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Four tales of horror

NIGHTMARES

As Halloween nears the corner, I want to talk about some horror films.

“Nightmares” is not really horror, and it’s not a film per se. It’s an anthology of kind-of-scary twenty minute shorts, about the same length and level of intensity as episodes you’d find on “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

This makes sense, because originally it was intended for television, until TV execs felt it was a little too intense for families, so they made it into a movie. That was around the time of other horror anthologies making their way into theaters like “Creepshow”, and “Tales from the Darkside”, so it was poised for some success.

Of course, this isn’t available on DVD or Netflix streaming, so I’m not sure how successful it was. I saw a 35mm print and it looked really good. Either they struck a new print or the one circulating hasn’t seen much action. I’m going with the latter.

What I love about horror anthologies, and why I think they work best around Halloween, is because each different story is like a piece of candy. You get a little something different, and if you don’t like it there’s usually something  you will.

This anthology worked really well for me. I thought all of the stories were predictable but still interesting. They were shot in the 80s, so they look really bright – the last one looked straight out of a cereal commercial – and it gave me a nice, comfy nostalgic feeling. In fact, two of the stories I really loved.

“Terror in Topanga”

The first tale is “Terror in  Topanga” and it’ s about a mother who goes out late one night for cigarettes while there’s a killer running loose in the neighborhood. There is definitely an anti-smoking angle to it that I thought was funny; cigarettes will kill you, and so will a murderer on the loose. But there’s a saying that you should always double up your vices, and that’s what the lead heroin does.

Of the four tales, this seemed the most predictable. It is based on the urban legend of a killer hiding in the backseat of a car. After she gets her cigarettes from a convenience store, she realizes she’s out of gas. What’s funny about this is Topanga Canyon which the story is based on is not a very long stretch of road. It’s located in the L.A. hills, essentially the same layout as Mulholland Drive where it is sequestered by lots of trees and canyon cliffs.  For her to run out of gas and feel pressed to get more was a bit of a stretch. I don’t think it’s longer than 10 miles, if memory serves me right. But it’s that necessary plot point which eventually reveals the killer.

There is a fun creepy role by William Sanderson as a gas station attendant. He played JF Sebastian in “Blade Runner”.

“The Battle of Bishop”

This was the first short I fell in love with almost immediately. It stars Emilio Estevez in a role before he was in “Repo Man”. He plays a video game wiz who hustles people at the arcades. Instead of a pool shark he’s a video game shark. And there’s one game he hasn’t quite beaten yet. It’s called the Bishop of Battle. He stays late at the arcade to try and beat it, but eventually gets kicked out. When he goes home, his parents are furious he isn’t studying. The game has taken over his life, and it’s about to get even more literal than that.

He sneaks out in the middle of the night to finish what he started at the arcade. Once he makes it to level 13, which he heard only one person successfully accomplished- things get weird.  Tron weird.

This short combines two things lots of nerds like: punk rock music and video games. With the 80’s vibe in full effect here, this is one of the tales that took on a cult status of its own. It’s even available to view on Youtube…for those who dare.

“The Benediction”

The third story in the anthology is about a priest (Lance Henriksen) who has given up his faith in God and sets out on a drive through the desert to find himself and think things over.

But all is not right on the road. A menacing truck keeps showing up, driving him off the road at first and progressively getting more and more violent. It is a cat and mouse chase, baring a lot of similarity to Spielberg’s “Duel”, with an added religious element that gave it some originality. It is intercut between the chase and the priest’s past dealings with the Lord where his faith was tested. Now, he faces the ultimate test.

It has one of the greatest endings I’ve seen in an anthology. It’s the epitome of balls to the wall, and I believe without it this would have been unremarkable. But with the ending…it’s something special.

“Night of the Rat”

This was the final story in the anthology, and the second one I really loved. It tells the story of a family that’s being terrorized by sounds in the night. The camera floats down into their basement once in awhile where we get a peak of the source – but whatever it is, it’s not furry, it’s not friendly, and it’s a lot bigger than a normal rat.

Eventually it’s revealed. I hope I’m not giving much away by saying it’s a giant rat. The tension that builds up to its discovery is fun. The family is torn apart. Mom believes something’s really wrong, dad wants nothing to do with it. An exterminator is even called out and he has to get on the phone with mom after he leaves so he can tell her that he thinks it’s a demonic rat that loves children and the legend of this creature goes back as far as the 1600’s.

They photographed a real rat for this, and then scanned it in so it looked like a giant mutant rat next to a normal human being. It was a cool effect, and I thought they did a pretty good job of integrating it with live action. It was cheesy but I’m sure they had a limited budget. Then again this was the 80’s.

The best anthologies are the ones where you can come back to them and re-visit them. I would put “Creepshow” in that category, the newer “Trick R Treat” and I would also include “Nightmares”.

Hopefully this one comes out on Blu Ray someday. For now, I leave you with the trailer:

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