"So Jane, what you do here in effect is count boners?"If there was any better indication that a new Rubicon of filmmaking had been crossed, it was this quote from 1984's "Dreamscape," which was the second movie to be released with a PG-13 rating ("Red Dawn" being the first). It boasted enough gory violence, f-words and sex to earn it an R rating, but slide down to the next category with a few modest trims.
The new rating from the MPAA was designed to address a wave of films in the early 1980s -- "Poltergeist" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" among them -- that stretched the limits of the amount of blood and violence allowable in a PG movie. Steven Spielberg was actually among those who suggested an intermediate rating between PG and R.
But the studios soon realized the potential to nudge a host of other adult-oriented material into popular mainstream movies, while still selling tickets to kiddies. A new paradigm was established, and since then most big blockbuster films have carried the PG-13 classification.
The 13 part of the rating is simply a guide for parents. As a former assistant manager of a movie theater, I can tell you there was no actual restriction on under-age children buying their way into the movie, despite outraged assertions from any number of grown-ups.
As an almost-15-year-old when "Dreamscape" came out, I can also authoritatively declare that this fantasy/sci-fi/horror hybrid touched a whole lot of erogenous zones for people in my demographic. The story is about the ability of psychics to enter into the dreams of other people, and help or hurt them depending upon their motivations.
As was the case with the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and other cinema of the era, we were made to understand that if you die in your dream, you die in real life, too. Utter hooey, of course, and we all knew it back then, but it's one of those conceits you swallow in the course of a life of mainstream movie-going.
Dennis Quaid was the star, but the person most people remember from the movie is David Patrick Kelly, who steals the entire second half as "dream assassin" Tommy Ray Glatman. (As he also did in the latter portion of "The Warriors," plus other films.)
So intense in his portrayal of the psychopathic psychic, Kelly seems to be practically shivering out of his skin -- something he actually does later, turning into a snake-man for dream combat against his arch-foe, Alex Gardner (Quaid). He also conjures up fingernail blades to tear out the beating heart of a man, a scene that surely would not have passed muster under the banner of a PG film.
Directed by Joseph Ruben, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Loughery and Chuck Russell, "Dreamscape" was reputedly based on a short novel by Roger Zelazny, who sold a story outline to 20th Century Fox but did not receive a screen credit.
The tale is brimming with all sorts of Cold War anxiety about nuclear annihilation, coupled with paranoia that the government is invading our lives and shredding our freedoms. Generally I'm not one to go in much for political interpretations of movies, but the Reaganesque subtext is pretty hard to ignore here.
Eddie Albert plays the President, who is having bad dreams about nuclear war, including being attacked by radiation mutants, and resolves to pursue disarmament talks with the Soviet Union. Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), an old friend of his who runs a shadowy covert arm of the government -- "They're the guys the CIA is afraid of" -- opposes this, claiming the POTUS wants to "emasculate our nuclear deterrent."
He resolves to nip the problem in the bud by having Tommy Ray enter his mind as part of a secretive "dreamlink" research project housed at a fictitious college. Max von Sydow plays Dr. Novotny, head of the project and an old friend to Alex, whom he recruits to join the mission. Kate Capshaw is Jane, a fellow researcher who takes great pains to keep her relationship with Alex on a professional level.
Quaid, at the height of his brief initial stardom, is a smirky, charismatic presence, playing a guy with the soul of a con artist but who dresses like a preppy (Easter egg-colored cardigan vests aplenty).
George Wendt (Norm!) shows up briefly as Charlie Prince, a best-selling horror author whose vocation somehow gives him insight into the most secretive workings of the U.S. government. He's the one who clues in Alex that Blair is planning to use Tommy Ray to assassinate the president. How the hell does he know this? Unless he's a psychic, too?
The film's lowish-budget roots shine through during the dream sequences, which involve a lot of bad blue screen effects and herky claymation for the snake man sequences. The conception of Alex and Tommy Ray's psychic abilities is rather spotty, granting them the ability to predict the future -- Alex picks winning horses at the track -- but not much insight into other people's non-dreaming state of mind.
I don't think I had seen "Dreamscape" since its initial theater run 30 years ago (gulp!), but I was surprised at how well the movie remained fixed in my mind. I was struck by how much imagery of trains there is in the movie: Alex and Tommy Ray fight aboard a train, and then chase each other through a bombed-out underground station -- all of it bathed in a harsh red filter.
Alex also enters Jane's mind while she is dreaming and seduces her on board a train -- something they act out in real life in the movie's closing shot. Though it's a little creepy when you consider the act in its full context; it's basically psychic rape.
"Dreamscape" holds up well because it boasts a lot of imagination for what is essentially a summer action flick. And it's got a great villain who used the new MPAA rating to get exponentially more dastardly in his deeds.