Jennifer Rubin on the bill. A ward of mentally disturbed patients on a relentless cocktail of medication. A horrifically burned mass-murderer returning years after his grisly death. Ghastly, dream-like visions of death that quickly become all too real.
No, no, I'm not accidentally slipping into a review of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. From the way the cast talks about it, though, Fox was apparently eyeing Bad Dreams as their answer to a Freddy Krueger-style franchise. Its par-broiled killer is a very different kind of monster, though. Back in the mid-'70s, Franklin Harris (Richard Lynch) was
For more than a decade, reporters and the like were fixated on the comatose Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin), desperate for answers to the many, many lingering questions about the Unity Fields massacre that only she could provide. Unfortunately for them, her memories are a blur. Even worse, Cynthia has awoken in a wholly unfamiliar world. She has no friends. She has no family. She's a relic from an era everyone turned their back on long ago. Cynthia remains in the hospital's care, and to try to help her adjust, she's placed in an eclectic group of misfits afflicted with borderline personality disorder. Her memories slowly return. Friendships blossom. There's an unmistakable bond between Cynthia and the handsome young doctor (Bruce Abbott) leading the group. Cynthia's past and present collide in the most nightmarish of ways, though. She's tormented by waking visions of Harris, a man she knows to be dead...visions of the other people in her group being savagely murdered...visions of Harris hissing that she must suffer for failing to keep her promise. It's the sort of thing that could justifiably be dismissed as a mind reeling from trauma, but everyone that's slaughtered in Cynthia's visions soon turn up dead in real-life as well...
Bad Dreams didn't make much of an impression on me when I first stumbled upon it however many years ago, but now...? I kind of love it. Though Bad Dreams doesn't have the lavish visual effects or demented imagination of A Nightmare on Elm Street, it's unsettling in a way that Freddy couldn't really muster in the sequels. Bad Dreams deftly blends together Cynthia's waking nightmares with reality. There's a persistent sense of dread and unease, not relying solely on a splashy kill every ten minutes like clockwork...although, yeah, there's that too. Harris is an unnerving presence even when he's just half-smiling and waving in the background; when the full-on burn makeup by Academy Award winner Michèle Burke is unveiled, it's genuinely horrifying, still holding up startlingly well more than a quarter of a century later. It doesn't hurt that Cynthia is surrounded by a more interesting group of patients than Rubin is in Dream Warriors, including a chainsmoking holdover from L.A. Law (Susan Ruttan), a loud-mouthed horndog (Dean Cameron), the obligatory creepy girl that speaks in riddles (Sheila Scott-Wilkenson), Dottie from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (E.G. Daily), and a couple of middle-aged horndogs that get sucked into a giant turbine and splurted all over everyone outta the air vents (Susan Barnes and Louis Giambalvo). As for Jennifer Rubin, she isn't just nice to look at: she strikes that perfect balance between strength and vulnerability that makes for a hell of a Final Girl.
I wouldn't exactly call Bad Dreams a splatter flick, at least not in this form -- the MPAA forced a lot of stuff to be snipped out -- but a whole lot of the red stuff still gets sloshed around. The deaths are frequently disturbing. It's suspenseful enough to keep my attention from ever wavering. There's a pretty terrific and very well-earned twist waiting for you near the end. Also catching me off-guard are clean-cut Doc Karmen going postal in the most operatic, high-octane way on his boss (Harris Yulin) and none other than Charles Fleischer (the voice of Roger Rabbit!) in a bit part as a smartass pharmacist. I'll gush about the soundtrack a little further down in the review, but I'd probably recommend the movie for that alone. It's creepy, it's gruesome, it doesn't overstay its welcome (84 minutes!), and it's not exactly more of the same. Very much Recommended.
Visiting Hours was produced in the wake of early '80s Canadian slashers like Happy Birthday to Me and My Bloody Valentine. On the surface, Visiting Hours might look like it's marching right alongside those blood-spattered body count flicks, but there's a lot more -- and, frustratingly, a lot less -- going on here.
As a journalist, Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant) is supposed to present herself as impartial. Instead, she takes to the airwaves in defense of a battered woman that fatally ended her husband's reign of terror. Some celebrate Ballin speaking out as she has. Others, including her producer-slash-lover (holy shit; William Shatner!), may or may not
Early '80s slashers were frequently and not exactly unfairly accused of misogyny. Even with the whole thing about the Final Girl, women in horror movies were often young, nubile, double-digit IQ eyecandy there just to bare their tits before getting sliced down the middle. Visiting Hours upends that convention. For one, the central characters are all very much adults; even the drop-dead gorgeous nurse played by Linda Purl is a divorced mother. No horny, beer-guzzling teenagers here. More noteworthy is that the bulk of the critical roles are played by women, and they're strong, figurative-balls-of-steel characters rather than mewling victims. Sure, they're terrified when a deranged serial killer is flailing around with a butcher knife in his hand, but that's not the only purpose they serve.
As a second-rate movie reviewer, I appreciate all of that since it gives me something to write about. It's just that Visiting Hours is painfully, agonizingly dull. Sure, sure, Michael Ironside makes for a hell of a nutjob, unleashing all the right unhinged expressions and incendiary rage with borderline-no dialogue. He's introduced half-naked with pearls and stuff clipped to his face as he tries to eviscerate Ballin, and that's more than a little memorable. Most slashers of the era were whodunnits, but Visiting Hours never attempts to hide Hawker's identity, delving more deeply into his troubled mind as the movie unspools. The often oppressively tight, handheld camerawork also adds a welcomed sense of urgency. Still, its hour-forty-five runtime feels like an endless slog. The body count is nothing special, and the handful of murders that Hawker successfully pulls off are fairly uneventful. There isn't much of anything in the way of atmosphere, tension, or suspense. Even William Shatner fails to leave a meaningful impression. Unless you're a second year film student writing a paper on the role of gender in horror or something, there's basically nothing to recommend about Visiting Hours. If I were reviewing this on its own, I'd say Skip It and never suffer through it again.
Bad Dreams gets off to an awfully rough start in high-def. Just about everything up to and including the opening titles is extremely soft, and this holds true for basically every shot in the movie with any sort of optical work. Stick around, though, and things quickly improve. Bad Dreams is never really a knockout, although the below-par definition and detail still manage to be respectable enough. There's a definite tinge of softness to the photography here, but the closer the camera's pulled in, the better it looks. Contrast skews kinda flat, which isn't exactly a surprise for an '80s horror flick, and color saturation looks spot-on. The rendering of film grain is kind of a mess, and I think a lot of that's due to the encoding. Sometimes I'll see a kinda-sorta filmic texture, other times digital artifacting takes the place of all those granules, and other times still there won't be much of any grain at all. Even more strangely, there are shots in the movie where I can go frame-by-frame and say all three of those things a fraction of a second apart from one another. Even if the encoding had been more competent, Bad Dreams still wouldn't approach being in the same league as the best looking '80s genre films on Blu-ray. As generally overlooked as this movie has been over the years, though, it passes as a marginally okay presentation.
Despite being a few years older, Visiting Hours strikes me as being better defined and a little bit sharper than Bad Dreams, though there's still some degree of softness. The second half of this double feature also has more consistently pronounced grain, although it too is dragged down by artifacting that saddles it with a somewhat digital appearance. The sterile hospital backdrop doesn't offer a lot of opportunities for dazzling production design, so the whole thing tends to look kind of bland and subdued. Fleshtones sometimes seem a little ruddy, such as the first encounter between Deborah and Sheila, but that's not a persistent headache. The same as Bad Dreams, very little speckling and no wear or damage ever intrude. Again, the first word that springs to mind is "okay", but there's still that damned artifacting.
If you don't get why I'm going on and on about the sloppy compression, expand this screenshot to full-size. It's an uncompressed PNG straight from the Blu-ray disc, so there aren't any JPEG hiccups to skew the results. That's straight-up embarrassing. The problems are obviously more glaring as a still image viewed close up, but even in motion from a reasonable distance, things just don't look right to my eyes. It's not a persistent problem throughout all of Scream Factory's releases, but The Horror Show from a few months back is proof that it's not a one-off either. They're better than this, and that's what makes the whole thing kind of puzzling.
The strictly technical end of things is the same for Bad Dreams and Visiting Hours. Both movies have been encoded with AVC on this dual-layer disc and are lightly letterboxed to preserve their theatrical aspect ratios of 1.85:1.
Don't get thrown off by the technical specs on the back of the case, which only lists a monaural DTS-HD Master Audio track. That's spot-on for Visiting Hours, but Bad Dreams features instead a DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track and a lossless version of the DVD's 5.1 remix.
Even with a meaty, lossless soundtrack and six channels at its fingertips, Bad Dreams' audio is pretty underwhelming. The distinctness and clarity I'm usually spoiled by on Blu-ray are missing in action. The handful of colossal explosions and opening burst of flames don't coax much more than a wheeze out of the subwoofer. I'm kind of in awe of the songs on the soundtrack -- "Sweet Child o' Mine" right before Guns 'n Roses blew up, The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today",
Even though Visiting Hours is a monaural film from the other end of the decade, I thought the fidelity was a bit richer than in Bad Dreams. I don't have a long, droning review to hammer out here. All the elements in the mix are reasonably clean and clear, background noise isn't intrusive enough to gripe about, and there are no clicks, pops, or dropouts to get in the way. Nothing smolderingly intense, no, but the audio basically lands right where
Again, all three of the featured soundtracks are 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. Both halves of this double feature serve up optional English subtitles as well.
Not content to simply port over the extras from their 2011 DVD release of this double feature, Scream Factory has assembled some newly-conducted interviews for Visiting Hours. (The flipside of the cover only lists one Visiting Hours interview, but there are actually three of 'em.) Also, all of the DVD's interviews for Bad Dreams have been carried over in full high definition.
So, yeah, you get a lot with this double feature, but if you're really into combo packs and slipcovers, brace yourself 'cause you don't score either of those here.
The Final Word
Visiting Hours kind of feels like I'm twiddling my thumbs in a hospital waiting room for a couple hours straight, not exactly holding up its end of this double feature. I guess you could look at this as a special edition of the far superior Bad Dreams, and you happen to get a whole other movie out of the deal. Works for me, anyway. Recommended. Might've given it a more enthused rating if Fox had shelled out for a better presentation and if Scream Factory didn't get their B-team to field the authoring.