“Greetings, Earthling. I am the Bishop of Battle, master of all I survey. I have 13 progressively harder levels. Try me if you dare.”
What if I told you that there was a movie you haven’t seen that features video games, Black Flag, giant rodents, Lee Ving AND Fear songs, basically every character actor you’ve ever seen, and Emilio Estevez with just a hint of a rat-tail? You’re either thinking “You must be crazy!” or you’ve seen Nightmares, the 1983 anthology film featuring all of the above, and you already knew all of this.
In October 2007, I was channel surfing with my roommate Mike when we flipped to a channel that had a pre-The Outsiders Estevez playing an arcade machine. Gordon Bombay playing a Space Invaders knock off? We were sold immediately.
At the time, tracking down a copy of the film was near impossible. It was released on VHS in the 80s and then DVD in 1999. By 2007, that DVD release was extremely difficult to find (copies are currently listed on Amazon for $75). In December 2015, Shout Factory gave the film a proper Blu Ray release including a commentary track in the form of an interview with Executive Producer Andrew Mirisch and actress Cristina Raines hosted by Shaun Chang of the seemingly now defunct Hill Place blog (http://hillplace.blogspot.com).
Released in 1983, Nightmares was developed by the producers as a pilot for NBC. Per Mirisch, NBC changed their mind after filming and released it theatrically instead. This original intent explains the choice of the late Joseph Sargent to direct. Other than the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Sargent’s filmography consists primarily of made-for-TV movies. Nightmares definitely looks and feels like it could have been a TV show, but, for at least the middle two chapters, it works.
The four chapters of Nightmares are “Terror in Topanga,” “The Bishop of Battle,” “The Benediction,” and “Night of the Rat.” While watching the film, you will notice that each chapter attempts to tell a moral lesson; the dangers of addiction, hubris and being careful what you wish for, the battle of good vs. evil, and refusing to listen because you think that you have all of the answers.
The first three chapters were written by Christopher Crowe (Last of the Mohicans and Mark Wahlberg’s Fear) and the fourth was written by Jeffrey Bloom (a bunch of random TV episodes).
I will attempt to describe each part as best I can without spoiling the twist (just in case you don’t see it coming a mile away).
Chapter One: Terror in Topanga
After a beautifully shot opening scene that sets up that a killer is on the loose and feeling very stabby, the first chapter tells the story of Lisa, played by Raines (The Sentinel). Lisa really needs a cigarette, so badly that she ignores her husband’s warnings about the killer and sneaks out. In what can only be described as the strangest note to ever leave your spouse, Lisa left her husband a chalkboard on which she had written “non-addicts CANNOT understand.”
When Lisa finally finds an open store, she has a delightfully creepy encounter with a store clerk played by Anthony James (In the Heat of the Night and basically every TV show ever). It’s not until Lisa leaves the store that she realizes the car is almost out of gas. When she finally finds an open service station, the plot really picks up.
Without giving too much away, Lee Ving plays a very pivotal role. According to Mirisch, he and Sargent went to see Fear play at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles and approached him immediately after to play the part.
Chapter Two: The Bishop of Battle
Chapter Two is the reason to watch Nightmares. From the opening scene with Estevez walking down the street blasting Fear’s “I Don’t Care About You” on his walkman to the action-packed conclusion, this chapter is everything you’re hoping it will be.
“The Bishop of Battle” is the story of JJ Cooney, an arcade shark who will stop at nothing to get the high score in an arcade game that is very reminiscent of the old Tron arcade game, including a very similar control scheme. To his friends in the arcade, including his girlfriend played by Moon Unit Zappa, JJ is the best at what he does, but that’s not good enough for JJ. Ever since hearing that “some kid in Jersey got there twice,” he needs to reach the elusive level 13. The progressively more insulting taunts from The Bishop, voiced by James Tolkan (Strickland from Back to the Future), only serve to increase JJ’s will to win.
As most children of the 80s can relate, JJ’s parents are not huge supporters of his video-game obsession. After being chastised by his parents, JJ puts on Black Flag’s “Rise Above” and sneaks back to the arcade. After finally getting past level 12, The Bishop comes to life and JJ has to fight for his. The CG is perfect to the extent that it really makes you feel as though a poorly drawn videogame came to life.
Chapter Three: The Benediction
Despite being an anthology, there is no running theme between the four chapters. The closest it gets is that, immediately following “The Bishop of Battle,” Bishop from Aliens plays a preacher who has to speak with a bishop at one point. I know it doesn’t count, but it was the best way of introducing Lance Henriksen’s role.
Henriksen plays MacCleod, a preacher in a secluded church in New Mexico who lost his faith after seeing a child die. This chapter has a different feel from the rest because Henriksen can actually act.
After the child’s funeral, MacCleod says his goodbyes, engages in some obvious foreshadowing, and gets into his with a bumper sticker that says “Faith Restores Peace.” While alone on a dirt road, he is attacked repeatedly by a large black pickup truck with tinted windows and an upside down cross hanging from the rear view. No matter where he turns, the seemingly driverless truck finds him. In one of the coolest scenes, it bursts out of the ground a la Tremors.
As I said previously, Chapters Two and Three are the reason to watch this film. You can actually probably turn it off right now.
Chapter Four: Night of the Rat
Chapter Four stinks. It’s just not good. It’s poorly written, badly acted, and has very disappointing special effects. You’ll recognize Steven Houston, Richard Masur has been in everything from The Thing to his more recent portrayal of Judy King’s boyfriend in Orange is the New Black. In complaining about this chapter, I’m going to spoil the ending, but the back of the Blu Ray box does too, so I think I’m allowed.
“Night of the Rat” tells the story of the Houston Family. Mrs. Houston and her daughter hear noises in the walls and tell Mr. Houston that it must be rats. Because he’s so busy with his job that he can’t be bothered by his family (and other 80s movie dad concerns), he doesn’t listen.
Other than a half hour of my time, the greatest casualty of Chapter Four is the family cat. Seriously, the cat knew what was going on and tried to save the day. My cats spent the rest of this chapter cowered in fear. Movies should come with a warning when they include cat deaths. Inexcusable.
Once Mrs. Houston finds the cat, she calls in a pro, exterminator Mel Keefer. Keefer is more The Strain‘s Abraham Setrakian than Billy the Exterminator, but he’s got a book about evil 17th Century rats, so he’s able to warn the Houstons appropriately. Mr. Houston, of course, refuses to listen and sets up the final showdown with a big rat.
Nightmares is a lot of fun and will make you feel nostalgic about the early 1980s. Chapter One is quick and the next two are very much worth watching. You can probably stop there as Chapter Four is the longest and the worst.
The stories are basically expanded, darker versions of childhood campfire tales, which makes sense as the producers were initially hoping to be able to crank out numerous episodes of the show. Other than Estevez and Henriksen, none of the actors went on to anything remarkable, but it’s refreshing to see the two of them in some of the earliest roles.
As it’s still early October, Nightmares is a great film to watch early in the month in order to get you into the spirit of terror. Now that is has a proper Blu Ray release, there is no excuse not to check it out.