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Retro Review: DREAM DEMON (1988)

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DREAM DEMON
(UK - 1988; US release 1993)

Directed by Harley Cokliss. Written by Christopher Wicking, Harley Cokliss and Catherine de Pury. Cast: Kathleen Wilhoite, Jemma Redgrave, Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail, Nickolas Grace, Susan Fleetwood, Mark Greenstreet, Annabelle Lanyon. (Unrated, director's cut: 88 mins; theatrical cut: 89 mins)

The British horror film DREAM DEMON got some pre-release hype in Fangoria and already established its genre bona fides with a script co-written by Christopher Wicking (SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB) before going on to do decent business in the UK in the fall of 1988. But it ran into one obstacle after another on its bumpy road to an American release. It was picked up by indie Spectrafilm but they went bankrupt before they could release it. Then it was acquired by a financially-strapped Vestron and they folded as well. It languished in legal limbo for some time until Warner Bros. bought it, sat on it for a while, and eventually gave it a stealth direct-to-video release in 1993, by which time the two franchises that obviously influenced it--A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and HELLRAISER--had already commercially peaked. On the basis of its title alone, much like 1988's BAD DREAMS, it's easy to dismiss DREAM DEMON as a blatant ELM STREET knockoff. It's not altogether successful, but it's got some interesting ideas of its own that go a little beyond simply cribbing from Wes Craven and Clive Barker. Some of those ideas are a little too British to really go over with American audiences, which was likely another factor in its long-delayed US release.






It's anchored by a pair of strong performances that give it a little more credibility than your standard-issue ELM STREET ripoff. In her film debut, Jemma Redgrave (of the legendary acting dynasty--she's Corin's daughter and the niece of Vanessa and Lynn) is Diana Markham, a repressed, virginal London schoolteacher and the daughter of wealthy parents who have just bought her a large house with multiple flats as an early wedding gift. She's engaged to Oliver (Mark Greenstreet), a career military man and beloved Falklands War hero, which makes her a regular target of sleazy tabloid reporter Paul (Jimmy Nail) and his repulsive photographer Peck (Timothy Spall). Diana has been plagued by disturbing nightmares in which she sees a little girl surrounded by fire and bleeding cracks in the wall that ooze flesh, imagines violent sexual assaults by Oliver, and senses some kind of presence drawing her to the basement. Her doctor (Susan Fleetwood, Mick's sister) tells her it's just pre-wedding jitters (the film's best moment is a nightmare nuptial sequence at the beginning), and an inattentive, unconcerned Oliver tells her to "just take a pill." But she knows it's something more, a feeling that's cemented by brash American visitor Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite), who's just arrived from L.A. trying to sort out the identity of her deceased birth parents, a trail that's led her to Diana's house. Jenny was adopted as a child and knows she lived in the house, but has no memory of what happened to her parents or why she was sent to America. The two become fast friends, with Jenny sticking around to help her handle the persistent tabloid guys when Oliver is called away for the weekend. Even Jenny dismisses Diana's nightmares--in which she sees Peck metamorphosed into a disgusting pseudo-Mr. Creosote--until she herself starts seeing the same visions of the little girl and fire and finds herself lost in some alternate netherworld in the basement, with Diana somehow having an ability to pull Jenny into her dreams and into a world that she can't leave until Diana wakes up.


It's almost exactly the midpoint when DREAM DEMON switches gears from ELM STREET to HELLRAISER or, more specifically, becomes distinctly "Clive Barker-esque," with the basement grotesqueries involving Peck and Paul prefiguring some of the Midian imagery of 1990's NIGHTBREED. It tries to establish some serious character depth with the dual repressions of its female protagonists, but it loses the thread along the way and is ambiguous to a fault. Wicking and American director/co-writer Harley Cokeliss (BLACK MOON RISING, MALONE)--back when he was still going by "Harley Cokliss" and likely added the "e" later on to prevent the kind of childish giggling such as when 13-year-old me saw his name on the BLACK MOON RISING poster--never seem to settle on whether it's the house that's causing Diana's dreams or if it's her dreams that have opened a portal of some kind. It backs them into a corner to some extent, prompting a sudden shift in focus through the third act as the film becomes less about Diana and more about what happened to Jenny in the house when she was a child. Just out on an extras-packed Blu-ray from Arrow (because physical media is dead), DREAM DEMON is presented in a newly-restored, breathtakingly pristine transfer that marks the home video debut of Cokeliss' intended director's cut, which is actually one minute shorter than what got released decades ago. Both versions are on the Blu-ray, and the only difference is that the director's cut loses a final, almost comic relief scene involving Paul and Peck, probably put there in 1988 since Nail and a pre-Mike Leigh Spall were both well-known from the popular mid '80s British ITV comedy series AUF WIEDERSEHEN, PET.


Neither ending is very satisfying, and the early invocation of the Falklands War and the heavy-handed way the film has the tabloid guys hounding Diana as a way of satirizing the media's obsession with Princess Diana (isn't giving her the same name a little too on-the-nose?) is something that probably played better with British audiences but still doesn't really have much bearing on anything that follows. Still, there's enough good things in DREAM DEMON with the general mood and atmosphere (the house is a very effective location that gives the proceedings a nice Hammer/Amicus vibe) that you wish it turned out better than it does. It also gets a considerable boost from the excellent work by Redgrave, who bears a striking resemblance to her cousin Natasha Richardson, and Wilhoite, playing very much the "Kathleen Wilhoite" persona that she established as a potty-mouthed young criminal opposite Charles Bronson in MURPHY'S LAW and as the scene-stealing "just some more psychic humor!" clairvoyant Zarabeth in WITCHBOARD. She even gets to Wilhoite it up as Jenny scoffs at the doctor talking about astral projection as a way to explain Diana pulling her into her dreams, blurting "C'mon, I've only known her for two days! This astral body shit's for hippies!"


Timothy Spall and director Harley Cokeliss on the set of DREAM DEMON


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