“I never dream, not that I can remember, so I guess even a spooky one would be okay.”
From the title and back-cover synopsis of Dream Demon, a late-‘80s British supernatural shocker I had never even heard of until Arrow Video put out the Blu-ray, one could be forgiven for expecting a low-budget Nightmare on Elm Street from the other side of the pond. It’s certainly what I was expecting when I popped in the Blu. What I got instead is probably more like Rosemary’s Baby, but with dream sequences shot like an ‘80s music video.
Over on Letterboxd, user Ian West compares it to Hellraiser – which had been released just the year before – writing that it feels “like it could take place in the same brooding neighborhood as Clive Barker’s film.” And he’s not wrong, though the mix here is certainly a lot more typically soapy melodrama than Barker’s BDSM-inspired flick.
When I started watching Dream Demon to write this review, Grace – who doesn’t like horror movies – was nearby and caught the first ten minutes or so (including a very unexpected beheading). She checked out when a horrible worm started crawling out of the face of the creepy naked Barbie doll that our protagonist found in the basement, but asked me to let her know what it ended up being about.
“It’s difficult to say,” is what I told her, when she asked me that question. The back of the box tells us that Diana is set to marry Oliver, a hero of the war in the Falklands, but she’s been plagued with bad dreams ever since moving into the house that her father bought them as a wedding present. The well-heeled Diana (Jemma Redgrave, niece of Vanessa) is your typical virginal horror movie lead, in many ways, and it’s obvious that she comes from money.
“Daddy owns a few horses,” she tells her new friend Jenny, played by Kathleen Wilhoite, who replies, as might we all, “Sounds pretty uptown to me.”
Diana isn’t prepared for the limelight that marrying a minor celebrity is shining on her, though, including repeated and intrusive visitations by a pair of tabloid journalists played by Jimmy Nail and a delightfully sleazy Timothy Spall, who gets to rattle off a whole laundry list of extremely British euphemisms for penis.
Over the course of the movie, the two become the closest thing it really has to a villain, but not as themselves. Instead, they begin to infiltrate Diana’s dreamscape, popping up as demonic variants; Spall bloated and decomposing, Nail looking like “someone from a painting by Tamara de Lempicka,” as the director puts it in the film’s liner notes.
Diana is concerned about her dreams and the effect that they’re having on her; Jenny is looking for a past she can’t remember, that she thinks may be connected to the house where Diana now lives. These two plots ultimately come together, albeit not in a way that makes a whole ton of sense.
The booklet that accompanies the Arrow Video Blu-ray includes an essay by Anne Billson, who wrote the novelization of Dream Demon back when it was originally released. In it, she points out that Wilhoite’s “spiky intensity, unorthodox punk attitude, and deft delivery of potentially awkward dialogue help propel Dream Demon past a lurking impression that Diana and Jenny’s separate stories never really dovetail in satisfactory fashion.”
Chalk it up to Dream Demon’s rocky production history. According to the liner notes that accompany the Blu, it was originally intended to be a more ambitious, more commercial, and more expensive proposition that would probably have hewed closer to that “British Nightmare on Elm Street” logline that I mentioned above. Ultimately, though, rewrites happened, crews changed, budgets shrank, and what we got was this quiet but effective little sleeper.
And Billson’s not wrong; either that things don’t really come together, or that it doesn’t really matter. The actresses are both good in their parts, the special effects are minor but diverting when they crop up, the music video dream sequences are properly moody, Spall and Nail are fantastically grotesque.
Perhaps more than anything else, Dream Demon does an unusually good job of something that horror movies try for all the time: blurring the dividing line between dream and reality. As Billson points out in her essay, the “double dream” effect has been used so often since An American Werewolf in London that it has become a cliché, but in Dream Demon, it’s dreams all the way down, and it’s almost impossible to tell for sure where they end and reality – such as it is – begins.
Since the film doesn’t have much in the way of an actual plot, and since Diana’s husband turns out to be a philandering heel – as we always know he must – the picture also becomes a story about female friendship, something that, to once again quote Billson’s essay, the horror genre “could probably do with more of.”
While the reveal that Diana’s “hero of the Falklands” beau is a sham also calls that whole conflict into question – he “murdered a lot of Argentineans,” as Spall’s character puts it – it’s telling that there’s not a single male character in this flick who has any redeeming qualities.
The prurient tabloid newshounds played by Spall and Nail might be misogynistic creeps, but at least they’re who they appear to be. Oliver turns out to not be any better, in spite of all his pretenses.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.