Video Nasty Review: Nightmares in a Damaged Brain aka Nightmare (1981)

Year: 1981
Director: Romano Scavolini
Cast: Baird Stafford, Bill Milling, C.J. Cooke, John L. Watkins
Themes:Gritty Slasher, Schizophrenia, Stalking, Golden Age Slasher, Video Nasties

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain 1 posterWhen it comes to video nasties they don’t get as controversial as this one. Nightmare is the one and only film on the DPP banned list of 72 films where a distributor served time in prison for refusing to release the film uncut. David Grant of World of Video 2000 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for distributing obscene material. Consequently he saw his company fold as a result. Ironically in recent times UK discount store Poundland, was selling a version of the film-albeit cut- but to think the film which caused so much outrage could be found on the shelves of a domestic highstreet shop makes a mockery of the whole banning debacle.The copy I am reviewing today is from the Filmkunst Video, originally from Germany, with the missing vibrator scene edited in from the heavily cut UK Hardgore release (bought in Poundland!), to make our very own fan edit, and a totally uncut print.

savini was there 2As well as the prosecutions involved there is another bit of controversy surrounding the film, with confusion and debate surrounding who actually did the special effects. Director Romano Scavolini states to this day they were done almost entirely- apart from some of the prosthetics which were made by Les Larrain- by Tom Savini. In watching the film one would agree that the effects, especially the beheading, definitely bear the hallmark of Savini’s work. However this is something that Savini vehemently disputes and it is still unclear how much involvement he actually had in the making. There is photographic evidence of Savini on set working with the actors, but Savini explains that he was there only in an advisory capacity, instead blaming the director for trying to cash in on his professional name. The original promotion material credited Savini, the only ‘name’ among a completely unknown cast; which was later changed after threats of a law suit. Savini does not speak highly of Nightmare, calling it ‘that piece of shit’ ( original article here) , so it is understandable he wants to distance himself. To add further confusion into the mix Ed French,who also worked on parts of the movie for the New York scenes states that Savini was there solely as an advisor. Who is telling the truth? I guess we will never know for sure. Nevertheless Savini’s influence is definitely apparent in the special effects workings for this film and on-set photo evidence would appear to show the effects wizard having more than a passive role.

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981)Nightmare as a movie overall is a bit hit and miss. There are some outstanding moments of genius and then huge sections in which nothing really happens at all. The plot is disjointed and a little confusing at times. Whether this was a direct attempt on the director’s part- to add an aura of the surreal to match George’s crumbling psyche- is unclear. The story follows George a newly released mental patient who has been reprogrammed as fit for society after previously being labelled as a psychopath. George is haunted by violent nightmares and flashbacks which drive him to act on his impulses and kill. Things start off on a strong footing as the foundations are laid out, with a scene of a beheaded woman bathed in blood at the end of a bed just as George wakes up screaming in a straight jacket. It is a disappointment that the film cannot keep up this pace throughout. Baird Stafford does a great job as George, obviously not as cured as the medical profession think. We follow him as he tours sex clubs and peep shows (this features some fantastic footage of a very sleazy looking early 80s New York). Becoming more and more unhinged by the minute some private peep show action literally sends him into convulsions. Yet you start to wonder where this is all going. This is where the plot gets muddy and at times it is not clear whether you are following George present, past or future. We are introduced to more characters, with little explanation as to who they are, a dysfunctional family with the most annoying little shit of a son imaginable.

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981)To confuse matters even further there is a subplot with George’s medical carers frantically trying to track him, which has absolutely no relevance to anything other than to reinforce that George is a lost cause. Of course as viewers we know that already, we are treated to what haunts him inside his ‘damaged’ brain after all, and it is not a pretty sight I can tell you. Unfortunately the unintentional comic style in the way the medical element plays out not only takes away some of the serious tone, which at other times is tense and claustrophobic, but seriously hampers the pacing. For a film that attempts to start off with a firm footing in realistic gritty violence injecting a badly executed subplot halfway through just messes with the flow. Neither does it help that the tone of these scenes delve into distinctly silly territory. This is mainly due to the ridiculous computer equipment used to hammer home the message of ‘experts at work’- late seventies computers so advanced they can second guess George’s crazed movements. Twin this with some of the fantastically cheesy dialogue pouring forth from the so-called medical expert,s it all just starts to wander into guffaw territory. Things are further undermined by the fact that the lead doctor, or whatever he was- it was not really stated- talks in a woman’s voice which proves slightly off putting; having him seen puffing down on a cigar every time he was reeling off another bit of nonsense does nothing to promote his manliness either.

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981)It is worth noting that the character of CJ (played by CJ Cooke) as the annoying child lead puts in a solid performance, making him, after Baird Stafford, the best of the bunch- although this isn’t saying too much. Sadly though he is so effective in his part it’s difficult to not keep wanting him to meet a grizzly demise to put an end to his childish pranks. Obviously this stop-start pacing- with the CJ parts- was a direct attempt by Scavolini to add some false starts into the mix and keep the viewers on the edge of their seats. However it proves too distracting to add to the tension and gets very wearing by the 45 minute mark. It comes as a great relief when the action proceeds to get going again in the last third, with the mid-section playing out like an afternoon slump-  the bulk of the scenes for the middle act revolve mainly around these pranks, with George trying to lurk menacingly, although not doing a very good job of looking like a threat, in the shadows. There are a couple of murders, one entirely off-screen, but it begins to feel like the movie has just began to tread water.

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981)All good things come to those who wait, however, with Nightmare boasting one of the most impressive climaxes to come from the Golden Age of the slasher era; including some of the nastiest and spectacular gore of the sub-genre to boot. Whether the magic was by Savini’s hand or not, it certainly stands up as being gruesome all these years later. Without trying to add spoilers- although from George’s flashbacks you have a pretty good idea where it’s going anyway- the beheading scene is a bold and memorable piece; quite jaw-dropping to behold even after all these years. The camera lingers to soak it all up as well, ensuring we get to see everything, and I mean everything- including blood bubbling up and spraying from the gaping wound.

Overall, despite there being so much controversy surrounding this picture it is a sad fact that the backstory makes the film out as more interesting than it actually is. It does not stand out as one of the major contenders for best film from this era- even if contains ones of the most impressive showstoppers of an ending. But the fact is, in the grand scheme of things there are plenty more that do it better. This aside it is still a very worthy piece of Golden Age slasher madness and deserves to be seen at least once- if not more. For the final scene alone it is a must, as for all the Nightmare’s foibles, this part alone is breathtaking, demonstrating 80’s gore in its purest and most shocking form.

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Categories: 80's horror, Reviews, Slasher, Splatter and gore, Video Nasties

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