Anthology films don’t get much lazier than Nightmares, which plays like the producers grabbed a few scripts from Rod Serling’s junk pile and filmed them all without bothering to read them through. We remember it now only because it features several actors who went on to prominent success, including Emilio Estevez, William Sanderson and Lance Henriksen. But like a lot of bad horror movies, it never thinks its scenarios through, content to give us the basic idea and then let it rot before our eyes. Coupled with the low budget and shoddy direction of Joseph Sargent, it’s enough to put the kibbutz on the whole thing before we’re even out of the gate.
The project began as a television series in the Twilight Zone vein before moving to the big screen for reasons we may never understand. It consists of four short films, each containing the standard-issue creepy premise and faux clever twist. The first entails a woman (Cristina Raines) who leaves her house to get cigarettes despite a serial killer running around town. The second tries to cash in on the video game craze with Estevez’s amiable punk battling an arcade come to life. The third plays the low-rate power-of-Satan card, as Henriksen’s ex-priest is pursued by a pick-up driver who sports an upside-down cross on his rearview mirror. The finale stars Veronica Cartwright – an established star really slumming it here – as a twitchy wife who hears rats in the walls of her home.
Sargent lacks the skill to find the right emotional tone for any of these pieces, establishing the set-up with leaden bluntness before turning the actors loose to fend for themselves. The characters rarely evince any recognizable personality, content to move in point-and-click fashion through the hastily assembled scenarios until the prearranged finale lands on them with all the subtlety of a dead cow. Everyone is afflicted with a serious case of the Stupids, a vital trait for narratives this sloppy. Characters with two brain cells to rub together would sidestep the feeble threats here in an instant. But if they did that, there would be no movie, so we’re forced to watch their incredibly boneheaded thought processes play out on the screen before us.
Naturally, there’s no terror here, though Nightmares tries ever so hard to convince us otherwise. The nonexistent budget plays some role in this, but a better director could have made do with the resources on display. Sargent is anything but a good director, though you wouldn’t know that to look at Universal’s trust in him. Despite his fundamental failures with Nightmares, he directed Jaws: The Revenge just four years later and turned the studio’s signature franchise into amn extended joke. Anyone who sat through this film could have seen that coming.
The hard slog is made even worse by the project’s anthology nature. Every time one scenario ends, it gives us hope that the next one might be better. Every time, the film disappoints us. You’re left with a vague sense of wasted potential – the cast is really too good for the shit they have to suffer through here – and the idea that they were planning to make a television show out of this fills the soul with dread. Even the 80s affectations feel calculated and phony, particularly in the Estevez episode, which comes across as all the cheaper for the fact that nobody really understood the arcade culture they were trying to comment on. The rest of the film duly follows suit, and while it found a small audience on home video, precious few of them would stand by the film now. Nightmares has thus been justly forgotten as one of the low points in a cinematic year full of them. We can at least take comfort in the fact that the actors suffering through its incompetence went on to better things.