Friday, July 8, 2016

Census Bloodbath: Spring (Psychotic) Break!

Year: 1981
Director: Romano Scavolini
Cast: Baird Stafford, Sharon Smith, C.J. Cooke 
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

Hoping to erase the aftertaste of Absurd from my mouth, I decided to pop in the next 1981 slasher on the list, the notorious Video Nasty Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (primarily known in most territories as Nightmare, but who could possibly prefer that title?). I made a huge mistake. Despite the massive controversy around this particular film at the time, it’s practically a clone of that Joe D’Amato disasterpiece. It’s a Video Nasty from an Italian director with an interminably boring run time interspersed by too few gory blowout scenes, featuring a supernaturally inept police force and a young boy you dearly want to smack upside the head, played by an actor with the same name as his character.

So yeah, I loved it.

A slasher in the post-grindhouse sex monster vein of Maniac or Don’t Go in the House, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is one of the last vestiges of an exploitation genre I’m happy to see died off by the mid-80’s. George Tatum (Baird Stafford) is in an institution because his vivid nightmares (linked to a traumatic memory of seeing his dad in the throes of S&M passion before murdering him and his lover with a handy axe) fling him into homicidal rages. Once his pompous doctors are convinced that they have rehabilitated him, they release him onto the streets of New York City, where he more or less immediately begins killing again. Good work, team.

Seemingly arbitrarily, Tatum steals a car to drive down to Daytona Beach (woohoo!) and stalk single mother Susan Temper (Sharon Smith), her lover Bob (Mik Cribben), and her brood of children, the only relevant one of which is C.J. (C.J. Cooke). C.J. is the kind of prankster imp that only exists in slasher films like a serial killer and fake his own stabbing. You know, the classics. C.J.’s malfeasance inevitably provokes his mother into a tempestuous rag that’s shrill and kind of hilarious to watch as she tuckers herself out.

So. WHY is Tatum stalking this family? HOW can he be stopped? WHEN will C.J.’s family finally believe his boy-who-cried-wolf story of a man following them around? And WHO the f**k cares?

Certainly not me. I’m actively rooting for this twerp to meet his maker.

I was briefly jazzed about this movie after seeing Tom Savini’s name in the credits, but even without knowing about the controversy surrounding that (I found out later that Savini was falsely credited after giving the film a cursory consultation and not much more), I could have told you it was a sham. I’m a huge Savini fan, and while I recognize that some of his effects have aged better than others, he would never have tossed together something so chintzy and artificial as Nightmares’ throat-slitting scene, with its neck that looks one degree down from papier-mâché. 

This film’s gonzo gore sequences are the reason it’s revered in certain horror circles, but personally I feel that its notoriety outweighs its delivery. I have a certain admiration for the effects supervisor’s penchant for melodramatic, gushing geysers of blood, but the kills are too routine for this type of slasher (throat slashing, beheading, strangling, and is it alarming that these feel boring to me? Perhaps it’s best not to think about it) and they’re rendered spectacularly poorly. When they’re rendered at all. 

Much like Absurd (which is an apt comparison, not just because it’s the most recent one I watched), the notorious gore is oddly demure, leading to a frustratingly large proportion of offscreen kills or murder sequences that are edited so poorly that you can’t see who is being killed or how. Why is certainly beyond me, because as much as these filmmakers attempt to create sympathy for the killer, their screenwriting textbook must have had gum on the chapter about character development, because anything even resembling a real human being is suspiciously absent.

Because of this film’s post-grindhouse mien, our two protagonists are the killer himself and his most obvious counterpart: the unpredictable, devilish, and easily threatened C.J. Because George Tatum has no motive that’s visible to the human eye (we won’t find out what his deal is until the final frames in a tossed-off moment that is both predictable and sublimely idiotic), following him is a wash, and any time we switch over to C.J.’s perspective, we’re dunked in an ice cold barrel of hatred because he’s the worst human being ever to walk this godforsaken planet. Speaking in a shrill whine that only dogs can hear, he prowls through the film like a Terminator programmed to perform only the most annoying acts his human form is capable of. So that's a bust, and everybody else in the film is a slackly acted, one-dimensional blob that doesn’t even have a solid stereotype to cling to.

Only Susan stands out from the crowd, and that’s just because she tends to lose track of her lines halfway through saying tem.

There’s not much there to redeem Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. The best moment in the film is a montage where various local radio station intros track Tatum’s progress down the coast toward Daytona. So the bar isn’t terribly high. There’s some mildly amusing camp simmering in the background (the doctor pursuing Tatum is as comically inept as Wile E. Coyote, there’s a particularly prominent example of an 80’s Movie Magic computer, and the film screeches to a halt to spoil the ending of Antonioni’s Blow-Up for no particular reason) and an early nightmare sequence displays some giallo-esque surrealism, but the movie’s ineptitude is a weighty juggernaut that crushes all pleasure.

When it’s not being grim and grimy, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is either listlessly repeating its key flashback scene, displaying some of the least erotic bumping and grinding ever put to film (the babysitter’s boyfriend tilts back and forth on her pelvis like a rocking horse), or pounding us with incomprehensible, amateurish gore. I have no clue why this film gleans any sort of respect from otherwise sane horror fans. It’s a boring, impotent dribble of blood and it ought to be put away for good.

Killer: George Tatum (Baird Stafford)
Final Girl: I guess C.J. Temper (C.J. Cooke)
Best Kill: S&M mistress’s decapitation is a delightfully lurid affair, with her neck spurting blood like a fire hose.
Sign of the Times: Susan entices the babysitter to come over by offering her the high, high price of $20 for two hours. That’s literally minimum wage at this point.
Scariest Moment: While taking pictures of the house for a realtor, Susan and Bob notice that in one of the Polaroids, there’s  man’s silhouette in the window.
Weirdest Moment: When young George Tatum walks in on his dad having sex, he’s wearing a bow tie for some reason.

Seriously, does he work at a catering company or something?

Champion Dialogue: “What if you marry her? Will you be my father or something like that?”
Body Count: 8; including the killer and 2 in a flashback, which is a startlingly low number for a 1981 joint.
  1. Mr. Tatum’s lover is decapitated by an axe.
  2. Mr. Tatum is axed in the forehead.
  3. Barbara has her throat slit.
  4. Candy is killed some damn way.
  5. Tony is killed offscreen.
  6. Joey is garroted.
  7. Cathy is hacked to death with a claw hammer.
  8. George Tatum is shot.
TL;DR: Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is a boring, tawdry slasher that doesn't deserve the notoriety it has achieved.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1267

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