Horror / Slasher
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Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (aka Nightmare) (1981)
19th Oct 05
Schizophrenic escapes and goes on killing spree.
Review (Part of Anchor Bay's Box of the Banned)
This feels like a real video nasty. It’s seedy, gory and shoddily made but you know what? It’s not as bad as you might expect. UK readers will no doubt be familiar with the trailer for Nightmares in a Damaged Brain on the typically sparse extras menu of their Vipco DVDs, but now you can see it in all its gory glory thanks to Anchor Bay, seen here as part of their Banned Box Set. Unfortunately however, it must be impossible to secure a widescreen transfer, because if Anchor Bay can’t find such a print then it’s unlikely that anyone else will.
So, that screaming guy in the Vipco trailer reel you’ve all seen - his name is George Tatum - paranoid schizophrenic and subject of an experimental antipsychotic drug. Which is all well and good, except the drug clearly doesn’t work. Tatum is constantly haunted by pervasive memories and nightmares of a childhood experience whereupon he comes home one day to see his parents screwing - short inserts depicting this are seen throughout the film when he has his ‘episodes’. He somehow escapes from the hospital and begins on a murderous rampage, taking him from seedy peepshows in Times Square to a family home in Daytona. This house is home to a single mum and three kids, one of whom is kiddie C.J. - practical joker and all-round nightmare spawn. The final chapter of the story involves Tatum’s final frenzy in the house. But why did he feel compelled to take it out on this particular family, in this house?
Many have likened this flick to Bill Lustig’s utterly repellent Maniac and while it does have similarities to that film - most notably the concept of the mentally unbalanced but clearly human killer - Maniac is an altogether more polished affair, as well as being much, much nastier. Spinnel’s victims have a fate worse then death, whereas Tatum’s are simply killed. It also bears some similarity to McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, though Rooker’s character is simply (as the title would suggest) portrayed rather than explored. That’s not to say that Tatum’s psychotic killer is explored in any great depth; the doctors involved do offer some attempts for explanation of his mental state and although slightly above average for a little trashy film like this, the psycho-babble still sounds like it’s straight out of the ‘Bluffers Guide to Psychiatry’. An unofficial one, that is. And not a very good unofficial one at that.
At odds with the somewhat amateurish look and feel of Nightmare is that it’s really quite a compelling watch. Although some of the acting isn’t up to par (hey, that goes with the territory, right?), Baird Stafford does a memorable job in the role of this crazed lunatic with a penchant for implement-assisted human butchery. He’s either over-acting or very convincing; it’s hard to figure out which, but one thing is for certain: he put the frighteners on me once or twice. He cries, has screaming fits, foams at the mouth and seems truly unable to control the beast inside his mind. In moments of clarity he calls the doctors in a cry for help. He might even call you from upstairs when he’s inside your own house, telling you to get out while you still can. How considerate. That’s the territory we’re in, readers - this kind of material has great potential. Nightmare is constructed in such a way so that it just about floats in terms of dramatic credibility. Thank God, because some scenes make this a must-see for horror fans.
Although our beloved Tom Savini is credited for the special effects (he was the supervisor apparently - his name was used for promotional purposes and he subsequently sued), the job was actually the work of Ed French. Although Savini is well respected for his outstanding contribution to horror, he was surely more successful as a pioneer rather than for technical skill. His work always had a ‘rough around the edges’ charm about it - not entirely realistic, and no doubt much less realistic than what he aimed for. Ed French’s work on Nightmare could almost be Savini’s, and it’s easy to see why they thought they could get away with claiming it was his handiwork.
The final scene is the real showstopper, depicting young Tatum axing his parents during a dirty S&M session - Ma gets decapitated while Pa gets it slammed in the middle of his face. Nice. It’s really difficult to shake the image of Little Tatum standing there in his white shirt and bow tie, covered head to foot in claret.
Nightmare feels like an uneven piece of work; certain narrative threads don’t go anywhere, even though the makers have attempted to imbue the story with a sense of rhythm by telling the tale in nocturnal chapters (‘The First Night’, ‘The Second Night’, all the way up to ‘The Final Night’). The last half of the film does however come across quite evenly as director Scavolini sets the audience up for the final struggle.
This final segment will remind most seasoned horror fans of the last 15 minutes of Carpenter’s original Halloween. That’s why John Carpenter has this ‘influential’ reputation, see? Heck, Tatum is even wearing a mask at this stage, and, like Michael Myers, looks really fucking scary. It’s a shame that Scavolini didn’t take a leaf out of Carpenter’s Big Book of Horror Pacing for the last ten minutes though. One gets the impression that either he was aiming for a different approach to terror which clearly doesn’t work, or that he was oblivious of the paramount importance of grabbing the audience by the throat and not letting go until the nightmare (in a damaged brain) is over.
And there you have it. Nightmare is no triumphant success in horror - not by a long shot, but this is definitely worth a look for horror heads everywhere. It’s brutal, unintentionally funny and downright disturbing at times. Despite its many flaws, I liked it. Shame we can‚t get to see a widescreen version, though.
Versions The film was finally passed uncut in the UK in 2002, although sadly this is the slightly edited pre-cut version, which was still banned anyway.