Everyone likes to proclaim that the world is so much worse today than it ever has been. If you feel that way and weren’t alive for the 1970s, allow me to debase you of this notion. The “Me Decade” was full of random violence, the fuel crisis, Three Mile Island, Watergate, Son of Sam, the end of Manson, Zodiac and religious orders that some would proclaim as cults, from the Process Church and the Moonies to Jonestown. We don’t really have a modern analogue for these fringe groups that would spring up from time to time because it seems like the Hale-Bopp comet wiped the last of these off the planet.
That’s the world that Bad Dreams takes place in. In 1975, the Unity Fields cult decides to commit mass suicide by setting themselves on fire under the command of their leader, Franklin Harris (Richard Lynch of Invasion U.S.A., Sword and the Sorcerer, Rob Zombie’s Halloween and God Told Me To). Only one person survives, Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), who still a kid when Harris set everyone on fire. She’s been in a coma for over 13 years before she awakens to flashbacks of Harris being interviewed on a TV program. The final thing she sees is his face telling her that she belongs to him and he’d be coming back to take her life. This entire sequence is really well edited, showing how the cult’s teachings had been accepted by every member, intercut with Cynthia being wheeled through a hospital as doctors struggle to save her life, all to the ominous strains of The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.”
After awakening, Cynthia attends experimental group therapy sessions for borderline personality disorder, led by Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott, the Re-Animator films). As she becomes more aware, she begins to remember more and more — including the thirty other people who died from dousing themselves in gasoline. Worse, she sees a burned and scarred Harris when she’s trapped in an elevator, who reminds her that she is his property.
What follows is an insane scene that shows the parallels between group therapy and cult behavior, as the discussion room becomes Unity Fields and Cynthia watches everyone ladle gasoline onto one another. Again, another hint is dropped that Cynthia is a “love child,” as her mother is also part of the cult. One by one, the members walk to the front of the room and are baptized with gasoline, before Harris takes handfuls of the fuel and coats himself before lighting the room on fire. What starts as a peaceful embrace of death quickly turns into horror, as entire families go up in a blaze of pain, flames, and screams. Finally, Harris reappears to tell Cynthia that she and she alone screwed up and that her entire family is waiting for her, as they cannot move on without her death.
Every waking moment is caught between reality and flashback, as even a simple shower brings back the violent baptism that brought Cynthia into Unity Fields. Directly after, another patient, one who wanted to know more about Unity’s message, drowns herself in the pool. Another patient (the only one who has been nice to Cynthia) named Miriam attempts to escape the hospital. Helping her to an elevator, Cynthia waves goodbye, only to see Harris smiling and waving back. She gives chase, only to find Miriam’s purse left behind…as Miriam jumps from a window, sending blood and glass all over the pavement
Harris has taken up residence at Cynthia’s bedside, berating her for staying alive when everyone else followed him has given their lives to him. As soon as Cynthia’s doctor, Dr. Kamel, flips on the light, he disappears. While Kamel yells at her about her not taking the therapy seriously, she notices Connie and Ed, two other members of her discussion group, sneaking away to have sex — only to be followed by Harris. The lights go out in the whole hospital as patients wander the halls. Turns out that amorous couple got caught up in the blades of a giant industrial fan, as a hapless custodian discovers when blood — and a severed hand — pour down all over him. Harris then appears in the ceiling grate, telling Cynthia that Connie and Ed belong to him now. She screams at the ceiling as even more blood begins spraying out of the hospital’s sprinkler system. Yep — institutionalized folks are running up and down a dark hallway, covered in gore. It’s a shocking surprise and one that made this movie really stand out to me.
All of the other discussion group patients now believe that Harris is behind all of the suicides, even if the doctors refuse to listen. Ralph, a patient who has a crush on Cynthia, asks why they’re all still in the hospital and in this therapy if people keep dying. That’s a great point. I love when movies take a plot hole and have someone call it out as if simply calling out bullshit makes the bullshit go away. No, instead, it just makes you focus on the plot hole as if you were continually pulling and yanking on it until the hole is now a gaping maw. It’s situations like this that make me hate modern horror movies, as they think that being self-referential excuses them from being poorly constructed films. Scream, I blame you.
After a junk food date, Ralph — a jokester, you see, because he has a rubber chicken on his wall — begins stabbing himself in the hand to the strains of Mamby Pamby & The Smooth Putters covering “My Way,” a la the Sex Pistols. Everyone is on suicide watch, so he knocks out the cop following him, takes Cynthia to the basement and stabs himself to death. What a first date!
Ralph is an example of a character that either works or doesn’t in a movie. The loveable prankster who hates authority, when played by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, becomes someone you want to be, a joy-infused burst of anarchy in an otherwise mundane world. Or you get someone who saw Murray and wants to be him and comes off as insufferable and cloying. Ralph is that person and I’d imagine most audiences will cheer his demise. Look — not every darling is worth saving.
Dr. Berrisford, Kamel’s boss, demands that Cynthia is placed under sedation and that Kamel has grown too close to her. As they argue in the hallway, Cynthia tells him goodbye, walking with two nurses down the hallway, which becomes Unity Fields. For a movie made before the CGI era, the transitions between reality and dreams are virtually seamless, giving this film an unworldly feel. It’s not an art film, mind you, it’s still very much an American studio release, yet it aspires to be more.
Kamel believes that the best treatment for Cynthia is human contact and that putting her directly into what amounts to a second coma will undo any of the progress that she has made. I’m not taking a side in what psychological school makes the most sense, but the inclusion that Unity Fields preached, the need to become a family that protects individuals from the world’s pain, is a key way that cults destroy minds and reap souls. By sublimating the individual and making the leader the only person free to have a true identity that can make decisions, the cult member feels that sense of belonging and that they no longer have to worry about making mistakes. Gradually, they don’t even care when their innate human rights are trampled, as it is for the good of the group. Interestingly, groups like the Process Church came directly from Scientology and many other groups are rooted in self-help or betterment programs. It was a slippery slope that took the People’s Temple from preaching racial understanding in Indianapolis to ingesting poison in Guyana, after all. Religion — just like psychology — often preys on those that cannot save themselves and need help. There’s no judgment here, as many people do need such help and it’s not a black mark on them for asking and receiving it. It’s only when the guru or doctor becomes a svengali and demands complete devotion and subservience that we enter into places like Unity Fields. It also calls to mind the battle between psychology and Scientology — two groups that want to heal the mind.
But I digress. The police believe that Cynthia is behind the murders of the patients — and perhaps everyone at Unity Fields. That’s why isolation seems to be the best choice. That said — she isn’t alone. Harris appears to tell her that she is his love child and demands that she commit suicide. That’s when Hattie visits her, informing Cynthia that she doesn’t plan on being alive for long, but that Cynthia can survive if she really wants to. This leads to Harris following Hattie, as he has with every other patient. “I knew you’d come, but you’re too late. I told her what she had to do. You won’t get to her. You won’t get to me,” she says as she drinks formaldehyde and dies. The bottle hits the floor and conveniently has smoke coming out of it, assuring us that yes, it is deadly.
The next scene feels disconnected at first. But upon review, it totally makes sense. Dr. Karmel is upset that he’s lost all of his patients and is walking out of the hospital, dejected. He tries one of their pills while having a breakdown. Getting in his car, he sees his boss, Berrisford, walking and on a whim, decides to hit him multiple times with his car. Sitting in the blood strewn car, he just stares into space as it explodes — except it was all a dream. So why is this scene so incongruous? It’s the director’s way of letting us know that Berrisford has decided to play with the therapy group, lacing their drugs with a hallucinogen so that they’d kill themselves and prove that his research is the one that’s actually true. Whew!
Tell that to Cynthia! She asks Harris why he keeps coming after her, why he doesn’t just kill her and confesses that she’s exhausted and ready to give up. He informs her that “She must do it herself” as he hands her a syringe. Karmel pulls an emergency alarm and busts into Cynthia’s room, but she won’t listen to him. She knows that Harris is coming for her, but who she is seeing as Harris is really Berrisford. Or is it?
They go to the roof, where she’s urged to kill herself by leaping off the roof. As she does, she awakens back at Unity Fields, where Harris asks for her to walk into his arms, telling her that she is his forever — unity, one spirit, and one will. She awakens to Karmel catching her and asking her to open her eyes and live. She keeps yelling that she has nothing left in the real world as Berrisford tells her that death is eternal bliss, that friends are waiting for her. She finally sees that it isn’t Harris at all and begins to climb up…only to have Berrisford push Karmel off too, stabbing him repeatedly in his hand. The cops and hospital security arrive only to have Berrisford drop a big load of BS, playing Karmel for the whole thing, even pulling a gun before Cynthia shoves him off the roof. One more jump shock and here comes the credits, which feature Guns n Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.” There were even plans of a Bad Dreams clip video of the song.
The original ending has Berrisford simply killing himself, then Cynthia and Kamel going back to the house at Unity Fields. She has a vision of all the cult members as they welcome her back, but at the last moment, she stabs Harris with a dagger. They drive away from the house, but not before the “big Carrie scare” of a skeletal hand grabbing the dagger. This ending, however, more explicitly reveals that Cynthia is Harris’ daughter and has her stab, slash and kill every other cult member. It doesn’t seem as dramatic as it should, but the ending isn’t color corrected or scored, so that would have added more gravitas.
Bad Dreams is the directorial debut of Andrew Fleming, director of Nancy Drew, Dick and The Craft, perhaps his best-known film and was produced by Gale Ann Hurd (Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss). It owes an awful lot to the Nightmare on Elm Street films, obviously, and perhaps would have benefitted from a more downer ending — but that could be because I have been watching way too many 70s occult movies. You can get it at a great price, though, as Shout Factory! has released it on a double disk with Visiting Hours.
My armchair psychoanalysis of this film? It’s OK to fall in love with a hot cult survivor, as long as you don’t drug her and make her see visions because, in the movie world, there is no law that protects the patient from amorous analysts. And you can just shove evil doctors to their doom and get away with it, as long as it seems like you have a good reason. Ah, movie world, where decisions are made so much simpler.
Is psychology worse or better than a cult? Is free will possible? Are drugs that shape moods just as bad as people that tell us how to feel? None of these questions really get raised here, but just imagine if they did! Maybe it’s time to bring Unity Fields back for the sequel nobody wants, cares about or needs!
This article originally appeared at http://www.thatsnotcurrent.com/drugs-cults-burned-svengalis-bad-dreams-1988/