I’ve been trying to track down this nasty little slasher entry (known simply as Nightmare in American theaters, where it swiftly came and went) for over twenty years. Why? Because I happened to see a TV commercial for it when I was about eleven, and it scared the hell out of me. All I remembered was the image that gave me a night or two of troubled sleep: a little boy running to his room away from a masked psycho. Doesn’t sound like much, but something about the way it was edited, or the music, must’ve spooked me. I’m not eleven any more, yet I have to admit a little frisson of associative fear when that scene came up near the end of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (as it’s titled in Britain, where it’s far better known than it is here — more on that later). The rest of the movie might’ve terrified me when I was eleven. These days, I take it as the kind of grubby fun horror film I grew up with when I got a little older and started seeing this sort of thing on cable. The crappier a movie like this is, the better I like it, and it looks especially reassuring next to the shiny, antiseptic pap that passes for horror now. This was the early ’80s, man, when horror directors had no limits, no morals, no shame. I gave it a “Pretty Crappy” rating on eFilmCritic, because it is, but as any horror/exploitation fan knows, there’s crap and then there’s guilty-pleasure crap.
The plot — what I can safely reveal of it — goes as follows. George Tatum (Baird Stafford, alternating between bug-eyed brooding and histrionic screeching) is one fucked-up specimen. Plagued by gory nightmares, he wakes up screaming in a straitjacket until he’s fed anti-psychotic pills by hospital attendants. According to a very ’80s computer screen, poor George has been diagnosed with “Schizophrenia, Mild Amnesia, Homicidal Dream Fixation, Seizures.” I love the “Mild Amnesia” thrown in there, as if we couldn’t guess that from the way he wakes up shrieking; it gave me my first good laugh of the evening. Anyway, his dreams seem to involve a tied-up man, a woman slapping said man around, and a blood-spattered boy. Even those whose reading of Freud is limited to his name on a book cover will twig right away to the eventual reveal that the boy is George, the man and woman are his parents, said ‘rents are engaging in a little BDSM, and young George has an axe to grind about it.
George, it seems, is the star lab rat of a hush-hush experimental drug program; we hear various psychologists and hangers-on talking about alerting the military (!) to George’s amazing progress. So these brilliant headshrinkers let him go free, because obviously he’s mentally ship-shape, what with all the howling, blood-drenched nightmares he continues to have (not to mention the Mild Amnesia). He’s supposed to go to a halfway house, but he never makes it there, which means a few scenes featuring worried guys sitting at a computer and asking it questions a computer can’t answer in real life, like “Why presumed dead?” (What is this, the 1981 prototype of Ask Jeeves?) Some guy with a cigar (whose character is named in the credits as, yes, Man With Cigar — hey, did Chris Carter see this movie?) yells at the head psychologist: “Now he’s on the loose and killing people — and we can’t have that.” Wouldn’t be good P.R. for the program, don’t you know.
Meanwhile, in Florida, a family consisting of a single mom (Sharon Smith), her three kids (one of whom, a boy named C.J. played by a boy named C.J., is a prank-playing little prick — which makes for lots of false scares as well as the device of nobody believing the little bastard when he really starts seeing ominous stuff), an easily scared babysitter who picks the worst times to avail herself of a shower (Danny Ronen, who refreshes herself under the spray not once but twice, yet must’ve stipulated no nudity), and the mom’s gentle bearded photographer/boat-owner boyfriend (Mik Cribben), seem to be the target of the unhinged George, who has travelled all the way from rat-and-porno-infested, pre-Guiliani 42nd Street to Daytona Beach. We know he’s headed south because his car radio helpfully informs us that now we’re in Philadelphia, now we’re in South Carolina, etc.
The movie is really your standard stalker-slasher show, with a soupcon of Freudianism and a twist ending, but it’s gained some notoriety on three fronts. First and foremost, it’s one of the bloodier examples of the subgenre you’re likely to witness — in the uncut version, anyway, which is readily available at various online rare-video outlets. Director Romano Scavolini, whose background was in porn, fixates on the spurting of red stuff the way he once might have zeroed in on the spurting of other stuff. A decapitation produces so much bright crimson gushing that I thought, “Gee, this could’ve been yet another influence on Kill Bill.” About the only carnage we’re spared is the murder of a little boy, and even that might pull you up short, even though it’s offscreen: What horror movie nowadays would dare to waste a little kid?
Notoriety #2 involves who was actually responsible for said bloodletting on the set, a topic of much dispute over the years. The film’s distributors made much of the participation of special-effects grandmaster Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead), giving his name star billing in the ads; Savini countered that he’d never worked on the movie’s effects, and talked lawsuit until his name was black-taped on the posters. Other sources say that Savini did more work than he let on, and that there exists photographic evidence of him on the set setting up the movie’s most memorable gag. Me, I tend to believe Savini, who was doing much more convincing (and artful) effects than these even before 1981.
Third, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (like so many other horror and exploitation flicks at the time) gained entry into the “Video Nasties” club in the UK, and until fairly recently had been banned there. One of the owners of a video distributor handling the film was actually sent to prison for six months of an eighteen-month sentence (twelve of which were suspended). I personally don’t know that I’d be willing to go to jail over a Romano Scavolini slasher movie, but those who consider America oppressive of the arts should remember that it’s been a very long time since any movie was banned nationwide here.
So is the film worth all this noise? You’re bound to be disappointed if you expect Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (I love that title, and obviously enjoy typing it) to be commensurate with the controversies and rumors surrounding it over the past 25 years. Take it for what it is: a grungy, no-holds-barred grindhouse rat, with some decent acting by the two main leads and laughably poor work by everyone else, and with the unironic balls to rest its premise on “My Mother Was a Dominatrix!” It took me pleasantly back to the days of my youth as a budding horror-movie fan, when men were psychos and women took lots of showers.