Thursday, October 17, 2013

Deadly Dreams (1988) dir. Kristine Peterson

Logline: Years after witnessing his parents murdered by his father's disgruntled business partner, Alex (Mitchell Anderson) is plagued by dreams of the sadistic killer, donned in a wolf mask, aiming a rifle squarely at him and his loved ones. But are these really dreams? Alex gradually becomes convinced that the deadly hunter-- long deceased-- is tailing him in his waking life as well. Are these random phantasmagoria the work of some sick prank or nefarious scheme? Worse yet, is his parents' murderer still alive? And the most pertinent question of all: can a dream slit your throat with a hunting knife? Inquiring minds would like to stop sweating through their sheets.

Crime in the Past: On Christmas Eve, Norman Perkins (Duane Whitaker) is given the very bad news that his business partner, John Torme (Geoffrey Forward), has screwed him over in their latest ambiguous business dealing and has now cut him out entirely. Perkins, desiring to place some coal in the Tormes' stockings, heads over to their house with a hunting rifle. Waiting for the arrival of his older brother from college, Alex thinks nothing of opening the door when he hears a knock. Perkins barges in, pulls down his super creepy wolf mask, and makes short work of Mr. and Mrs. Torme with his hunting rifle, all of which poor Alex is forced to view as he stands helpless, a mere child. Perkins then tells young Alex that they're going to play a fun game of hide and seek in the woods. Alex will hide, Perkins will seek. Though we don't see Alex escaping Perkins, presumably he does and (as we gather from information provided later in the film) Perkins responds to the whole mess he's created by blowing his own brains out a few days later. (OR DOES HE???)

Bodycount: a paltry 5 trophies to add to the wall, but there are plenty of graphic dream deaths to keep you satiated, you bloodslurping freaks.

Themes/Moral Code: Director Kristine Peterson, a female horror director best known for helming Critters 3 (1991) (a.k.a. The One with Leo) and working second unit on films like Chopping Mall (1986) and Tremors (1990), doesn't fall into the trap of misogynistic capitulation that Roberta Findlay does in her slasher, Blood Sisters (1987). While on the one hand being altogether uninterested in providing conservative comeuppance for its characters' assumed sexual transgressions, Deadly Dreams also craftily toys with the audience's perception of female agency. The films subverts our initial impressions of its female lead (Juliette Cummins) as, by turns, a nurturing lover and a duplicitous, conspiring gold-digger with another boyfriend (both images of women held in sway to the desires of controlling men) by revealing her to be, in actuality, a morally dubious but unquestionably independent avenger. The point being: don't think you've got a woman pegged under your Madonna/Whore dichotomy, 'cause she could always be a Lilith. The film's portrayal of this principle female character is far from totally flattering (she is, after all, at least in part responsible for the murder of two essentially innocent young men and one scheming chump), but she's nonetheless imbued with a certain self-driven power and skewed moral certitude that places her in opposition to the rather petty and aimless male characters.

Killer's Motivation: The motivation driving our ominous and omnipresent Hunter (Gary Ainsworth) is obvious by the film's conclusion: he's being paid. The Hunter, decked out in the same sick garb as the deceased Norman Perkins, is no more than a faceless and nameless man who has been hired by Alex's weasel of an older brother, Jack (the ever-weaselly Xander Berkeley), to drive the already fragile Alex insane and, eventually, to his own "accidental" death. Jack plots against his beloved younger brother because, well, money, duh. Having invested all of his own livelihood into continuing their dead parents' failing company, Jack believes that Alex is going to squander his share of the inheritance by refusing to partner up in the family business and instead running off to "be a writer" with his fancy liberal arts degree. Yes, this film is more cynical than most, presenting an image of the wealthy capitalist who will-- in elaborate fashion-- turn violently against his own blood in order to remain part of the upper echelon and afford to be dressed up in "ugly yellow power ties." Wryly cynical to the end, the film isn't content to let events stand at that and so proceeds to undercut Jack's momentary "victory" by showing him as both haunted by his fratricidal actions and ultimately victim to another sort of predator: one seeking selfless revenge for a family member who has been wronged. If the bloodshed Jack causes devalues or makes a twisted mockery of the notion of family bonds, his own blood being shed in the name of family serves to reaffirm the inexorable influence of that most sacred of human social institutions, even from beyond the grave.

It's also worth noting that the image and concept presented by the character of The Hunter, that of a home-invading, arsenal-toting for-hire hunter/mercenary wearing a unfathomably creepy animal mask who is tied up in a cynical inheritance scheme between bitter family members, bears an awful resemblance to the image and concept of some baddies that crops up in a more recent flick. Coincidence? Unacknowledged inspiration? Outright thievery? Eh, I'll bet they just dreamed it up.

Final Girl: Our protagonist, Alex, fulfills the role of the neurotic gaslight victim. This is a stock figure most often presented in this type of film as a woman, and so naturally Alex displays more typically "feminine" qualities than the average perpetually shirtless slasher movie hunk. Alex is sensitive and needy; he's quick to fall in love and ridden with guilt over his inaction during a past event. His visceral, physical experience of his own traumatic nightmares makes him a touch hysterical on occasion. He's a ball of nerves with aspirations to forsake the family tradition of ruthless capitalism and reinvent himself as a writer. And yet, his status as a "feminine male" does little to save him in the end: he's killed quite brutally by the film's villains at the climax, making him into an innocent if gullible victim. His death is a shocking choice that is solely in service of the film's cynical tone: it is a very, very giallo maneuver.

Evaluation: Though gaslight plots were prevalent (to say the least) in the era of the giallo, the giallo's American slasher descendants were always a little too blunt and, well, obvious to employ the same necessarily semi-complicated gaslighting shenanigans during their headlong sprint into a pile of butchered bodies. Though not the most intellectually taxing of cinematic scenarios, the gaslight plot nonetheless requires both a certain amount of finesse from its filmmakers (in order to prevent the true goings-on from being screamingly obvious from the start) and an equal amount of attention from its audience (in order to piece together the maddening puzzle of possible psychosis and hallucinations). Slasher audiences in the 1980s skewed significantly younger than those flocking to the gialli of the 1970s, and-- to judge by the example of those films that raked in the thick stacks of scattered cash during the latter decade-- these teenage creeps preferred their body count flicks as brutal and simplistic as possible. Under that criteria, devoting screen time to convoluted schemes and questionings of the protagonist's sanity would be a risky proposition when some swift stabbings would suffice.

And yet, some slasher films gave the gaslight an honest go: No Place to Hide (1981) is a fine if sedate made-for-television attempt, and Happy Birthday to Me (1981)-- though by no means featuring a conventional gaslighting-- reveals by its climax that it has digested the lessons of a few of the formula's key tricks. Arriving late in the slasher cycle, Kristine Peterson's Deadly Dreams may be the most ambitious slasher gaslighting of them all, presenting a hardcore inheritance scheme that results in a poor sap being driven mad by a hulking masked killer in varied scenarios stuck somewhere between the empirical world and Freddy Kreuger-lite rubber reality. Its careful balancing act of providing the slasher's shallow visceral thrills alongside a sizable-enough heaping of quasi-complex thriller intrigue is admirable and by and large successful. Intense, surprising, and ever-so-slightly surreal, the film is the sort of clever and enthralling stuff that inspires one to eBay an original video store one-sheet immediately after viewing.

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