[Blu-ray Review] Arrow Video's 'Dream Demon' is a Beautiful Film with 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' Influences
“Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams..."
...That quote in Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (quoted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) is one of many that make the hairs on my neck stand up for reasons I can’t comprehend outside of the fact that the very concept of nightmares is goddamn frightening. One of my favorite scenes in that film isn’t Tina getting dragged over the ceiling, or Nancy beating the ever-loving shit out of burned dream demon, Freddy (though they’re all great). It’s Dr. King explaining to Nancy’s mom that after decades of study, we still don’t know what the hell dreams are or where they come from! And we still don’t. Not really.
Everything about Craven’s film was a true nightmare, which is why it was such a huge hit for New Line. So, it made sense that there were copycats out there. Not all were great, but some were more unique and interesting than others, one of those being the 1988 flick Dream Demon, which just got a brand new 2K restoration from Arrow Video, and it is GORGEOUS.
Initially intended as a low-budget rip-off (as we learn straight from the mouth of producer Paul Webster in a new interview), Dream Demon was directed by Harley Cokeliss (Black Moon Rising) and written by Cokeliss and Christopher Wicking (Murders in the Rue Morgue) and follows Diana (Jemma Redgrave), a young woman about to marry an uptight military dufus named Oliver (Mark Greenstreet), who begins having violent nightmares that feel all too real. When stranger Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite) shows up, claiming to have a connection to Diana’s new house, the demons of Diana’s dreams begin to escape and commit real-life murders.
For as much as that may sound like a direct rip on A Nightmare on Elm Street, trust me, it’s not. Sure, there's a burning man, and Diana eventually finds herself with electrodes hooked up to her head, but as Webster describes, a rip-off may have been how Dream Demon began, but the film took on a whole new life of its own during the writing process, becoming more like the arthouse, convoluted, ultra-weird and at times shockingly gory version of Craven’s film. Not to mention, it’s packed with Heaven and Hell imagery that is simply stunning, even more so on Arrow’s restored disc.
Dream Demon takes mere minutes to establish itself as an underrated gem with an intense opening that sees Diana getting her wedding dress fitted, accompanied by Bill Nelson’s haunting score. At the altar, Diana says no to marrying Oliver, which causes the prepubescent man-child to slap her, before she swings a fist at his head, knocking it clean off in a geyser of blood! It’s a dream of course, but it’s the kind of eye-popping sequence that’ll perk you right up in your chair and have you drooling for more.
And oh boy, do we get more of where that came from. While there aren’t many, the gore sequences that do follow in Dream Demon are nasty, unsettling, sometimes gag-inducing slices of horror that will have you wondering how you’ve never seen this film. Cokeliss and Webster consistently break out into delighted laughter during the bloodier moments on the commentary for Dream Demon, and there’s a good reason why. I only wish there was more of it.
From the visceral opening to the bitter end, the entirety of Dream Demon plays out a lot like you’d expect, with heavy influence from Elm Street. The film is treated like one long dream, never allowing us to be sure whether or not Diana is awake or asleep. Cokeliss utilizes all sorts of dreamy visuals common to the “dream horror” genre, such as uncomfortable close-ups of wide eyed faces, enormous spaces filled by just a person or two, exaggerated hues of red, white and blue. Dream Demon can go from feeling like you’re laying your eyes upon an angel to a freefall straight to Hell at the drop of a hat, making for a confusing but wild ride.
Underneath it all though are thematic implications that put the film on another level of “must watch” for anyone looking for more horror representing the LGBTQ+ community. Diana is no Nancy, and on her own isn’t all that interesting, but her relationship with Jenny and Oliver (or lack thereof), is.
Diana’s nightmares start with Oliver, and her therapist, Deborah (Susan Fleetwood), proposes he’s a “symbol”. Yeah, of shitty men all over the world. Spoiler, the men in Dream Demon are all absolute shit. Go figure. In comes Jenny, fresh from Los Angeles and looking like she just got off the tour bus for an 80s metal band, and Diana is immediately inviting this stranger up for wine, having sleepovers with her, etc. She reveals to Jenny that she’s a virgin, and even tells Jenny that Oliver is “the first man I’ve met that I really liked, and even he scares me sometimes.”
Definitely not the kind of person you want to marry, Diana.
Whether the filmmakers intended it or not, the film toys with the underlying idea that Diana is actually a sexually suppressed woman who hasn’t admitted her own sexuality to herself. Redgrave herself expresses in a new interview that she doesn’t think the character of Diana is straight, but that it was something never talked about on set. The whole thing plays as a dark expression of the terrors which men tend to inflict on women and Diana’s complicated feelings, once the layers are peeled slowly back like dry skin.
That’s alternatively the best and worst thing about Dream Demon. The thematics and use of dreams as a metaphor for Diana’s struggling psyche are all brilliant and what sets the film apart from others like it, but instead of focusing on a central antagonist, the film leans more towards men in general as the villain, which works to a degree, but results in the film lacking a significant driving force and becoming repetitive. Diana does run into two men of the press, Paul (Jimmy Nail) and Peck, played with a deliciously nasty glee by Timothy Spall, but both come and go, and as a “rip-off” of Nightmare, Dream Demon ultimately feels like it could’ve used more of a focus on its own Freddy Krueger.
Still, any of you that enjoy gory horror overflowing with surreal imagery and following a psychologically chaotic structure with LGBTQ+ undertones, Dream Demon is made for you.
And if you’re already a fan, Arrow’s disc is a must own.
Outside of a previously released “making of” feature and the 1080p presentation which adds so much crisp beauty to an already eye-pleasing flick, this edition of Dream Demon is packed with new interviews from Cokeliss, Webster, Redgrave, Greenstreet, Nickolas Grace (who plays one of the seedier characters in the film), Annabelle Lanyon (another entity of Diana’s dreams), and Nelson, all of which together tell you everything you could ever want to know about the making of Dream Demon. My one and only complaint about the disc is that the commentary is a “scene-select” commentary, meaning it isn’t a full feature commentary, which is beyond disappointing, since both Cokeliss and Webster seem to be having fun talking about the scenes which they do. What gives, guys, you couldn’t do forty more minutes!?
Either way, whether you’re a fan or you’ve never seen it, Arrow’s Dream Demon is a dream of a disc for an underrated gem that deserves its chance to shock and confuse the hell out of you.
Check out the special features below, and order Dream Demon here.
By Matt Konopka