group therapy, Cynthia becomes convinced that Harris has returned to kill her. One by one, the men and women in the institution begin to die horrible deaths. Cynthia believes that Harris is killing them. The staff and police think they’re just suicides. For the sake of those wanting to watch the film, I’ll stop there.
BAD DREAMS was billed as a kind of successor to the throne of Freddy Krueger with the horribly burned visage of Harris prominent in print and video ads. It certainly has similarities with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS. Both films are set in mental institutions. Both deal with repression. Both films have murders being masked as suicides. Lastly, both films star Jennifer Rubin. Where the difference really lies is in the minutiae of the narrative and its eventual outcome. While DREAM WARRIORS kept to the tried and true “sins of the father” style narrative, BAD DREAMS focuses more on the conflict between the free love 1960s and the "me first" 1980s. Using Cynthia as an audience identifier, the film addresses not only the possible outcomes of a society that strives for personal betterment and advancement over that of the common society, the main point of difference between the 60s and 80s, but also the lost possibilities of the inbetween years. It is the ultimate in cynical social commentary. The past has been obliterated by a future no one wanted. In its place a shrine to the inner focused and selfish individual was constructed. There’s no place in this new world for Cynthia. All that can be asked of her to is to get on some mood pills, forget the good that once was and suck it up. As the film progresses, Cynthia begins to fall more and more under Harris’s spell. Not because of her weakness. She simply stops wanting to live in a world that could find no compromise between love and selfishness.
I like BAD DREAMS. I think it has more to offer than most of the horror films of the 1980s. It is nasty when it wants to be and the plot machinations add a sense of forward thinking to the proceedings. I don’t want to spoil this film so I won’t talk about specifics but I will say that the film ends much differently than you would expect it to. The ending is a source of mixed reactions. Some people dislike it because it breaks with the established reality of the film, pushing it more into giallo territory. I happen to like it because it brings the subtext of the film to a much more satisfying conclusion. This is a film I enjoy thinking about more than I enjoy watching (which is weird for a horror film) and I will say with absolute conviction that this is not a brain dead film. There’s a lot to chew on and the text of the film is married to a fair amount of striking visual moments. That puts in a different league than most horror films. It isn’t perfect (no film really is) and it won’t satisfy everyone (no film really does) but for what it has to offer, BAD DREAMS certainly delivers.