Nicholas Kazan’s first films flirt between historical movies like his scripts for Frances, Patty Hearst and Reversal of Fortune with stories of murder with tinges of the otherworldly like Impulse and Fallen, as well as the neo-noir At Close Range. And oh yeah — Matilda.
He only directed two movies, one an anthology TV movie called The Edge and this one, which moves from the standard thriller to perhaps a flirtation with the giallo form in that the main character begins to doubt his own innocence and identity as he finds his life unended by manipulation that began seemingly before he even meets his second wife.
James Spader plays Ray Reardon, a recently divorced architect who bumps into Lena Mathers (Madchen Amick) at a party, at which points she reacts as if he slapped her. She sticks in his mind, because when he sees her at a grocery store, he stalks her and ends up sleeping with her. Within minutes of the film beginning, they’re married and with child.
But even the most normal details of his wife’s life all seem like lies. When he meets someone who graduated from the same college as her, none of the people that are mentioned are memorable to Lena, including the President of the school dying during a major assembly. Ray’s suspicions get to him so much that he travels to a small town in Texas where he learns that his wife’s abusive past never happened; her family is surprised to learn that he’s not in the CIA.
And that’s when he discovers the bruises. The kind that you get from making love to another man.
Lena goads Ray into the unthinkable, as he slaps her, an act which lands him in a mental hospital. And it’s there that she reveals her long con, to have his children, to take his money and to leave him behind. But the game isn’t over yet.
Dream Lover is more interesting when we don’t know if Ray is guilty or innocent. Once it tips its hand. it loses that momentum. I do love the twist ending and you could argue that Ray really is deranged and everything from the slap on is inside his head, as there’s no way that the police would arrest you and place you in a mental ward for months without a six-month observatory period. But you know, it wouldn’t be a movie without a lapse in logic.
Oh yeah — there are also circus clown-filled dream sequences that have nothing at all to do with the narrative, so that leads me to definitely include this as an American giallo. Because when things seem to make no sense for a very specific reason, that’s when they become a giallo, right?
Also: Why do I love James Spader, who plays a jerk in nearly every movie and gets to make movie love to Machen Amick, but think of Michael Douglas as a complete jerk? What a blind spot to have, as they both were 90s erotic thriller/American giallo-adjunct male stars!