Dream Demon (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (7th July 2020).
The Film

Dream Demon (Harley Cokeliss, 1988)

Synopsis: Diana (Jemma Redgrave) seems to live a charmed life. From a wealthy family, she is living in a huge house bought for her by her father in anticipation of her imminent marriage to Falklands War hero Oliver (Mark Greenstreet).

However, since moving into this house, Diana has been haunted by vivid, terrifying nightmares, for which she has been seeking the assistance of a psychiatrist, Deborah (Susan Fleetwood). She is also pursued by two members of the tabloid press, muckraker journalist Paul (Jimmy Nail) and photographer Russell (Timothy Spall), who are apparently keen to publish an article underscoring Oliver’s role in ‘murdering a lot of Argentinians’ whilst also highlighting Diana’s status as a virgin.

Diana finds an ally in Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite), an American who has arrived in London to investigate her past. Jenny discovered that she was adopted, and had spent her early childhood in the house in which Diana is now living.

When Diana’s nightmares begin to bleed into her waking reality, she finds herself pursued by figures from her dreams – including a spiteful Oliver, a decomposing Russell and an ogre-like Paul. She also finds herself haunted by visions of a young girl who is tormented by her cruel, spiteful father.

Critique: Quite blatantly inspired by Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), with perhaps a touch of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) – and maybe a slight whiff of Steve Miner’s House (1985) – Dream Demon was the first horror film that Harley Cokeliss (here credited as ‘Cokliss’) directed. Cokeliss had previously directed films with SF elements, such as The Glitterball (1977) and Black Moon Rising (1986, released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video and reviewed by us here); one of his first credits as a director was the 1971 short Crash!, made for the BBC and an adaptation of J G Ballard’s ‘soft’ science fiction book The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Most of Cokeliss’ credits are in television, however, with a particular bent during the 1990s towards the genre of fantasy – if Cokeliss’ credits on shows such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules are anything to go by.

Dream Demon was an attempt by Palace Pictures, the UK distributors of A Nightmare on Elm Street, to capture and localise some of the essence of Craven’s hit – evident in the overlapping of Diana’s nightmares and the ‘real’/waking world. (‘It was much more real than a normal dream’, Diana tells Jenny in reference to one of her nightmares, ‘I can remember it as if it really happened’.) Certainly, Dream Demon feels like a picture that is grounded in a very strong awareness of then-recent horror film history. Aside from the obvious influence in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dream Demon also contains little allusions to/influences from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (the sound effects and ‘possessed’ voice associated with Russell after his transformation), Steve Miner’s House (the house, which is fluid in its architecture, seems to expand and contract in response to Diana’s dreams) and, perhaps, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (the labyrinthine basement in which Diana is pursued by Russell and, later, Paul resembles the ‘other world’ in Barker’s film). There might also be some small nods towards Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, in terms of the manner in which the characters’ descent into the basement is handled – and its occasional similarity with David Warbeck and Catriona MacColl’s final descent into the basement of the hotel owned by MacColl’s character.

There are some effective scare scenes. In one of Diana’s nightmares, she ventures into the basement to light the boiler and discovers a creepy old doll. She falls asleep with the doll next to her. A giant maggot crawls out of its eye, and Diana awakens. Scared, she flees the room and discovers herself in the street, and then in a palatial room where Oliver’s parents await her arrival. Many of the film’s most effective scare scenes feature what could best be described as ‘layering’ of the nightmare and waking worlds, with an increasing sense that these are overlapping – and that Diana’s attempts to escape from the former lead to it bleeding in to the latter.

Adding some much-needed colour to the picture, Timothy Spall and Jimmy Nail also make a wonderful pair of ‘monsters’ – both as leering members of the tabloid press in the film’s early sequences and, later in the film, donning some effective prosthetic makeup effects as creatures from Diana’s nightmares (‘Never underestimate the power of the press’). The first time this pair appear on screen is during Diana’s walk to work (apparently at a school, though little is made of this in the film’s plot). They introduce themselves to Diana, suggesting they want to assemble an article about Oliver’s experiences in the Falklands Conflict. Things take a sudden turn for the worst, however, when photographer Russell, clearly jonesing for a shot of Diana looking horrified, suggests that Oliver ‘murdered a lot of Argentinians’. Diana storms off, and Russell comments to Paul, ‘Stuck up cow! What’s got up her knickers?’ ‘Not me, unfortunately’, Paul leers. Later, they accost her as she returns home, taunting her about the fact that she is a virgin. They are challenged by Jenny, who turns up at the right moment: she asks them angrily, ‘What do you think she [Diana] is, dogmeat?’ ‘Piss off, darling’, Russell responds, ‘We’re the press!’

The callous Oliver downplays Diana’s night terrors (‘Everyone has nightmares sometimes’, he tells her unsympathetically), and later in the film he is shown in bed with another (naked) woman. Diana’s investment in their relationship is misplaced. Meanwhile, Diana’s psychiatrist, Deborah, tells her that the dreams in which Oliver terrorises Diana are not about Oliver but what he represents – and Diana must work this out for herself. ‘From what you’ve said so far, I think the dreams are the least of your worries. In fact, I think you should see them as a healthy release [….] You’re confronting your subconscious fears in a very natural, normal way’, Deborah tells Diana. ‘Why should I be frightened of Oliver?’, Diana asks. ‘Maybe it’s not the real Oliver that scares you. It’s what he stands for in your dreams. He’s a symbol’, Deborah responds. ‘For what?’, Diana asks. ‘I really think it’s up to you to work it out’, Deborah advises.

However, the heavy-handed Freudian symbolism makes the connotations of Diana’s nightmares blatantly obvious. In the opening sequence, later revealed to be a dream, as the credits play out Diana is shown being fitted for a bridal dress. In a church, she stands at the altar with Oliver. When the time comes to say her vows, she cannot, and she tells Oliver quietly that she can’t marry him. Oliver responds angrily, slapping Diana. In turn, she slaps Oliver back, and is horrified when she knocks his head from his shoulders. Oliver’s headless body stands erect, geysers of blood spurting from his open neck. The Freudian symbolism in this moment, and its connection to Diana’s apparent feelings regarding sex, is all too obvious. (‘He [Oliver] was the only man I’ve met that I really liked, and even he scares me sometimes’, Diana tells Jenny later in the film.) Accosting Diana on her way to work, Russell taunts the prim Diana with various nicknames for the penis: ‘How big’s his wanger?’, he asks in reference to Oliver, ‘His nob, his schlong, his plonker, his mutton cutlass, his pork sword, his beef bayonet?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re referring to’, Diana responds in a panic. ‘You don’t, do you’, Paul laughs, ‘That’s because you haven’t done it before. You haven’t even seen it?’

Noticeably, most of the main characters – barring Paul and Russell – are from privileged backgrounds. In one of Diana’s dreams, she visits Oliver’s parents in a huge, palatial room. However, it is later revealed that Diana’s dreams about Oliver are in some ways a warning. Oliver is sleeping with another woman and is, as Paul tells Diana, ‘in deep, deep financial shit. He doesn’t need a wife; he needs a bank he can bonk’. The American Jenny is a cultural outsider. She lived in the house as a child though ended up being adopted by an American couple. However, she cannot remember anything of her time in the building or her parents: ‘I must have blocked it out because I can’t remember any of it. It’s like that time belonged to a different person’. When Diana’s dreams begin to be haunted by visions of a young girl, it’s not difficult to conclude that this child is a younger Jenny – though the film saves confirmation of this until its final sequences, presenting the connection between Jenny and the young girl in Diana’s dreams as if it is a major revelation within the plot. (Attentive members of the audience will no doubt let out an audible groan at this.)



Video

Arrow’s new HD presentation of Dream Demon is based on a new 2k restoration from the negative, which has been supervised and approved by director Harley Cokeliss. The disc contains two versions of the film, the original theatrical cut running 89:23 mins (this is presented as an ‘extra’), and the main presentation: a new director’s cut running 88:08 mins. The sole difference seems to be that the director's cut omits the comic coda included in the original edit of the picture.

Both 1080p presentations (using the AVC codec) are in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Both presentations fill approximately 20Gb of space on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc. An excellent level of detail and definition is present throughout, with the presentation retaining the structure of 35mm film thanks to a healthy and robust encode to disc. Colours are consistent and deep, with naturalistic skintones. Some scenes feature very expressive use of strong colours to connote the dream-like setting, and these moments are handled very well here. Contrast levels are very pleasing, the film’s many low-light scenes featuring a good curve into the toe with rich, deep blacks. Midtones are defined throughout, and highlights are even and balanced. In sum, it’s a superb presentation of the film.

NB. Full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.





Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 2.0 stereo track. Dialogue is audible throughout, and the track has a pleasing sense of depth and range. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are accurate in transcribing the dialogue and easy to read.

Extras

The disc includes the following:
- Director’s Cut (88:08) with optional introduction by Harley Cokeliss (0:42).

- Theatrical Cut (89:23).

- Audio commentary on selected scenes with director Harley Cokeliss and producer Paul Webster (46:21). The pair talk about the origins of the film in the popularity of A Nightmare of Elm Street, which Palace Pictures had distributed in the UK. Cokeliss discusses how he was approached by Stephen Woolley to direct the film. They also talk about some of the logistical issues they faced during production – including shooting some of the special effects sequences.

- ‘Dream Master’ (27:22). This is a new interview with director Harley Cokeliss, who talks about how he was approached by Stephen Woolley to direct Dream Demon after Palace Pictures ‘lost the American director that they had hired’ after that (unnamed) director’s wife became pregnant. Cokeliss discusses working on the script and revising it in anticipation of the project entering production. He reflects on the shoot and some of the difficulties the crew faced during production – including in some of the effects sequences – saying that the ‘first rule’ is ‘don’t hurt your cast’. Cokeliss is an erudite interviewee, and this is a fascinating featurette.

- ‘A Nightmare on Eton Avenue’ (37:22). Producer Paul Webster talks about his career in filmmaking, including his period of managing the Scala Cinema – which gave him experience of ‘managing crowds’. He discusses his role with Palace and reflects on how he learnt about ‘how to put a movie together’. He suggests Dream Demon was originally conceived as a twist on A Nightmare on Elm Street ‘but filtered through a satire of Princess Diana and her harassment by the press’, but as the project evolved it became increasingly Hammer-esque – though Cokeliss brought a more artistic sensibility to the picture, in terms of the ‘cerebral idea’ of a waking dream with ‘fairly visceral execution’. (Eton Avenue is the location of the house used a key location in the film.)

- ‘Dreaming of Diana’ (16:00)
. Jemma Redgrave talks about her work on Dream Demon, praising Cokeliss’ clarity within his direction – despite the fact that Redgrave struggled to grasp the concept during the production. She says that the character of Diana was intended to teach deaf children, though this was reduced in the final edit. She suggests that Diana is ‘clearly a lesbian but she can’t own it’, and much of the film is Cokeliss’ ‘take on her fear of sex. I wonder perhaps if it’s just that she’s not explored her sexuality, and that isn’t “straight”, perhaps. I just didn’t realise it at the time’.

- ‘Cold Reality’ (9:44)
. Actor Mark Greenstreet talks about his performance as Oliver. He discusses his work with the various actors in the production. He discusses his worries about working with Cokeliss, which he soon realised were unfounded, and describes the director as ‘very protective’ of Jemma Redgrave.

- ‘Sculpting the Part’ (8:58)
. Nickolas Grace, who plays Jenny’s father in the ffilm’s flashbacks, discusses his work on the film. Grace talks about how he came to be an actor, and he also discusses some of the subtext within the picture – particularly the sexual panic of Diana.

- ‘Angels and Demons’ (9:20)
. Annabelle Lenyon, who plays Jenny as a child, talks about her role in the picture. She talks at length about some of the special effects and working with Cokeliss.

- ‘Demonic Tones’ (15:13)
. Bill Nelson, who composed the film’s score, discusses his approach to writing film music. He talks about his initial feelings about the score for the picture and his working relationship with Cokeliss.

- ‘Foundation of Nightmare: The Making of Dream Demon’ (26:26)
. This archival documentary focuses on the production of the film and features on-set interviews with Cokeliss, Paul Webster, composer Bill Nelson and many of the cast. Cokeliss’ comments are quite philosophical. There is also some interesting behind-the-scenes footage, including footage of Timothy Spall having his extensive makeup applied whilst being interviewed about how the makeup impacts on his performance.

- Trailer (1:56)
.

- Galleries: Promotional (18 images); Behind the Scenes (54 images)
.

Overall

Harley Cokeliss’ Dream Demon is very clearly modelled on A Nightmare on Elm Street, with splashes of other contemporaneous horror films thrown into the mix. The theme of dreams/nightmares and their intrusion into reality was also a key aspect of Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse, released a year after Dream Demon, in 1989; and it’s difficult not to compare Dream Demon with Rose’s film. Unfortunately, Dream Demon struggles with this comparison. That said, though Dream Demon isn’t a top tier horror picture, Cokeliss’ approach to the material has some artistic flair – a touch of the Surreal, some very overt Freudian symbolism – and the lighting in particular is excellent throughout. The cast, particularly Timothy Spall (who according to the extra features on this disc, improvised much of his dialogue) and Jimmy Nail, also clearly seem to be having fun. It’s a film that is very much rooted in the era, the character of Diana being something of a commentary on Princess Diana. (Though this seems incredibly obvious, especially in the naming of the character, I must confess that though I first saw the film on its UK VHS release way back when, this aspect of the story passed me by until I revisited Dream Demon for the purposes of writing this review.) Intriguingly, Diana was intended in the script to be a teacher of deaf children, though this is something that was dropped from the final edit of the picture.


Arrow’s Blu-ray release of this blast-from-the-not so distant-past is exemplary. The presentation is superb, and the release includes both the original cut and a newer, slightly shorter ‘director’s cut’. The contextual material included in the disc is excellent too.

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