Courting controversy: Nightmare

An exceptionally gory entry in the slasher movie genre, Nightmare was one of many films banned under the legendary 1984 Video Recording Act. Dave takes a look back…

Nightmare (1981)

Romano Scavolini’s 1981 film Nightmare (also known as Nightmare In A Damaged Brain, Schizo and the much less scary sounding Blood Splash) follows a formula that would be (and had been) oft imitated: a killer escapes to return to his childhood home, leaving a trail of devastation behind him and laying waste to the current inhabitants.

The film focuses on a mental patient, George Tatum, who suffered a childhood trauma and whose doctors have been heavily dosing him with drugs to keep his dreams under control. Thankfully, the drugs do, indeed, work and the doctors are all pretty much excited about their success, turning a psychopath into a fully functioning member of society. However, George isn’t fully functioning at all. In fact, he’s still a bit of a crazy person.

As soon as he’s released, he does the first thing anyone would do and goes to a peepshow where we’re presented with the very important scenes of a woman gyrating, thrusting her naked breasts at the camera and being all sexually appealing. Leaving this tawdry procession, George is lured in by a most unalluring woman and gets involved in some phone sex, watching her through a plexiglass window whilst she pleasures herself really quite enthusiastically.

Such scenes drive George slightly manic and reduce him to a frothy mouthed state. This is what women do to you, people! Beware their scantily clad bodies.

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George continues his little road trip back to his home in Florida, stopping off at a bar, before dropping in on a woman in a bath towel in order to slit her throat. All this whilst he remembers the torment that his father suffered at the hands of a dominatrix all those years ago.

When we’re not following George and his trail of terror, we’re in his old house where many domestic things seem to be happening. A teenage girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to a Brady Bunch girl is babysitting two tearaway children (no Super Nanny in sight.) After they play one trick too many on her, the babysitter leaves. Susan, the mother, isn’t too happy about their behaviour, so she decides to put the house up for sale. (That’ll teach the kids.)

Inspecting the pictures that they’ve just taken with her partner, they see that there’s a man in the house. Realising that the only two adults are actually outside the house staring at the Polaroids, they bound up the stairs ready to confront him. Together, Susan and Bob investigate two rooms and come to the conclusion that it’s the emulsion in the instant film causing the image of a man to appear, even referencing the film Blow Up (about a photographer who sees a murder in a photo and becomes obsessed with it).

Of course, had they bothered to look in more rooms, or stand still and be quiet for a moment, they would have heard George’s rather heavy and laboured breathing coming from the room. In fact, if they’d have just looked around, they’d have a found him stood behind the door that was more than just ajar. Thankfully, George is practically ninja stealthy and the couple decide to go to the beach.

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Tearaway child and son of Susan, CJ, is convinced he’s seen his stalker (George) whilst the family are having fun and frolicking at the beach. Despite the weird photo event, Susan isn’t convinced and is growing tired of her son’s overactive imagination.

Thankfully, his stepfather is more rational, choosing to deliver one of those incredibly patronising speeches that begins with “Hey, partner” and includes phrases like “You’re kind of like the man of the house.” This is as close as we get to character development in the whole film. Soon enough, however, it’s time for the family to pack up and go home, all happy and relieved that their lives are all house sales and beaches.

Things don’t stay cheery for long, as George starts to terrorise the residents of his old house by making some rather dodgy phone calls and driving the mother to light a cigarette in bed.

Realising the error of his ways, George finally contacts his doctor and starts to spill all his secrets, asking for pills and saying he’s been doing bad things, before he has a moment and goes frothy in the mouth. His psychiatrist tries to talk sense to him, but George isn’t listening, as he’s too busy in the throes of yet another seizure.

Thankfully, the police are on the case. They’re using a computer that can display eight lines of text at about 15 letters a line. Thank God computer technology has moved on. At least the police officer is making an attempt at typing and not just mashing his fingers randomly on the keyboard.

They’re shocked to discover that George has been leaving a trail of destruction as he is heading home.

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Once home, George moves from killing young women to killing a small boy (off screen in the UK version from Anchor Bay’s Box of the Banned). This is enough to spark a full-scale investigation. In one of the most interestingly constructed shots, we’re subjected to a detective grilling CJ whilst his dead friend is on a gurney surrounded by police and ambulance men. It has the feel of a reality cop show, seemingly shot in a single take with a variety of apparently handheld camera angles used. The cop is adamant that CJ knows something, but CJ is pretty sure he doesn’t.

The next day, CJ returns home to find George also there (he’s sneaked in and is going through rooms and underwear drawers). George hides, nearly giving himself away when he drops his tablets all over the carpet. It’s okay, though. CJ tidies them up and answers the phone, giving George ample time to call the other house phone and warn CJ of the dangers ahead.

Finally, the doctor and his two colleagues, one of whom announces, “He’s out there killing people, and we can’t have that,” (which should have been the tagline for the poster) arrive in Daytona Beach, piecing together the puzzle as to why George is going there. (For reasons that don’t make sense, his doctor of the past year who has put all his efforts into George’s recovery doesn’t know about these aspects of George’s past.)

Oh yes, there hasn’t been much in the way of actual sex in the film so far, so we’re treated to Cathy, the babysitter, watching a film when her Joe, the boyfriend, sneaks up on her, surprising her. Whilst the kids sleep, she’s carried through the house in her pants and a t-shirt until she and her bloke end up on the floor, getting all down and dirty whilst the most bizarre jazz-style music plays in the background.

Whilst she gets a shower and her bloke has a cigarette, George strikes, garrotting the bloke and dragging him out of sight. The babysitter sees George, except she thinks that the six foot tall strapping man is actually the nine-year-old CJ. George bludgeons her to death (a punishment for her stupidity, I’m guessing) before walking through the house slowly to kill the children. Thankfully, CJ is a bit wily and manages to find a gun, shooting George in the stomach.

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Running in terror, the others leave poor CJ to deal with the predictably still alive George. Thankfully, CJ can handle a shotgun with the same skill as he handled the handgun. Never before have you seen a child wield projectile weapons so professionally.

As the film ends, we discover little George climbing the stairs, interspersed with shots of his father being tied up and dominated. Little George misinterprets this act completely, leading him to kill for the very first time. He decapitates the woman, sending her head flying into the air and her body to the floor before burying the axe in the skull of his own father. So begins a descent into the madness and a journey into terror.

As the film draws to a close, there’s screaming and death, whilst CJ, in a police car, gives a little wink and a smile to the camera in a nod to the blood spattered beginning of George and his nightmares.

So, random female nudity, gory, senseless violence, terrorised victims who are mainly female. Who says that these video nasties are exploitative?

As one of the many films banned under the infamous Video Recording Act of 1984, this wasn’t the first time that the film would embracenoteriety. A video trade magazine reported that in 1981 the video distributors, World of Video 2000 ,had carried out a publicity stunt that saw them with a brain in a jar outside a local hospital as part of a “Guess the Weight of the Human Brain” competition. Eventually, police would be called upon to seize the brain, but I’m guessing it made interesting viewing. To think that in modern times we have to put up with Twilight being used to advertise a new range of cars!

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Nightmare wasn’t even initially banned in the UK, with the film receiving an X certificate, though the censors saw fit to remove four minutes of its more disturbing scenes. However, the lack of certification in the video market meant that, as with many other examples of video nasties, the film was available to anyone with the new-fangled home video system and the money to rent the video from the local, independent video rental shop. Such easy access would lead James Ferman, secretary of the British Board of Film Censors, to suggest that such films could be “viewed over and over again by people teetering on the brink of using material in the wrong way”.

This isn’t to say that there were no instruments of authority to govern the world of film. There were many acts that could be used against cinema and it had been the job of the British Board of Film Censors from 1912 onwards to navigate the treacherous waters of morality. A demonstration of this can be found in John Martin’s Seduction Of The Gullible in which he comments that the Vagrancy Laws of 1824 and 1838 were both used to control ‘disorderly houses’ and could be used against cinemas showing material of an unsavoury nature. This law would be used in the 60s and 70s by Mary Whitehouse as she sought to prevent films being shown.

Of course, the disadvantage of so many laws was that no single law held all of the power. The Obscene Publications Act was expanded in 1977 to include cinemas and used the basis that an article is obscene if it depraves and corrupts those who may be influenced by it. Whilst focused on the cinema, it wouldn’t take too much of a stretch for the OPA to be applied to home video as well, in the same way that it had previously been applied to other media (most famously Lady Chatterley’s Lover and would later be applied to online slash fiction in the form of Girls (Scream) Aloud, both of which would be found not guilty).

It’s easy to see how authority figures during the 80s could believe that a film like Nightmare could potentially ‘deprave and corrupt’. With a rather tawdry portrayal of women (with the exception of Susan, the majority of the women in the film are sex workers or the target of sexual advances), Nightmare presents the idea that women are ‘evil’ participants in sordid activities and that George is ‘right’ to punish them for what happened to him as a child.

Whilst the film ends with the demise of ‘bad guy,’ it sets up the idea that CJ may follow in George’s footsteps. Like father, like son.

However, such assumptions of the influence film requires us to make assumptions about the viewing audience and their susceptibility to the footage they view. Most of the audience would likely be regular folk with regular jobs wanting to consume a medium that they didn’t take seriously.

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Children that experienced video nasties were more interested in the gore than in the underlying moral message (or was that just me?) Yes, they may have been scared by the image, but the onus should have been on the parents to regulate the viewing, not on state legislature. Thank God that the people of England now live in a state where parents are trusted to bring up their own children.

With the introduction of the Video Recording Act, the hope was to stem the flow of the more corrupting films entering the relatively unregulated home video market. This video found itself added to the ban list, making it illegal to provide copies for rental or retail.

The owners of the aforementioned World of Video 2000, a company by the name of April Electronics managed by David Hamilton-Grant, Malcolm Fancey and Roger Morley, were placed on trial for distributing this and other titles. Eventually, Hamilton-Grant would be sentenced to eighteen months in prison for distributing the film, later reduced to twelve months with six suspended.

Nightmare epitomises the lower end of horror films of the 1980s. It’s the type of film that was watched, as were many of the video nasties, for the violent bloodbath and scenes of over-the-top gore, ignoring the various plot holes and inadequacies of the source material. As an example of the slasher genre to which it firmly belongs, it doesn’t have the creativity (or the budget or production values) of the 1978 Halloween.

Nightmare exploits practically every female character that appears on screen. Obviously, the targets of Tatum’s fury, no doubt, fuelled the fury of firebrands such as Mary Whitehouse on her quest to quell the uprising of the great unwashed, incapable of deciding for themselves what was right and what was wrong.

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