Deadly Dreams (1988)

If you attended at all, take your mind back to your college days for a moment. Late nights reading long journal articles and writing response essays. Eating ramen noodles and drinking cheap booze, and maybe a little puff-puff-pass. Making friends, meeting lovers, all under the no-big-deal pressure of burning through a massive loan just to figure out what to do with the rest of your adult life. Take all of that and add night terrors and the childhood trauma of seeing your parents murdered on Christmas Eve. What do you think your grade point average would be?

There are probably too many pairings of generic film titles with otherwise alluring video release art to list them all, especially among genre films of the 1980s. The poster art and VHS cover for Kristine Peterson’s 1988 horror film, DEADLY DREAMS, is one such example, featuring a strange face and a hand clutching a shotgun floating above the horizon and an empty suburban street. But this is no ordinary face. The fur suggests some animal – is it a badger, skunk, coyote, or warthog? – but it lacks a clear nose or mouth. It features two glowing white blotches where the eyes should be – is it alien? The ambiguity of this visage only made the prospect of this film more captivating.

On the night of Christmas Eve, a husband and wife are shot dead in their spacious and well-decorated suburban home in the wake of a business deal gone very badly with an outside partner/aggrieved maniac named Perkins (Duane Whitaker). Their older son, absent from the festivities, avoided the tragedy entirely, while their younger son, Alex, evaded the masked killer in the woods outside until help arrived. Time passed.

Roughly a decade later, older brother, Jack (Xander Berkeley) is the head of their deceased father’s business firm, while his younger brother, Alex (Mitchell Anderson) is attending college, working towards what he hopes will be a long career in fiction writing. When he’s not passing out in front of his computer trying to brainstorm his next story, he’s enjoying college life with his best friend, Danny (Thom Babbes), a wise-cracking (and sometimes drug-dealing) pre-med student. Like a lot of dudes of their age, they hang out in bars, they bust each other’s balls, and they make awkward conversation with their female peers from school – this phase of life is about fun and self-discovery.

In between his collegiate exploits, though, Alex struggles with persistent night terrors. They always feature the same masked figure from that fateful Christmas Eve from all those years ago, and they often end in the same way: whether he’s sliced, shot, or stabbed, Alex dies violently at the hands of the hunter. What makes matter worse is that this hunter figure – always adorned with the same mask of some hapless skinned animal – has begun to appear in his waking life. Or is it just his mind playing tricks?

The only thing keeping Alex from going off the deep end is an unexpected romance with a dance student, Maggie (Juliette Cummins). As his relationships with his friends, family members, and lovers ebb and flow, with an unceremonious ejection from college into the workforce looming, Alex begins to crack as the trauma from his past bleeds into his busy life under increasingly more grisly circumstances.

The blend of violent nightmares, heated family drama, and even touches of film noir presented in DEADLY DREAMS would not have been as compelling without the steady hand of Kristine Peterson at the helm. With various assistant director credits on everything from CHOPPING MALL to BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, she would parlay her varied film set experiences into directorial efforts on genre films like BODY CHEMISTRY, CRITTERS 3, and the most unfortunate of KICKBOXER sequels, THE REDEMPTION: KICKBOXER 5. She also had the distinct pleasure (some might call it a challenge) of corralling both Michael Rooker and Eric Roberts for 1994’s action-thriller, THE HARD TRUTH.

Peterson directs the ensemble for this film to decent effect, and the different character shifts are (mostly) believable while adding some clever twists and turns to the story (the screenplay was written by co-star Thom Babbes). As the central protagonist being terrorized pretty much from start to finish, Mitchell Anderson (of JAWS 4: THE REVENGE fame) has the biggest dramatic burden and he manages it competently for the most part; the fear he exhibits in the film’s scary and surreal moments is more boyish and childlike than angry, and while that might be grating for some, it suggests an understandable element of arrested development given the character’s past traumas. He screams and tears up, snaps at the disbelief of those around him, and cowers on the floor instead of sleeping in a bed where his nightmares await.

Genre film fans will recall plenty of other film appearances from the supporting cast. Xander Berkeley – he of more than 240 acting credits (!) – rather memorably met the business end of the T-1000’s stabbing arm while drinking milk from the carton in TERMINATOR 2, and the extremely bad luck afforded to Juliette Cummins’s character in FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING also extended to her character in SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II. For what it’s worth and without giving too much away, her character makes out a lot better in DEADLY DREAMS than in the aforementioned titles. Just a few years later, Duane Whitaker would (once again) handle a shotgun with malicious intent for his role as Maynard, the pawn shop owner from PULP FICTION. Finally, Stacey Travis turned early roles in PHANTASM II and EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY – in this film, she plays a library staff member who compliments Alex’s writing and gets totally ignored – into a substantial film and television career, landing roles in everything from SEINFELD and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES to GHOST WORLD and MYSTERY MEN.

DEADLY DREAMS is not a great horror film but rather a solid psychological thriller with occasional streaks of stylized violence, some real and some imagined. Most of all, it suggests that the writer in all of us should pay more attention to those interested in our work and life experiences, and less to the type of person who would buy a stuffed deer head as a surprise present.

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