Romano Scavolini's Nightmare (aka Nightmares in a Damaged Brain) appeared on the scene in late 1981 (ah, that magical year...) and brought the slasher film from the realm of parody, dumb teenagers, and mainstream acceptance (eg Student Bodies) directly back into the realm of the gritty and of the dirty- back into the fringes of cinema.
George Tatum (Baird Stafford) is a particularly dangerous inmate at a mental institution in New York City. He's plagued by violent visions and nightmares, but doctors put him on an experimental drug treatment and are soon confident that he's ready to become a functioning member of society yet again. Upon leaving the institution, Tatum visits a sleazy peep show and...something in his brain breaks-- or re-breaks. Whether due to the visions from his past or simply the odor of an early-80s 42nd Street porn palace, we don't know. Either way, however, Tatum ends up writhing on the floor and foaming at the mouth as some chick with frizzy hair pleasures herself on the other side of the glass.
Tatum recovers well enough to hop in his giant early-80s car and head down to Florida in search of his ex-wife and his son, dispatching a few unlucky women along the way. At the film's end, Tatum's memory-nightmare-vision is played out in full and we finally learn the reasons behind his madness. When he was but a boy, George came home one afternoon and caught his parents engaging in a game of "tie me up and slap me around a little!", which freaked out the poor young thing. He promptly fetched an axe and got all Lizzie Borden on mom and dad.
Were the film not so bloody and, at times, explicitly gory, the plot could almost pass for a Lifetime movie starring the late Robert Urich of television's Spenser: For Hire as George Tatum and Meredith Baxter Birney of television's Family Ties as his estranged wife. Nightmare, however, is very bloody and just as seedy as the peep show George hits in NYC. Despite the relatively low body count, there are plenty of gurgling, gaping wounds on display and the blood flies freely- especially as little George gives mom and dad some well-placed whacks.
There's always been contention as to who exactly is responsible for the gore makeup FX in Nightmare, and even 25 years after the film's release, the mystery hasn't been resolved. Writer/director Scavolini insists that the effects are courtesy of the maestro himself, Tom Savini. Savini says that while he was contaced about the film while it was in the early stages, he never officially signed on and eventually went to work on Creepshow instead. He threatened a lawsuit to have his name removed from the credits but never followed through. While Savini disavows the film to this day, his name is still emblazoned on the screen: Makeup by Tom Savini. Where's Columbo when you need him?
I'm kind of torn about Nightmare. Whenever I think of something I like about it, like the truly creepy moment when a Polaroid picture of a house develops and there might be a man standing in the upstairs window, I think of something else about it that I hated, like the terrible acting- particularly from Tatum's bitchy ex-wife (Sharon Smith). This movie as the balls to kill a kid (albeit offscreen)- that's good. Ultimately, the plot is too drawn out and fairly dull- that's bad. Tatum is a truly insane psychopath- that's good. The film feels a little too trashy and exploitative for me to really say "Yeah, I like this movie!"- that's bad. See what I mean? A movie I didn't really like has some elements that I really did like. What am I supposed to do with that? Fine...middle of the road it is! I give it 5 out of 10 just call me Sybils.