Nightmares is the first attempt at horror from the notorious Australian sleaze-meister John D. Lamond. "Hot mess" is probably the best way to describe it. Choppy, savagely edited and poorly acted, it is nevertheless a fun movie to watch.
Plot, such as it is
The movie's backstory is set up in a prologue that takes the better part of ten minutes. In 1963, a young girl, Cathy, sees her mother having sex. A few days later the man, who is not her father, puts the moves on her mother in a car. The girl's objections interfere with her mother's driving, and the car crashes. Cathy's rescue attempts backfire tragically, and her mother's throat is fatally cut on the windshield glass.
The connection between sex, death and broken glass is established immediately. There's your psychological element: That's all the depth you'll get or need. When a man later confronts Cathy about having caused her mother's death, she picks up a broken drinking glass and goes on a rampage.
On the same date seventeen years later, Cathy is now an adult named Helen who suffers from nightmares of the incident. None of this is explained, and the only piece of information we are given is that she has never been allowed to date. That might seem like a cop-out, but it's probably no loss: This just isn't a smart enough movie for it to matter whether these details were filled in. Would it have been more insightful or interesting if everything were tied together in a neat package? This movie is about mayhem, not plot. Look elsewhere for consistency. Cathy was presumably put someplace where they speak with American accents, treated, renamed and released. We don't know, and it wouldn't change anything if we did. But we'll still ding them for lazy writing.
Helen is now an actress who wins a role in a play called Comedy of Blood. The director coaches her to meditate on death, which reminds her of murder and causes a huge freakout. She exhibits odd behavior at times and can be cold to her fellow cast members, but on the whole it's not treated like a big deal. Kooky as she is, she's not so out of place in the theater world. The actors' dramatics and superstitions add an extra layer of crazy to the story.
Don't expect Simon Oakland to show up and stop the story dead with a long-winded explanation. There are hints of a split personality, but there's no real psychological element to the story other than "ax glass shard crazy." That's appropriate: Anybody who's watching this movie came to see "ax glass shard crazy," not something more intellectual like Dead Ringers. Helen even seems to slip more or less at will between normal mode and hunting mode, which is depicted as a POV camera shot accompanied by Brian May's intense, Psycho-inspired soundtrack music.
Little substance, but loads of style
That propulsive soundtrack may be the film's single best quality. It adds a drive and a sense of drama that make the scenes work. The aggressively choppy editing is the movie's worst aspect. Maybe the idea was to jar the viewer with sudden cuts, but it seems clear that a lack of skill is also involved. The murder scenes are the giveaway. Slashes are obviously posed, and there is no effort to make the kills look natural or realistic.
The theater makes for an excellent setting. Its long, Gothic hallways make it a world to itself and provide many places for a killer to lurk. Giallos are referenced through the killer's raised, black-gloved stabbing hand, although there is never a mystery element to this story.
Nightmares is an atypical example of a genre that may be the most formulaic in all of film. Slashers usually feature teen characters and use death as a metaphor for sexual awakening. None of that here. All of the characters are sexually mature adults except for Helen. It would be more appropriate to say that Helen's sexual repression is what triggers her violence.
Nightmares is the opposite of a standard slasher in an even more unusual way. Many horror movies are good at creating thrilling set-pieces and visceral kill scenes but are weak when it comes to human elements. Here, the story surrounding the play-within-a-film production of Comedy of Blood is pretty darn good and could stand alone as a film. The horror elements are the parts that are done poorly. In comparison to most slashers, this is backwards. There's also an unusual structure to the movie, as it starts with twenty minutes or so of mayhem before it settles into its theater story. This means that the action starts early, but it also contributes to the movie's disjointed feel. Silly audience— build-ups are for kids.
Lamond blames the film's slapdash nature on the budget and time restrictions. That makes sense on the surface, but it doesn't explain why the black comedy side of the story, which seemingly would be more difficult to write, is better than its slasher side. Attention to detail would seem to be part of the problem. For instance, Cathy's mother is blond during her sex scene but brunette in her car. Even given time and budget restrictions, a brunette butt double shouldn't have been hard to find, especially since her face is not seen during the sex scene and her butt is not shown in the car.
The acting is mixed in quality. Popular actor Gary Sweet makes his film debut here. Briony Behets is good in a small role as the stage manager, and Max Phipps is excellent as the director. Lamond favorite John-Michael Howson, whose idea it was to set the story in a stage production, is terrific as a predatory theater critic. Jenny Neumann, a last-minute casting replacement, is a lamentable choice who can do little more than make laughable, wide-eyed nutso faces.
Nightmares is, in the Ozploitation tradition, a bumpy and wild ride. The germ of a good movie is here, but it perhaps was, like Comedy of Death, a bit of a cursed production. While definitely not the pinnacle of technical achievement, there is an element of fun throughout. Its departures from slasher formula make it an interesting watch for anyone who is willing to look past its flaws.