‘Dreamscape’ (1984): Silly in the 80s, prescient today

It’s dumb, right? Remember 1984’s fun summer sci-fi flick, Dreamscape, where psychic Dennis Quaid could not only enter U.S. President Eddie Albert’s nuclear holocaust nightmares, but participate in them, and shape them into reality? Can’t be done, correct?

By Paul Mavis

Well, google “neuroscientist Moran Cerf,” “C-lab,” and “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,” to see just one example of how quickly the eggheads are moving towards making Dreamscape’s science fiction a stone cold reality. What critics thought was entertaining but essentially silly back in ’84, seems fairly prescient today.


Recently, Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line released a Blu-ray collector’s edition of Dreamscape, the 1984 indie sci-fi thriller, released by 20th Century-Fox, directed and co-written by Joseph Ruben, co-written by David Laughery and Chuck Russell, and starring Dennis Quaid, Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Eddie Albert, Kate Capshaw and David Patrick Kelly. Middlingly successful at the tail end of the busy, fantasy-filled 1984 summer movie season, Dreamscape got better notices than it did grosses, going on, however, to be a cable and VHS favorite over the years with a surprisingly sturdy cult following to this day. Shout! has delivered up a sweet 2K original negative scan and restoration, making Dreamscape look better than it ever did in all those slightly out of focus multiplexes (don’t bust your pause button, however: the nudity still ain’t there).


Horny psychic scamster Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) has been on the lam for the last nine years, betting on the ponies and bird-doggin’ beaver, after ditching a scientific program run by his mentor, Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow). Bone-breaking trouble with some bookies, however, convinces Alex that an invitation to rejoin Dr. Novotny’s research isn’t such a bad idea—particularly when Alex meets the doctor’s assistant, pretty Dr. Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw). Novotny’s research is a breakthrough: he’s devised a way for psychics to enter into a person’s “dreamscape” and become an actual participant in their dreams—something Alex does several times, once meeting a terrifying “snake man” in a trouble young boy’s sleep. What Alex doesn’t know is that oily, smooth government official Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) wants to use the research as a potential political weapon, with psychotic lackey Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly) at the ready to execute anyone in their dreams—on Blair’s command. What Alex and Jane soon discover is that next victim may very well be the President of the United States (Eddie Albert), who is having horrific nightmares about apocalyptic nuclear destruction, and who wants to disarm the country.

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It’s always guesswork, but had 20th Century-Fox stuck with Dreamscape’s initial release date—May 11th, 1984—chances are good they could have significantly increased its box office take. Various sources list an unimpressive $12-13 million final gross for Dreamscape, while in an interview on this DVD, producer Bruce Cohn Curtis claims $25 million—a figure that would definitely make the movie profitable (perhaps he’s including video and TV sales). Getting a jump on the soon-to-be overcrowded summer schedule, Dreamscape would have had two full weeks worth of attention from the young, primed sci-fi/fantasy/horror crowd (with the closest genre competition only coming from a crappy Stephen King adaptation: Firestarter), before the 4-day Memorial Day weekend of May 25. That holiday weekend kicked off one of the most memorable crowd-pleasing movie summers of the 1980s, with big box office hits coming week after week: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Revenge of the Nerds, and Purple Rain.


Instead (for unknown reasons), Fox pushed Dreamscape’s release forward. A low-budget indie pick-up for the studio—$5-6 million budget, no A-level stars—Fox may have gambled that Dreamscape needed space away from the summer blockbusters to perform (…or more likely, the suits were losing faith in it, perhaps due to poor test screenings). There were initial plans to mount a significant promotional push in support of Dreamscape, particularly since Fox was facing a bruising summer, having no big fantasy/sci-fi “tent pole” outing for release (their biggest movie of the year, Romancing the Stone, had already petered out by summer, leaving only two R-rated summer comedies—Revenge of the Nerds and Bachelor Party—that made any money).


That expensive plan was scrapped, however, when the studio decided to dump Dreamscape at the end of summer, when most kids were just gearing up to go back to school (and the ones that were left were already sated with comic book fantasy thrills). An ill-advised advertising campaign that made Dreamscape look like a poor man’s Raiders knock-off didn’t exactly help, but fatally, Fox couldn’t—or wouldn’t—secure enough screens for Dreamscape’s opening weekend (only 800 and change), almost daring it to fail against wider releases. It debuted at a deadly 9th that August 17th, 1984 weekend, against titles like Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope (over 1500 screens) and John Milius’ Red Dawn (almost 1800). Even something as hilariously awful as bomb Sheena, Queen of the Jungle got its studio Columbia’s respect that weekend, with almost 1500 screens secured for its disastrous bow.


Despite the botched theatrical release, after subsequent—and seemingly endless—cable re-runs, as well as a solid VHS rental history, Dreamscape remains a fondly-remembered 1980s title (the “snake man” and some non-existent nudity—more about that below—seem to be the universal touchstones among fans). Dreamscape is brisk and entertaining, even amusing at times…if vaguely ludicrous. Considering the advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience today, the ability to project oneself into another person’s dream sounds fairly plausible…but how does “killing” an abstract, visual representation in your mind’s eye, in a dream, translate into actually physically killing yourself or someone else, in the “real” world? (some quantum physics guy out there email me and let me know, ‘cause I don’t get it). With an excellent but “no name” cast—at least to all the kids out there—Dreamscape’s concept had to carry the picture, and it does so quite well, despite some of its far-fetched elements (sure old pros Sydow and Plummer were legends to savvy moviegoers, and there was some buzz for Quaid and to a lesser extent, Capshaw at that time, but to be frank: those old pros and newcomers Quaid and Capshaw couldn’t put ass one in the seats in ‘84).


Dreamscape’s biggest plus is that it gets on with it; it moves fast. Even if director Ruben (the superlative The Stepfather) at this early stage of his career hadn’t quite yet got a handle on his mise-en-scene serving the suspense—for example: look at Plummer’s dull-as-dishwater entrance—Rocky editor Richard Halsey keeps everything humming along nicely. There’s also a lightness at the core of Dreamscape that’s a welcome surprise. Considering the potentially heavy content (at one point we get mutant kids crying in a post-nuclear wasteland), its offhandedness is oriented towards telling a funny, scary story, rather than in delivering a cautionary tale about nukes and people’s privacy being invaded (if they did Dreamscape today, we’d have to pay for our fun with social justice lectures, political screeds, and self-obsessed, tortured protagonists…but of course the villains would remain the same: evil white male conservatives would be behind it all).


Dreamscape politics, thankfully, are on the vague side, too. Only once does Albert as the President make a direct political statement (“This nuclear madness must end!”)…and it falls flatter than a pancake because we’re not watching Dreamscape to raise our consciousness. We want some laughs and chills. I wish the witty banter and asides were more prominent (when the scared kid in the dream tells Quaid, “That’s my dad, but he won’t help us,” and the dad growls back, “Little bastard’s right,” it’s laugh out loud funny in a scene that isn’t supposed to be). And the middle section certainly needed tightening (the George Wendt character is completely ridiculous and unnecessary, and takes up too much screen time). As for the much-discussed Maurice Jarre synthesizer score—when producer Cohn Curtis specifically requested an orchestral one—it’s the absolute worst element of Dreamscape, giving the movie a chintzy, thin, keyboard-y sound that devalues the scope of the set pieces (give me a Bernstein or Goldsmith or Barry or Williams score any day compared to the overrated Jarre).


In the interviews featured on this disc, several people involved with the production laugh and lament over the state of Dreamscape’s practical special effects (old timey mattes and optical printers and miniatures, rather than today’s digital work). Granted, the effects looked gimcrack even in 1984, but you can’t really say they look “wrong,” because of the simple fact that they’re depicting dreams. Who’s to say how someone’s dreams look? So what if the mattes and blue screen effects have black lines, or the miniatures look just like that: tiny plastic models? It works because these effects aren’t trying to mimic reality, or trick us into believing something strange or wonderful is happening within an otherwise realistic world (like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flying around Europe to crappy matte effect). The entire environment of each dreamscape sequence is surreal, so who cares if the special effects look shoddy? They would only look “wrong” if they were inserted into an otherwise realistic context. That’s why the blue screen scenes, such as the trolley ride through post-apocalyptic Washington, looks better than the “snake man” stuff, where an unwise mix of stop motion effects and human actors is, in the end, too jarring (when we see that hilarious claymation Dennis Quaid, all we can think is, “Rankin-Bass Meets Celebrity Death Match”).

As for any nudity on this here Blu-ray disc, well…there ain’t any, junior. Until I did a little research, I didn’t know that there was apparently a healthy contingent of fans who have been debating the nudity levels in the various Dreamscape home video releases for some time. May I suggest you fellas move on; you know there’s actual porn on the internet now. It’s free, too (I mean…Kate Capshaw nudity? Who’s losing sleep over missing that?). In this disc’s old commentary track, Cohn Curtis and Loughery definitively answer the conspiracy theorists (17 years ago, fans…): nudity that did occur during the Quaid/Capshaw sex scene was subsequently re-shot anyway (because Capshaw’s face was broken out—sexy!—during the first go-around), and that new nudity was then finally excised before the movie was ever released so Dreamscape could garner a “PG-13” rating from the MPAA. The nudity in the “cheating wife” dream was optically framed out for the same reason. There was never any nudity screened here in the U.S. market; no contemporary reviewer mentions it, and the movie never carried an “R” rating (there weren’t two separate versions out in theaters, either, as some fans attest).

Now…have nude scenes subsequently shown up in cable and foreign market versions of Dreamscape? I don’t know, because I’ve only seen this disc. Others claim it has, so I’ll leave it up to the detectives and Kate Capshaw freaks to solve that mystery. Besides that prurient point…it’s kind of a shame there wasn’t more nudity and sexuality in Dreamscape (haha!). Not because of Capshaw (Quaid shows way more skin than she does, anyway), but because Dreamscape fairly cries out to be a tougher, funnier, sexier “R”-rated adventure, one not for kids but for adults. That atrocious poster shows you where Fox’s commercial thoughts were, but considering how sly and witty Dreamscape is at times, and how agreeably mean-spirited and perverse it can be during the dreamscape scenes, it’s too bad the movie couldn’t really let loose and unleash the erotic potential that’s just barely hinted at, when Quaid invades Capshaw’s already-rolling sex dream (critics who say Quaid “raped” her are hysterically dumb). It might have changed Dreamscape from an agreeably goofy little sci-fi romp, into a really interesting, ahead-of-its-time movie.


The brand new 2K scan of Dreamscape’s original negative produces a pretty sweet 1080p HD widescreen 1.85:1 Blu transfer. While most of the movie is crystal clear, scratches and dirt still appear occasionally during a few of the more busy opticals, which I’m putting down to the original effects printing (a notorious source of unwanted debris…particularly when money and time don’t allow for do-overs). Colors are consistent, if a bit drab (the overall look of the movie is surprisingly dark). Grain is super-tight and filmic, and fine image detail is impressive. Blacks are solid. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 English stereo track is equally striking, with quite a bit of discreet separation and depth in the sonic field during the dream sequences (there’s a flatter 2.0 option for purists). English subtitles are available.

Shout!’s new extras will also help die-hard Dreamscape fans to pony up for this Blu upgrade. First up is Dreamscapes and Dreammakers (1:01:48), where Laughery, Ruben, Russell, cinematographer Brian Tufano, editor Richard Halsey, David Patrick Kelly, miniature supervisor Susan Turner, special effects supervisor Kevin Kutchaver, visual effects supervisor Peter Kuran, special make up supervisor Craig Reardon, stop motion visual effects James Aupperle, and miniature construction James Belohovek, all give a very detailed look at the pre-production of Dreamscape, along with the challenges of creating all those special effects on such a small, limited budget. Some interesting tidbits come out, including Kelly working at a sleep clinic for research (didn’t the great old stars just pretend when they acted?) and Kuran’s laughing assertion that he’d love to do the effects right this time. A wealth of information on the production as a whole, but more info was needed on the movie’s critical and box office reception.

Next, the new Nightmares and Dreamsnakes (23:21) has Ruben, Russell, Loughery, and Reardon discussing in more detail some of the intricate special effects work, particularly the transformation from Kelly’s head into snake man (I personally like the double framing and judder). Interesting mostly because Reardon is so obviously pissed about how his work was lit and photographed (here’s a hint: too dark, couldn’t see it). A super-relaxed, clearly amused Dennis Quaid shows up to good advantage for a new interview, The Actor’s Journey (14:50), where he discusses the seeds of his acting career, and his relationship with his Dreamscape co-stars (Sydow and Albert were apparently cool…but widely-noted snot Plummer is carefully described as, “studied, mannered, controlled.” Hoo boy…). Next, Bruce Cohn Curtis and Chuck Russell in Conversation (23:31) covers the production again in a lively back-and-forth (I don’t know what was funnier: Russell saying of composer Maurice Jarre, “We needed size, and we got keyboards,” or both of them tiptoeing around their first joint movie, Chatterbox). Next, some original Snake Man Footage (2:16) is included (it did look better with more light), as well as a still gallery (2:32), and an incoherent, god awful original trailer (2:13—that cost the movie $10 million in ticket sales right there). Ported over from a previous DVD release, the 1999 commentary track with Curtis, Loughery, and Reardon is pretty low-key (the only “bombshell” besides settling the nudity controversy was their statement that John Schneider was seriously in the running for Quaid’s role). And finally, there’s new art—and Dreamscape’s misguided original one-sheet art—on the reversible disc holder cover.


(This article originally appeared at MoviesandDrinks.com.)


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