After the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, scores of slasher movies flooded theaters with hopes of being the next big scare. It was only a matter of time before the Australian low-budget “Ozploitation” filmmakers would get on board. In 1980, director John D. Lamond (Felicity) made his only horror film, a psychological thriller called Nightmares that had all of the elements of its American counterparts.
Nightmares begins with a young girl named Cathy (played by Lamond’s daughter, Jennie) catching her mother in an affair. While Cathy’s mother is driving, her boyfriend distracts her by making sexual advances. Cathy yells at him to “leave my mummy alone,” distracting her driving mother and resulting in a horrible accident that kills the woman. At the hospital, the boyfriend blames Cathy for her mother’s death, telling her that she “killed your mother.” When Cathy is released from the hospital, she is sexually assaulted and promptly murders the predator with a broken drinking glass, causing a lifelong mistrust of men. Cathy grows up and changes her name to Helen (Jenny Neumann from Hell Night), but still carries the guilt of her mother’s death and the hatred of the male sex that comes along with her past experiences. Helen takes up acting and gets cast in a play with a group of other actors, including a fellow named Terry (Gary Sweet, who would grow up to play Drinian in The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader) who takes a liking to her. In between trying to hook up with each other, the cast rehearses the play, but soon enough they all start getting killed off in horrific and bloody ways. Helen is plagued by memories of her mother’s death in the past as well as visions of the present-day murders, causing her to wonder if she is responsible for the killings, or if she is just somehow psychically linked to the murderer.
Nightmares (later renamed Stage Fright, since there are seemingly a dozen other horror movies called Nightmares) has all of the makings of an archetypical slasher movie – a lunatic killer, a load of sex-crazed victims, buckets of blood and plenty of nudity. The script, written by Colin Eggleston (Cassandra), was both a tribute to classic killer movies like Psycho and Peeping Tom as well as a look forward to the blood-and-guts films that would come later with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. The story seems to be not completely flushed out, but the plot is diabolical, and the film still comes together and works well, despite all of its flaws. By today’s standards, Nightmares is a fairly standard and stereotypical horror romp, but, keeping in mind that it was released in the same year as the original Friday the 13th, it was well ahead of its time.
The best part about basing the film around a play in a theatre is the ready availability of victims; except for Helen and Terry, the entire company is made up of cookie-cutter horror victims, generic and disposable, so that it’s obvious to the viewer that none of them is going to survive. The play’s cast and crew spend most of the movie trying to have sex with each other, another clue that they will all soon meet their untimely end – and, more often than not, that end comes in the middle of their sexual act, with the naked victims trying to fight back or escape while the killer slices away at them.
The murder scenes are full of the POV, heavy breathing style stalking that horror fans love so much. The killer’s eye view helps to create tension and build suspense; even though everyone knows that someone is going to die, the who, where and how are anticipated. The killings are all committed with some form of broken glass, be it a busted bottle, a shard from a shattered window or a chunk of a dropped picture frame. With the sharp edges of the weapon, it goes without saying that there is blood – and lots of it. That is what Nightmares is all about – boobs and blood.
Nightmares was shot by cinematographer Garry Wapshott (who worked with Lamond on Felicity and with Eggleston on Cassandra), and the film has the feel of an eighties slasher combined with the look of an Italian giallo, with plenty of darkness and shadows splashed with copious amounts of colorful blood. Helen’s flashback/vision scenes are seizure-inducing (thanks in part to Eggleston, who edited the film), with a colorful strobe-like effect that is both unsettling and fascinating, daring the viewer to watch but warning them that they won’t like what they see.
The soundtrack to Nightmares was done by Brian May (the Ozploitation film composer, not the guitarist for Queen), who also provided the music to Mad Max and Dr. Giggles. While not one of his more ambitious scores, May’s soundtrack simultaneously channels Bernard Herrmann and Harry Manfredini, once again merging classic horror cinema with the new school of the eighties. Although a bit repetitious, the score is a perfect punctuation to the action on the screen.
Like many other horror films, Nightmares disappoints a bit at the end. The story doesn’t completely fall apart, but it does take the easy road instead of installing a big twist, making the climax feel like a cop-out and leaving the viewer a little unsatisfied. It doesn’t take the wind completely out of the sails, but it does let up on the gas.
Overall, Nightmares is a decent little addition to the slasher genre from the Land Down Under. It begs for a remake, but if one is done, two things are certain; the ending will be rewritten to be more unpredictable and clever, and they’ll change the name to something less generic.
**Watch Nightmares now via Instant Streaming on Netflix.**