One of the better-remembered ’80s sci-fi horror thrillers is back in an improved Blu-ray, with a pile of extras. Dennis Quaid gets to act with Max von Sydow Christopher Plummer, Eddie Albert and Kate Capshaw, as they deal with a Cronenberg-like device that can invade human dreams.
Scream Factory (Shout! Factory)
1984 / Color /1:85 widescreen / 99 min. / Street Date December 13, 2016 / 29.93
Starring Dennis Quaid, Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Eddie Albert, Kate Capshaw, David Patrick Kelly, George Wendt.
Cinematography Brian Tufano
Film Editor Richard Halsey
Original Music Maurice Jarre
Written by David Loughery, Chuck Russell, Joseph Ruben
Produced by Bruce John Curtis
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I have a previous Blu-ray of 1984’s Dreamscape but this edition is a big improvement, both in the transfer and its extras. Dreamscape is a commercially successful thriller that places a superior star cast in a science fantasy with plenty of potential. In the long run, a weak script and lax production let the show down. David Loughery’s original story has some solid ideas, that in 1984 hadn’t yet been over-exploited; these days every conceivable gateway including one’s kitchen cupboard has seen service as a portal to another dimension, whether an alternate Sci-fi universe or a demonic region of ghosts and monsters. Dreamscape proposes that the dream-world can be entered and navigated just like our own reality, or like the cyber-world of Disney’s Tron. As in the (literary) adventures of Philip K. Dick, individuals with psi- powers or using certain drugs can enter their own dreams or those of others, and make mischief.
Dreamscape expends ample screen time establishing its ‘secret project’ scenario. Proven psychic whiz Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) is kidnapped from predicting winners at the racetrack to help his old associate Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) with his dream experiments. Two other psychically sensitive fellows have successfully penetrated the dreams of test subjects under lab conditions, but Novotny feels that Alex can do even better. Novotny’s boastful top psychic Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly) is suspicious of Alex, but government overseer Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) is happy that the new man is on board. Alex enters the dreams of a cuckolded husband to get to the root of his anxiety. He then misuses his power to ‘become intimate’ with researcher Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw), at least on a virtual plane. Alex atones by entering the nightmare of a disturbed young boy, whose ‘dreamscape’ has already sent one psychic to the hospital with a nervous breakdown. Alex helps the boy defeat his minatory “Snake Monster” in a haunted maze. Bob Blair rushes the experiment so that Novotny’s ‘dream team’ can come to the aid of The President (Eddie Albert), who is experiencing debilitating nightmares. But Alex suddenly has misgivings — rogue investigative novelist Charlie Prince (George Wendt) warns him that Bob Blair is up to no good…
Dreamscape would seem to be constructed from various movies done just previously, like David Cronenberg’s Scanners (two super-powered psychics duke it out), The Dead Zone (man finds himself between two worlds, with Presidential politics involved) and Brainstorm (secret lab infiltrated by government creeps). The secret project and the paranoid government conspiracy plot are as predictable as anything in a TV show of the time, which makes the acting efforts of the capable Christopher Plummer seem especially wasted. Still, there’s something to admire when Plummer and Von Sydow hold the screen through their presence alone.
Good direction might have given this story a special feeling but Joseph Rubin’s ordinary coverage of scenes adds very little. Our attention wanders when George Wendt’s character pops up just when it’s convenient to feed Alex some needed expository information, as we’re way ahead of the story. We instead think of ‘Deep Throat’ in All the President’s Men, or Wendt’s Norm Peterson on TV’s Cheers — especially when Wendt shows up in a bar.
Dennis Quaid is just okay as the psychic, because there’s really no character for him to play. Alex steals money from racetracks and rapes a woman in her dreams, but is otherwise just your average nice-guy hero type. Max von Sydow is a powerful presence reduced to exposition duties, a fate that becomes apparent when his Dr. Novotny worries that some outside presence has taken possession of his pre-teen patient. That we immediately think of The Exorcist doesn’t add to our appreciation of this movie.
David Patrick Kelly does his best to make his hiss-able (literally) villain interesting, but the screenplay tells us exactly what will happen and the direction offers Kelly few subtleties. Kate Capshaw has a lame role as the sexy lab assistant whose quick side-trip into dream sex spices up the second act. Her sole further involvement is to open a locked door and to kiss the hero at the finish. She has nothing to do with Alex Gardner’s main dream adventures.
The production naturally relies on its special effects to make the Dreamscape memorable, and the plain fact is that the experts hired for the job weren’t given the proper support. Peter Kuran’s optical effects team conjures up some nice mental transportation effects and strange landscapes for the nuked-Earth nightmares of Eddie Albert’s President, but plenty of opticals look rushed, as if no time were allotted to get acceptable results. This includes the opening dream image of the First Lady trying to outrun a nuclear blast, which is shown hitting New York, with the World Trade Center visible. The film’s various zombie-like creatures work quite well, but the centerpiece Snake Monster is compromised by poor design (by executive committee) and lighting that would make any monster look too obvious. It’s the curse visited on too many effects experts — their work is not properly photographed or edited. When you hear about an effects person demanding control over his or her contribution, this is why. Take a look at some of the detail shots of the Snake Monster — as either a stop-motion creature or an on-set special makeup creation, it looks terrific.
Dreamscape provides enough thrills for a matinee attraction, and if it were made twenty years earlier it would have been a sensation. But the Dream World presented isn’t all that interesting, visually speaking. Stepping into a dream is no more exciting than visiting a hologram in Tron or an eighties’ episode of the Star Trek franchise. Alex Gardner can do it any time he wants, so there’s no need to waste our time with the scientific hoodoo, either. And saving the President from his nightmares is a lame idea at its basis — where Alex is really needed is at the President’s side on a day-to-day basis, to advise him on what’s going to ‘happen next.’
As an example of a dream concept that works beautifully, I nominate a Sci-fi fantasy from the following year, Joe Dante’s Explorers. In a sidebar to the main plot, a group of teenagers discover that they can share dreams of flying together over a nighttime landscape. The dreams express the young heroes’ innocent yearnings and require no technical background explanations. The dreams also introduce the hero’s discovery of the opposite sex as an equally innocent wonder: at the finish his girlfriend joins in the dream flights.
Equally inspired is Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street, which conjures up all manner of screen terrors through its understanding of the nature of real dreams. Sometimes we seem able to control our dreams, but at other times they’re in control, and seem more real and horrible than reality.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Dreamscape is going to appeal to this movie’s fans, of which there are many. The transfer is a big improvement and its extras are plentiful. Brian Tufano’s low-light scenes have previously been ‘printed up’ on video, in an attempt to produce a lighter picture. This new transfers leaves them in their original dark and murky state. This helps quite a bit with both the mood and the effectiveness of the special effects. The cut ‘n’ paste opticals stand out as much as they always did, but everything else is substantially improved.
Added value producer Greg Carson provides thorough coverage with several new video extras. The lengthy featurette Dreamscapes and Dreammakers is a full-on traditional making-of piece with the memories of the director, a co-writer, the actor David Patrick Kelly and most of the special effects people. The principal creatives tend to make excuses for the picture, while the effects folk impress us as pros having to both interpret and produce the film’s fantasy content on a limited budget.
A second featurette Nightmares and Dreamsnakes — Looking Back at the Snakeman concentrates on one major effect that used most every trick in the book — a full rubber suit and stop motion animation in a miniature set. Makeup effects creator Craig Reardon leads off the discussion in this section. Craig, Peter Kuran and Sue Turner are unusually candid in their interviews. Although not denigrating the assignment, they acknowledge that the vagaries of a crazy production did have an effect on the work. We often see technical people praise so-so film work to the heavens in these featurettes. Reardon shows one trick designed to work with replacement animation, that was badly compromised after it left his hands. It looks okay in the movie but it might have looked much better if it had been filmed in the way it was designed. I’d much rather hear some truth in these stories than the usual mutual back- patting.
An audio commentary from 2000 with Bruce Cohn Curtis, David Loughery and Craig Reardon puts some of the same stories in line with the feature, with specific scenes prompting new observations.
A welcome extra is a new interview with the star Dennis Quaid, who is warm and generous with his memories of the film. Quaid openly states that fans often tell him about seeing it, yet he stops just short of saying that it’s any good. Another interview piece with Bruce Cohn Curtis and co-writer/producer Chuck Russell takes us back into normal featurette territory, where it’s assumed that we’re talking about a cinema landmark.
Just for the record, I talked to a friend who worked on the show about the rumored R-rated version of this movie. They did trim a couple of shots by a second or so — some topless nudity and a gore shot — but there is now only one version and that’s what’s presented here. Rumors of topless scenes with Kate Capshaw might be based on crew reports, as some material like that was present in dailies… but not the movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dreamscape Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good — Minus
Supplements: Interview with Dennis Quaid; Dreamscapes and Dreammakers featurette with interview material with director Joseph Ruben, co-writer David Loughery, actor David Patrick Kelly and other members of the special effects team; Nightmares and Dreamsnakes — Looking Back at the Snakeman featurette with Craig Reardon, David Patrick Kelley and others. In-depth conversation between Bruce Cohn Curtis and co-writer/producer Chuck Russell; audio Commentary with Bruce Cohn Curtis, David Loughery and Craig Reardon; Snake Man test footage; still Gallery, trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 18, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson