Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Video Nasty #32 - Nightmares In A Damaged Brain

Dark, violent and genuinely unsettling, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain from 1980 became one of the most notorious Video Nasties when David Hamilton-Grant, of World of Video 2000, the film’s British video distributor was handed down a 12 month prison sentence for distributing material likely to deprave or corrupt. A fine would surely have sufficed but this unfortunate episode perfectly illustrates the level of hysteria caused by newspapers like the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail and their campaign against the influx of video horror, capitalized by a conservative government eager to deflect attention away from more pressing concerns like Britain’s economic slump.


In the film George Tatum, a criminally insane man treated for schizophrenia with experimental drugs is discharged from hospital but his homicidal impulses soon return, triggered by nightmares of bloody sexual violence. Leaving his doctors behind in New York, Tatum travels to Florida where he sets his sights on a single mother and her three young children… On paper it sounds like another xerox of Halloween, and admittedly the film is hardly inventive - even the surprise revelation in the climax isn't all that surprising; but Nightmares in a Damaged Brain remains one of the more memorable slashers from this era, with its astonishingly gory effects 1 and a very palpable downbeat, brooding atmosphere which seems to have polarized audiences as it did with Maniac, a film it's often (superficially) linked to.


Italian director Romano Scavolini’s website declares him “one of the most talented exponents of the European film industry”, which seems a stretch, but his relatively obscure filmography reveals some interesting entries - Spirits of Death, a surreal giallo from 1972, the gritty Greek thriller The Savage Hunt (1980), and the lively Vietnam action flick Dog Tags (1988). Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, an American production is Scavolini's most well known film also his best, directed with verve and style, the film often startlingly edited lending it a certain energy lacking in the more mechanical slashers of the day like Prom Night and The Prowler. The film is full of memorable little details and flourishes – like a shot of a woman moving out of the frame only to reveal Tatum standing behind her poised for the kill, or a striking documentary-like moment where one of the children is quizzed by a police officer at a crime scene. Special word too for Jack Eric Williams’ excellent unnerving score which does much to amp up the film’s tension. Less successful though is the MKULTRA subplot involving the government agency responsible for Tatum's treatment. These scenes add little to the film and could easily be removed without harming the tone and narrative.


Performances are variable throughout but Baird Stafford (who appeared in Dog Tags) playing George Tatum does a fine job, his character becomes more withdrawn as the film progresses but unlike traditional slasher movie maniacs he manages to elicit sympathy for being so irrevocably damaged by his traumatic childhood. Revisiting the film it’s not surprising it came to the attention of the DPP. Aside from the climactic bloodbath, the early section of the film is decidedly sleazy, drawing an unpleasant connection between sex and death – a scene where Tatum watches a peepshow performer pleasure herself with a dildo ends with him having an epileptic seizure in the booth, a fountain of alka-seltzer erupting from his mouth. In another scene where Tatum slits a girl’s throat, he’s seen on top of the girl penetrating her stomach with a knife as if it were a penis. Yet another problematic aspect of the film is how it associates children with violence, something which proved a sore point with Don’t Go in the House, another film that came to the attention of the DPP at one point.


Nightmares in a Damaged Brain has been available on DVD over the years in various versions but the Code Red 2-disc edition, which seems like it’s been in the works for years, is by far the best, featuring three transfers of the film – disc 1 contains two remasters, from 2005 and 2008, while disc 2 contains a 2011 remaster, which has a 1.78 anamorphic widescreen transfer and the best of the three. Having said that, the transfer is still problematic – the print suffers from scratches and dirt (especially virulent around the 41-min mark) and the exhibits a faint orange tint. Still, it’s relatively sharp and colorful and is the one to watch. Extras include an informative commentary (on the 2008 transfer) with Baird Stafford and make-up artist Cleve Hall, both of whom return for a short making of featurette The Making of Nightmare. The other significant extra is a 90-min Italian language interview with Romano Scavolini, which for various reasons could not be accompanied by English subtitles. By the way, disc 2 is mocked up to resemble a bootleg DVD-R, complete with a magic marker handwritten Nightmare disc 2 on the label, a little joke on Code Red’s part.

Tom Savini on the set of Nightmares In A Damaged Brain
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Notes
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1. No word about Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is complete without mentioning Tom Savini and his involvement, or lack of involvement with the film. When the film was initially released, Savini’s name appeared on the promo materials (“From the man who terrified you in Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th) but Savini threatened to sue the producers to have his name removed, insisting that he visited the set just once (pictured above) to offer some informal advice to the effects team. Scavolini felt otherwise, “All the main effects of the film were supervised and done personally by him. Actually, he pushed the blood’s pump when the boy-actor chopped his mother’s head. Tom Savini was there – he himself pumped the blood!!!!” Make-up artist Ed French who also worked on the film has a more likely take on events “I remember Tom coming in, perhaps twice, to give the crew advice, direction and impetus to finish the preparations on time for the first day of shooting. I have no idea if this was a favor to Les or if he was a paid consultant. Tom didn’t do any hands-on work but he definitely influenced the techniques, style and game plan for staging the blood gags"

The Savini/Nightmare controversy reported in Fangoria #22, 1982
Speaking on the commentary track Cleve Hall had this to say - "Ed French did the effects...They had contacted Tom about doing the film and he passed on it, but Ed has assisted him on other stuff...and I guess Tom showed up on the set and pictures were taken and names were splashed across posters and things and other people were forgotten"

11 comments:

  1. I remember seeing this like 10 years ago and have from that moment had the urge of watching it again! The Code Red dvd seems to be the obvious choice! Great review as always!

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  2. Many thanks Jesper. Yes, get the Code Red - I hadn't seen the film since the Video days and I was surprised how gory it is. Definitely an essential film for slasher fans...

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  3. Great review, Wes. I have the Anchor Bay Video Nasty boxset DVD but have a feeling it has been cut.

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  4. I think it might well be Jon, the Box of the Banned verison is reportedly the edited US R-rated edition...

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  5. This was always one of my faves of the nasties, looking at it now gore aside, it's a pretty effective and nasty film and IMO underrated. Great review Wes.

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  6. Many thanks Mart... Yeah, I was very impressed with the film, seeing it again after some ten years or more... The commentary track is pretty good, there's an especially amusing moment when the folks gathered together for the commentary admit the film is rather tame, until that is when the axe carnage arrives at the finale ! Even I was surprised - the old pr-cert must have been cut, I don't remember it having such ferocity...

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  7. Just got the Nightmare Code Red 2-disc DVD in the mail...but which version of the movie should I see? Are they all uncut?

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  8. All 3 versions are uncut Jesper, but the version to watch is on disc 2 - it looks the best of the 3 versions.

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  9. Thanks for your help! I'm looking forward seeing this one again!

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  10. Yeah, skipped this one back then after the Fango spotlight - I was supporting my man Savini - but I am now acquainted with Cleve Hall - a likable fellow - so I want to see this one now!

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  11. Yep, controversy aside regarding Savini's involvement and the UK authorities' extreme response to the film, this is a major Video Nasty, and one of the most full-blooded slasher films of the era. Definitely bump this one up the viewing list Craig !

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