Enter the Dreamscape at your own risk.
Dreamscape is a horrific sci-fi film that continued to push the notion of an alternate reality within the subconscious. It presented its own series of thrills and chills within a highly plausible situation which threatens not just the antagonist of the film but the President of the United States himself from serial killers and the government itself.
A man named Alex Gardner has the ability to enter into people’s dreams. From there strange and creepy things begin to happen, including the haunting of a young boy’s dreams. The film appears to have a mix of action/adventure and horror including some terrifying looking scenes apparently in someone’s nightmares. It seems a little like some of the aspects of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but that film was still 3 months away!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
John (Eddie Albert), The President of the United States, has horrific nightmares about a nuclear war and the destruction of the world, including his wife. Elsewhere a group of scientists discuss getting Alex Gardner, a young man skilled in telekinesis among other things, for their current research project. Alex (Dennis Quaid), who left a previous research program when he was 19, now spends his time using his gifts to see the winners of horse races. Running afoul of some bookies, Alex escapes in a car belonging to two men connected to Thornhill University.
Upon arrival, Alex meets with Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw), one of the scientists on the program, and learns that the leader of the project is the man he worked with years ago, Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow). Novotny explains that they are using people with psychic abilities to breach the subconscious (aka The Dreamscape) and project themselves into another person’s dreams. Alex witnesses one psychic trying to help a young boy named Buddy (Cory ‘Bumper’ Yothers) who is having horrible nightmares. The process leaves the psychic catatonic.
Alex is blackmailed by Novotny into joining the project where he also meets a third psychic, Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly), who is very adversarial about his abilities and standing in the project. Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), who is a government liaison with the project, meets with the President about his dreams. He says he can help the President, and also seems put off when the President discusses working on a disarmament deal with the Russians, spurred on by his nuclear nightmares.
Alex works with Mr. Webber (Larry Gelman) who is afraid his wife is having affairs with friends, relatives, and even the gardener. The dream states are completely real to both participants. But what Alex really wants to do is help Buddy, and blackmails Novotny back in order to get a crack at the child’s fears. Alex helps Buddy defeat a monstrous snakeman character in a harrowing haunted house setting. Alex also enters Jane’s dream without her permission, but also without any other equipment, as is used on all the other interactions. It is a steamy sex dream that takes place on a train, which makes Jane question her feelings fo the man.
Horror writer Charlie Prince (George Wendt) contacts Alex surreptitiously at a bar regarding a crazy conspiracy theory he has. Prince believes that Blair’s goal for the program is to use the psychics as governmental assassins to thwart enemies of the state. When Alex finds proof that Tommy Ray is a killer, Blair has Prince killed and threatens Alex, who manages to escape and warn Jane. Novotny begins to have his own suspicions and is also killed by Blair’s men.
The President is brought to the institute under the guise of having his dreams analyzed, but Blair’s plan is to allow Tommy Ray into the President’s subconscious and kill him in his dream, which will kill him in real life. Alex also enters the dream to protect the President and manages to subdue Tommy Ray while the President kills the would-be assassin. The President thanks Alex, who promises to take care of Blair as well. Alex confronts Blair in his dreams and kills him. Alex and Jane then take a train ride across the country, much like her dream train, which also, coincidentally, has the same conductor.
“The simple fact is I’m doing it because it’s exciting.” – Dr. Paul Novotny
History in the Making
Dreamscape was released at a turning point in the history of film, and science-fiction film in general. By 1984 filmmakers were pushing the envelope of their films in regard to the ratings system which had been maintained by the Motion Picture Association of America since 1968. At that time, the MPAA decided to rework the outdated Hays Code, which the film industry had used since the 1930s, by creating a four-tiered level of ratings that would let audiences, especially parents, easily understand which films contained content that may be found objectionable. Most people are familiar with these original ratings: G (General audiences), PG (originally M, then GP; Parental guidance suggested), R (Restricted; under 17 requires parent or guardian), and X (No one under 17 admitted). With popular box office hits such as Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and Gremlins pushing the boundary of the PG rating (primarily with violence and gore) the MPAA created the PG-13 rating, which cautions parents about material that may not be suitable for children under 13. On August 10, 1984, Red Dawn the first PG-13 film was released. One week later Dreamscape, the 2nd film released under the new rating, and the first sci-fi film, was released.
Given that level of rating, one might assume that Dreamscape could have been released as an R rated film, which is certainly possible. But in the world of film releases, especially ones during the summer, the need to get the youth ticket is important. In all honesty, they film might have been recut to allow it to be rated PG instead. But luckily for them, the producers didn’t have to settle. They got all the gore and scariness they wanted (plus jokes about ‘boners’ and an F-word or two) and they got a rating that still allowed teenagers to come to the film. It was able to make back it’s $6 million budget, two times over and show that there was a market for horror films that were still scary, but aimed at a younger market.
Dreamscape also tapped into another burgeoning market dealing with exploring the subconscious or the psyche. Brainstorm was released 11 months prior to Dreamscape and looked at the exploration of the brain from a much more scientific and realistic way. These films are both thought of as relatively similar. But while Brainstorm dealt with the recording and playback of memories and experiences, Dreamscape dealt more with the Id and the subconscious aspects of the human mind. And while Dreamscape first addressed the aspects of entering into a dream or a nightmare and the consequences of dying in a dream, it’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, which came out three months later that is generally credited with inventing these elements. To be fair, Nightmare is much more of a classic horror film than Dreamscape was, going as far to have the monster/killer with funny one-liners. Dreamscape also uses that sort of meta moment at the end, where the train conductor is the same character from Jane’s dream. A big nudge and a wink from the filmmakers to the audience that many horror films also use.
And while Dreamscape may have slid heavily into the horror category (I would classify it as at least 70% horror) it still had some strong ties to the history of science-fiction films (especially the science aspect). The similarities to Brainstorm have already been discussed, but also shares elements with The Dead Zone (1983) and Scanners (1981). All three films, which are categorized as sci-fi/horror hybrids in some fashion, deal with people using psychic powers to invade the private inner workings of others. The Dead Zone deals with with a character that is able to read some or all of the future from characters just by touching them, while Scanners has a group of genetically enhanced people using psychic abilities in a war against each other, escalating from using the minds to “push” people to do things all the way to causing their brains to explode. Dreamscape exists in a little more grounded state where psychic ability exists, but for the most part, characters need to use scientific apparatuses to connect with other characters (except for when Alex is just able to do it, and then somehow Tommy Ray can also do it without the wires and electrodes).
As with other films of the time, Dreamscape continues and builds on the idea that the government and corporations are inherently bad. In this case, Bob Blair who is the head of a covert spy organization that no one knows about, one that the CIA is afraid of (that must be bad if the CIA is scared of him), disagrees with the President’s idea of how to lead the country so much that he arranges to have POTUS assassinated. Let’s just digress to say how bizarre this is that Blair thinks that assassinating the President is the best move, done in that cool Christopher Plummer sort of way. Does he think he’s next in line? Sure it may solve the immediate problem, but the country is still being run by the people associated with the President. Anyway, suffice to say, he represents the government, and he is evil! He lies to Dr. Novotny (or at least withholds important data) about Tommy Ray and then just casually kills people off that get in his way. Ice cold.
This use of the government funding the research raises serious ethical questions about the science being performed. Just as the government wanted to get into Project: Brainstorm, and the government was secretly keeping bits of the space virus from The Andromeda Strain, here they’re involved in dream research. Paul and Jane don’t bother to ask the right questions about their research partner. In fact, Paul overtly states that he’s doing this work because it hasn’t been done before (ego) and it’s also fun (partial irresponsibility). Other than possibly better understanding the nature of dreams, why would the US government, or any government want to be involved in research where people enter others dreams? Obviously the militarization and espionage aspects are huge.
The militarization of scientific breakthroughs in science-fiction films is a common thread, but began to get much more overt in the 1980s. From The Day of the Dolphin and Scanners, to Aliens (1986) and Robocop (1987); if the work being done by scientists has any military or cold war applications, then the government is all over it. Of course science has been causing trauma in sci-fi films since the dawn of the monster films, such as Godzilla (1954), but the modern approach is not just the carelessness of man with his experiments and the environment (or by testing something on himself), but a conscious decision by individuals to pervert the science into something that is a dangerous precedent to the world. The fact that agents here are so easily willing to kill individuals to hush up any leaks is especially troubling, yet makes Alex’s revenge on Blair all the more better by killing him in his sleep.
The Science in The Fiction
Much is made about the scientific research done in the film. The aspects of dream study and the research capacity all seem within the realm of reality. There is mention of REM sleep (rapid eye movement) which is the dreaming time during sleep, and even some aspects of psychoanalysis with the dreams of some characters, such as Mr. Webber, who is having marital difficulties (it’s implied he has trouble maintaining an erection) as he’s afraid that his wife is sleeping around. The film also puts forth the idea that dreams are the sleepers’ to take control of. From Alex giving Buddy the power to defeat the snake man in his dream, or allowing the President to kill Tommy Ray in his, the empowerment of dreamers comes off as an important aspect.
The Final Frontier
While Dreamscape doesn’t pretend to be a stellar motion picture, it still contains a lot of fun elements. On this viewing of the film I noticed two different references to Alfred Hitchcock films. The first is the name of the college where the research is being performed, Thornhill College. This is a reference to Roger Thornhill, the protagonist of North by Northwest. The other is when horror writer Charlie Prince (himself a reference to Stephen King. King, Prince–get it?) refers to his knowledge of what’s happening in Bates Hall. Obviously a nod to Norman Bates and the Bates Motel from Psycho. There’s also an interesting amount of foreshadowing with Tommy Ray as the bad guy. Besides casting David Patrick Kelly, who often plays bad guys and looks a little like Sean Penn, the character is the only one referred to with three names, just as serial killers are often referred to by their three names, such as Lee Harvey Oswald or John Wayne Gacy.
Dennis Quaid would return to the sci-fi genre at least two more times in the 80s with Enemy Mine and Innerspace, while Max von Sydow (previously the villain in Flash Gordon) would participate in another 1984 sci-fi film, Dune, as well as Minority Report and most recently Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Christopher Plummer would famously play a Klingon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and appear as Dr Goines in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Dreamscape is not a perfect film, but it tries to mix up the action/adventure, horror and sci-fi genres in a way to help drive people to the theaters during one of the most busy times in American cinema. It presented ideas that would get used and altered in upcoming films, inspiring new generations of storytellers.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.