An obscure British release from 1988 that never made it to the states theatrically, Dream Demon‘s major problem is that it is not a good horror movie. It has horror elements, some fun gore bits, and a very spooky atmosphere but Dream Demon isn’t very scary. It doesn’t have a relentless sense of dread that great horror evokes. It’s at best a pretty mediocre horror movie. It is a really good fantasy movie, however, and should be looked at in that light.
Jemma Redgrave in her film debut plays Diana, simultaneously a small town teacher and a daughter of great fortune, who has been raised to celebrity by being engaged to Oliver, a hero of the Falkland wars. The upcoming nuptials are off to an apparent rocky start – Diana refuses Oliver at the altar, and he slaps her in protest. She slaps back, completely knocking off his head and spraying her pure white wedding gown with blood.
This turns out to be a dream. Dream sequences are plentiful (no surprise, look at the title) but as the film goes on, the difference between reality and dream become increasingly intermingled, until Diana doesn’t know if she awake, or asleep, or if that makes any difference. The one thing she knows, dream decapitation notwithstanding, is that she wants Oliver to be with her. And he’s not. Ever. His work keeps him constantly away.
So Diana lives alone in a flat of a building her parents have bought her as a wedding present, which is too big and unwieldy for one girl to be rattling around in on her own. Worse, she’s being chased by a pair of paparazzi, a photographer and a reporter (Timothy Spall and Jimmy Nail, respectively) who stake out her house asking her embarrassing questions about her relationship, and suss out that she’s a virgin bride. She’s rescued from the obnoxious pair by punky America Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite) who, though she grew up in L.A., was born, and orphaned, in Britain. The only thing she knows about her long lost family is that their last known address was in the house that Diana is currently living in.
The two strike up a quick friendship, and between them find that Diana’s dreams have a bizarre connection to reality: she dreams of being assaulted by the photographer, who steals her engagement ring before he runs into the basement and gets knocked into a pit to hell by a man on flames. The next day, the reporter breaks into the house, looking for the photographer who has gone missing. He shows up again when Diana is asleep, and attacks Jenny in real life, pounding on the door until she can manage to wake up Diana.
There’s an easy parallel to be found between this film, a 1988 British production helmed by American director Harley Cokeliss, and a certain very popular ’80s horror franchise that involved a monster who attacked people’s dreams. Freddy Kruger may, in fact, be considered something of a Dream Demon. But one of the deficiencies of this film is that it does not in fact supply anything like a Freddy Kruger. The paparazzi, once they become ensconced into the dreamland, act as de facto horror antagonists, but they never have the internal drive of a real monster.
Which is why the film works better as a fantasy mystery than some sort of franchise starting horror picture. A clue to this is that no franchise was forthcoming. There was no Dream Demon 2: The Dreamening. Dream Demon has merits, though they are as an intriguing dream fantasy film hampered by pretense towards a horror franchise.
The story that is there is actually quite engaging. Diana has deep anxiety about her marriage to Oliver. Jenny has a completely opaque past, with inklings that there might have been some terrible reason she can’t fully remember her childhood. These are both borne out in the real world and the dream world, and there’s a story about female friendship and the world of the unconscious hidden between the lines of what might have been meant as a routine horror film.
It is an okay, meandering script, buoyed by generally good performances and exceptional direction. The dreamworld that Diana and Jenny fall into is clearly a couple of corridor sets, a staircase, and some rooms with mirrors. But they are used to exceptional effect. Tension is built through camera angles, foregrounding – all the composition tricks that a great director-cinematographer team can use to make the best of limited budget and locations. Dream Demon‘s combination generally good story, and really good filmmaking make a cinematic experience that, while not everything it could be, is constantly engaging and constantly visually beautiful.
Dream Demon never had a theatrical release in the U.S. – the company that had the distribution rights went out of business. This Blu-ray release touts the all-new director’s cut, which amounts to mostly excising a coda that was a set-up for a franchise that would never come. Dream Demon is not an underappreciated horror movie – as a horror movie, it’s not great. But as a fantasy film about the intersection of dreams and reality, and just a story of two women trapped – one by her past, the other by her possible future, I found it an arresting, engrossing story of revelation and friendship.
Dream Demon has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow video. The release contains a director’s cut and the original theatrical cut, though the substantial differences are largely confined to a coda at the end of the film. Beyond that, there’s a plethora of mostly new bonus features on the disc. There’s a scene-select audio commentary with director Harley Cokeliss and producer Paul Webster. New video features include “Dream Master” (28 min), an interview with Cokeliss, and “A Nightmare on Eton Avenue” (38 min). an interview with producer Paul Webster. There are also interviews with several of the film’s actors: “Dreaming of Diana” (16 min) with Jemma Redgrave, “Cold Reality” (10 min) with Mark Greenstreet, “Sculpting the Part” (9 min) with Nickolas Grace, and “Angels and Demons” (10 min) with Annabel Lanyon. There’s also “Demonic Tones” (16 min), an interview with composer Bill Nelson. Also included is an archival making of piece, “Foundations of Nightmare: The Making of Dream Demon” (27 min). There’s also image galleries and trailers. Included in the booklet is a pair of essays, one by Anne Bilson on the film, and another by Cokeliss on his involvement, including information on how this new restoration came to be.