1983 Universal (IMDB entry)

Reviewed by Nathan Strum

The Plots

Nightmares is an anthology "horror" movie, comprised of four short stories. According to the internet (which we all know to be a veritable bastion of factual information), these were left over segments from ABC's short-lived anthology TV series "Darkroom".

Terror in Topanga

There's an escaped knife-wielding psychopath on the loose. So of course a woman decides to drive out alone in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes. Will spooky stuff ensue?

The Bishop of Battle
A young hotshot becomes obsessed with beating a video game, to the exclusion of his schoolwork, family and friends. How far will he go to reach the elusive level 13, and what will he find when he gets there?

The Benediction
A priest loses his faith, deciding he neither believes in good nor evil. But as he leaves his parish behind, he discovers real evil waiting for him in the middle of a desert highway.

Night of the Rat
A family has a rat problem. A big rat problem. A really big rat problem. A really, really big rat problem. And apparently, really big wall cavities.


Although not solely a videogame movie, Nightmares does devote a fourth of its runtime to videogames, so that's good enough. Even though I'm reviewing the whole film, I'll focus mainly on the videogame story, and gloss over the rest.

Terror in Topanga is a completely predictable "madman on the loose" type story -- a woman (Cristina Raines) having a nicotine fit, is driving alone at night in imminent peril at the hands of an escaped slasher. The only thing missing from this cliché is that this maniac uses a knife instead of a bloody hook. You should be able to guess what's going to happen as soon as you see that the car she's driving is a station wagon with a big empty back seat. And she's running out of gas. And of course, all of the gas stations (except the spooky one) are all closed. William Sanderson and Anthony James do their usual "creepy guy" routines, but all of it is woefully predictable, right down to the "spooky animal false alarm" bit.

"I can't figure out why my hair always smells like cigarettes..."

I can't tell if this is a cautionary tale about smoking cigarettes, or a story about someone who's just really stupid. Everything the central character does is so contrary to common sense (even the common sense of a moron) that you start rooting for the slasher to hurry up and finish her off, so you can get to the next story.

The Bishop of Battle starts out with a renowned arcade hotshot J. J. Cooney (Emilio Estevez) heading off to a rough part of town to hustle the local rubes out of some cash with a few games of Pleiades. His young accomplice Zock (Billy Jayne) sets up the victims by pleading with Emilio not to lose his hard-earned lawn-mowing money again. (Anyone who would fall for this deserves to get fleeced for 25 bucks.) After making his score, so to speak, J. J. and his sidekick head back to their local mall's arcade, where The Bishop of Battle awaits. The Bishop (voiced by James Tolkan) is a vector video game that's a cross between Berzerk and Space Fury, and J.J.'s obsessed with reaching the end of the game -- at level 13. He's sure it exists, because he says, "a couple of guys in Jersey reached it." This apparently has become his mantra, because he repeats this even when nobody is listening.

"Dude... you need to put money in the machine in order to start playing."

As he plays well into the evening, he manages to alienate his sidekick, his friends, his girlfriend (Moon Unit Zappa), and even the arcade owner who kicks him out when it's closing time. The dialog throughout this story is so bad that it's funny, with Zock yelling at one point, "That machine's made you into some kind of fiend!" Oh, if only we were so lucky. Things only get worse when he gets home and his parents ground him for bad grades because he's spending too much time playing video games. Bad acting reaches new heights as he screams at them for not understanding him, and storms off to his room.

As night falls, he sneaks out of his room and breaks into the arcade and finally manages to reach level 13. At that point, the game collapses in a heap, and the enemies from the game fly out of it and start shooting at him in the real world. The player's gun (that had been attached to the game cabinet) now shoots real lasers, and in a scene of horrific carnage, several innocent classic arcade games bite the dust.

As J.J. escapes the arcade, he discards his laser gun (of course... because hanging onto it would actually make sense), only to realize the game isn't over until the Bishop says it is. The next morning, he's nowhere to be found and the arcade is in ruins, except for a completely revived Bishop of Battle. But now... J.J. is the Bishop of Battle! He's trapped inside the videogame! Forever! Ooo... scary!! (Well, at least he didn't get trapped in the change machine.)

I guess there's supposed to be a moral to this story. Like, "Don't play too many videogames, or they'll take over your life". But I think the real moral is, "Play even more videogames, so if one comes after you, you'll be able to kick its butt." Whatever the point is, this is less horror than a poor-man's Twilight Zone rip-off. In spite of the gratuitous arcade scenes, this whole segment is laughable. Bad dialogue, bad acting, and the whole thing just comes off as being silly.

Anyway, the vector effects were pretty cool.

In The Benediction, a priest - Father MacLeod (Lance Henricksen) - has a crisis of faith. After a series of nightmares, he decides that there is neither good nor evil (and therefore no point in being a priest), and hits the road. This is the only part of Nightmares where we actually get to see a nightmare, and it's not that much of one anyway - a snake bites his pet deer, and MacLeod beats the snake to death with a hoe, only to discover that he has an allergy to dead snakes. Or something like that. Anyway. Henricksen does as good a job as can be expected with the script, and it almost makes for an interesting story, that is until it deteriorates into a rip-off of a cross between Duel and The Car.

"I can't figure out why my hair always smells like the palm of my hand..."

Just as he's leaving his parish behind, an evil Chevy pickup begins to terrorize him on a desert road, wrecking his car, and nearly running him over. At the last instant, MacLeod manages to save himself from the evil pickup (and regain his faith) by throwing a Thermos full of holy water at it. No, I am not making this up. Despite a very cool scene where the pickup truck erupts from the ground and attacks poor Lance, the whole premise is just silly. While I understand where the filmmakers were going with this - a sort of a divine intervention to show him the error of his ways thing - the whole evil pickup truck battle just became too comical too take seriously. I kept expecting to hear someone to yell, "Yeehaa!" whenever the pickup performed a stunt.

The final story - Night of the Rat, - does indeed live up to its title. Not "rats", but "rat". And of course, it's a big evil rat. Well, at least that's what it appears to be, as it terrorizes a family of three (Richard Masur, Veronica Cartwright, Bridgette Andersen), eats the family cat, leaves big hairballs everywhere, and chews holes in the walls. But in the end, we find out (thanks to the apparently telepathic daughter), it's not really evil, but just misunderstood. It just wants its dead baby rat back, so it can leave in peace. Of course, if the dad hadn't hung up on the wise old exterminator (Albert Hague) who just happened to have a 15th century book on giant evil rats, they would have found that out earlier.

While it's no Night of the Lepus, Night of the Rat is brilliantly stupid in its own right. The giant rat effects were actually worse than what I was expecting (and by this point in the movie, my expectations weren't exactly sky-high), and the people in the story act as stupid as the woman in Terror in Topanga. Going into a dark crawlspace to investigate loud noises, choosing to stay in the house despite knowing there's a giant rat in it. That sort of thing. The telepathy between the little girl and the rat was so unexpected and funny I was laughing out loud at it. This is either sheer comedic brilliance, or mind-numbing idiocy. The only thing missing from the story was giant piles of rat poop. But the script was close enough.

"Mom... Dad... let go. I can't breathe!"

If there's a moral to the rat story, it seems to be "don't be a jerk". See, the dad of the family is a jerk to everyone. And it's only when he's not being a jerk does the rat leave. Of course, if they hadn't bought a house with three-foot-deep wall cavities, then the giant rat wouldn't have gotten in there in the first place. So maybe that's the moral -- use rigid foam insulation instead of fiberglass batting. It's tougher to chew through.


It's hard to review anything in Nightmares in terms of characters, plot, or acting, since this is all stuff rejected from TV. To call it shallow and superficial would be high praise, indeed. You might expect better from Joseph Sargent, who also directed Colossus: The Forbin Project, but he doesn't deliver here. The Benediction is probably the best written and acted of the four stories, but that's not saying much.

The DVD itself is nothing spectacular, but there's not much that can be done with material shot for TV. The picture is only fair, and the audio is mono. They did make an effort to present it nicely - the main menu even has stereo sound effects. The theatrical trailer is included, which tries to make the film seem much more interesting than it turned out to be. The tag line, "Each summer one film opens that you've never heard of... and that you'll never forget... Nightmares is this year's 'sleeper'," isn't exactly ringing praise for a horror movie.

The opening scene of a cop being brutally stabbed is the only graphically violent scene in the entire movie, and it's actually pretty tame by today's standards. Apparently, it was added to garner the film an R rating, and possibly to pad the running time out a few more minutes. There's little violence otherwise, no swearing, and no nudity in the film, which lends credence to its TV origins. It's hard to imagine Nightmares getting anything beyond a PG now, and it could probably run, uncut, on network television. Even though I'm not a big fan of violent films, I somehow felt let down. Calling this a "horror" movie is a real stretch. "Suspense" and "thriller" don't cut it either. Is there a genre called "Yawner"?

The Bishop of Battle (the reason for reviewing this film in the first place), may be entertaining enough for videogame fans to sit through, with some decent effects and a good look at some classic games. The inane dialog and silly acting make for a few laughs, too. But the rest of Nightmares is nothing more than leftover bad TV. The only real horror here is the fact that I shelled out $6.98 to buy the DVD.


Related arcade games in MacMAME


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