Alex Gardner has an extraordinary gift. The government wants it…The scientists want it… To keep it may cost him his life.
When I sat down to write this week’s blog, it was originally going to be a review of the movie “The Cabin in the Woods.” After a few minutes of quiet thought on how I wanted to start the opening paragraph, I decided to forgo the review altogether. My reasoning is simple: I must have read over a dozen reviews of the “The Cabin in the Woods” on WordPress.com, the site that hosts my blog; that is in addition to the other fifty or so reviews of the movie that I chose not to read that were on the WordPress website, in magazines and newspapers. Let me state that I unequivocally support whatever, in this instance films, my fellow bloggers want to discuss, but my own personal feelings were that by this point the blogosphere and elsewhere had been saturated with reviews of the aforementioned movie. Instead, this week I am turning my attention to the film “Dreamscape,” one of my favorite movies from the 1980s, and, in this blogger’s opinion, both an underrated and often overlooked gem.
The film was released on August 15, 1984 and was directed by Joseph Ruben (Sleeping with the Enemy), who also co-wrote the screenplay along with David Loughery (Lakeview Terrace), and Chuck Russell (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). The movie is a mixture of the adventure, horror, science-fiction and thriller genres. Trivia buffs take note: “Dreamscape” was the second film in cinema history to receive a PG-13 rating; the first being director John Milius’s “Red Dawn,” which had debuted several weeks prior to “Dreamscape’s” release.
The 99 minute film stars Dennis Quaid (Frequency) as Alex Gardner, a likeable protagonist, who possesses incredible psychic ability, but is wasting it by betting on horses for a quick dollar. Also featured are Swedish born actor Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal) as Dr. Paul Novotny, giving his usual commanding performance, this time as a cutting edge scientist and Kate Capshaw (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) as Dr. Jane Devries; the two run an experimental clinic for the study of dreams. Rounding out the cast are: Eddie Albert (Escape to Witch Mountain) as the President of the United States who is plagued by apocalyptic nightmares; Christopher Plummer, who recently won an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in the movie “Beginners,” embodies the role of the smarmy, sinister mastermind and high ranking government power player, Bob Blair; David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors) as Tommy Ray Glatman, who like Quaid’s character has exceptional ability but is using it for nefarious purposes. For those of you who are fans of the television show “Cheers” and the character of Norm, actor George Wendt appears in the role of novelist, Charlie Prince, who is investigating the work the clinic is doing as a basis for his next book.
If one were to die in a dream, would they subsequently die in real life? If science created a technology that allowed individuals to enter the dreams of anyone of their choosing, who should be granted access to the technology? What safeguards would be in place to prevent corrupt individuals from sending in dream assassins to execute a particular individual for a variety of reasons? Those are several of the ethical questions a viewer might find themselves asking while watching the movie or thinking about it after the credits finish rolling.
Hoping to eliminate the horrors of those plagued with recurring nightmares, Novotny seeks out Gardner, who worked for him as a teenager, as a test subject while he conducted ESP (extrasensory perception) experiments. Gardner, who has no interest in once again becoming a human guinea pig, is reluctant to join the team. He agrees to do so only because he is on the run from unscrupulous individuals related to his gambling activities and also because of Novotny’s threat to contact the IRS about auditing him regarding his unreported winnings. Alex joins a team of psychics at Thornhill College, whose job it will be to inhabit the subconsciouses of the patients. How is this done? Von Sydow’s character has a high tech machine in his laboratory that enables the psychic to enter another individual’s dream, and while there, the psychic can influence the outcome of that dream.
After sharpening his skills on a few simple cases, Alex encounters his first real challenge when he agrees to help alleviate the fears of a young boy named Buddy, played by Cory ‘Bumpy’ Yothers, who was primarily a television actor. Buddy is suffering from terrible nightmares about a creature that has already laid waste to one psychic who tried to help him. The sequence that takes place after Alex enters Buddy’s dream appears like a hallucinogenic nightmare replete with a darkened house on a stormy night, a twisting staircase that would play havoc with those who suffer from Acrophobia (fear of heights), that once descended leads into a hellish environment where a serpentine creature, known as the snake-man awaits its next victim. While I wouldn’t be afraid of the snake-man these days, as a child my heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest cavity when he first appeared on screen. By today’s standards of phenomenal CGI (computer generated imagery) , the special effects of the snake-man, as well as the others used in the movie, fail woefully by comparison; but when I first saw the film in 1984 at the Syosset movie theater on Long Island, I was none the wiser.
Appearing to be seemingly concerned for the President’s well being, Blair, who is the financier of Novotny’s research project, arranges it so that the President can get the treatment he needs to purge him of his nightmares of a nuclear holocaust. Altruistic appearances are, of course, very deceiving in this instance and shed light on the reasoning behind Blair’s recruiting of Tommy Ray Glatman to be a member of the psychic team. The President has a desire to make peace with the Russians (which I know seriously dates the film, but so what). Blair decides to test Novotny’s theory about death occurring in real life if one dies in a dream. Like Gardner, the martial arts movie obsessed Tommy Ray has learned how to communicate inside the dream world and alter the final outcome. Once the diabolical plot to assassinate the President is learned by Alex, he must use his exceptional talent to discover a way to get into the inner workings of Tommy Ray’s mind so he can stop him from assassinating the American leader. Does he make it in time or do the diabolical desires of evil men thwart the chance for peace? I wouldn’t dare spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it by answering that question.
“Dreamscape” is available to be purchased on Amazon.com, and can be watched via instant viewing on Netflix.com. A special edition Blu-ray of the film was released on April 6, 2010, but be forewarned that elements of scenes from the original have been edited out. If you want to see the unedited version, hunt down a VHS copy on ebay. The positives in favor of buying the Blu-ray disc are its special features which include an audio commentary track by producer Bruce Cohn Curtis, screen writer David Loughery and special effects artist Craig Reardon. In addition, there is a still gallery and a special effects makeup test segment. With its electronic film score by composer Maurice Jarre (Dead Poets Society), which helps to guide the intensity of the nightmarish dream sequences, competent cast, and interesting premise, as well as its combining of multiple film genres, “Dreamscape,” in this blogger’s opinion, is a film that will appeal to a variety of viewers. If you are like me, and first watched it as a child and haven’t seen it since, you should rediscover it while keeping the ethical questions the movie raises in mind as you now view the film from an adult perspective.