Bad Dreams / Visiting Hours (DVD)

It’s a scream!

Feeling ill? Not getting enough horror in your diet? If so, Shout! Factory has prescribed a pair of hospital/medical-themed thrillers for you. Take these two fright flicks and call me in the morning.

When she was a child, Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin, Screamers) was part of a strange cult that made a suicide pact, and only she survived. Years later, she wakes from a coma, and is put in a psychiatric facility. As her fellow patients start dying in mysterious ways, Cynthia is haunted by visions of the cult’s sinister leader, Harris (Richard Lynch, Deathsport). Has Harris’s spirit returned to torment her from beyond the grave, or are these merely Bad Dreams?

A TV journalist (Lee Grant, Shampoo) is attacked by a murderous psycho (Michael Ironside, Highlander 2). She survives, but her injuries land her in the hospital. Now, the would-be killer sneaks into the hospital, hoping to finish the job, long after Visiting Hours.

For those who don’t hang out there often, hospitals can be alien environments. There are mazes of hallways and corridors, equipment and charts beyond our understanding, more rules and regulations than we can keep track of, and an emphasis on sterility mixed with gross-out goings-on we’d rather not know about. Naturally, Hollywood has done much to play on people’s fears of hospitals over the years, including but hardly limited to the duo of movies on this two-disc set.

I’m a huge fan of 1980s horror, but somehow Bad Dreams wasn’t on my radar before now. That’s too bad, because it’s a surprisingly great horror movie. Yes, it has its share of ’80s horror stapes, such as a group of victims who exist only to get picked off one by one by a killer covered with burn scars, but there’s a lot more going on here. Gorehounds will enjoy the practical and generously slimy effects on display, but mostly, this is psychological horror. The movie does a fine job of keeping you guessing until the end whether all this craziness is because of a supernatural baddie, or if it’s all in our heroine’s head.

The filmmakers layer some satire into their horror, by drawing parallels between the freaky cult members and the mental health profession. Also, there are some clever, Tarantino-esque uses of music, notably Jimi Hendrix’s “The Time Has Come Today” played for suspenseful purposes. It’s really thanks to the acting, though, that Bad Dreams works as well as it does. Some might argue that Rubin is flat or dull as Cynthia, but I say she deserves kudos for attempting some subtlety in her performance, especially when her fellow asylum patients quirk it up big time. Richard Lynch offers an excellent menacing stare as the villain, Andrew Fleming (Re-Animator) is earnest as a do-gooder doctor, and the always-reliable Harris Yulin (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is his usual quality self as a gruff hospital administrator.

Visiting Hours doesn’t fare as well. If the movie is famous for anything, it’s for its legendary poster, featuring the hospital windows lit up like a cackling skull and an ambulance driving across the bottom of the frame, with orange flames in its wake. Nothing like that happens in the movie. If it’s famous for anything else, it’s because William Shatner (Airplane II) is in it. Shatner plays our heroine’s supportive boss, and has little else to do. It’s great fun hearing him make with the R-rated swearing, but beyond that, there’s not much Shat-action for Shat-fans to Shat-enjoy.

The biggest problem with Visiting Hours is that it can’t decide who the main character is. You’d think it would be Lee Grant’s character, because she’s the one targeted by the evil killer, but a huge amount of time is spent with a nurse (Linda Purl, Happy Days), so much so that, with a little script-tweaking, the whole movie could have centered on her. Michael Ironside also has the evil glare down pat, but scenes that are supposed to show us what’s going on inside his head go on for far too long, and take us away from whichever character is supposed to be the main character.

Both movies look great despite their age and relative obscurity, with not a scratch, fleck, or hint of grain to be seen. The sound is good but not explosive, focused mostly on the front speakers. Bad Dreams comes with director and cast interviews, a special effects featurette, and an alternate ending. All we get for Visiting Hours is the trailer, radio spots and TV spots.

Bad Dreams was a pleasant surprise, a straightforward yet fun horror movie. Visiting Hours gets a diagnosis of, “OK, but could have been better.”

The Verdict

Mental health really will drive you mad. Not guilty.

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