Monday, January 1, 2018

"Asking Picasso to Paint Your Car" - Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981)

While 1981's Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (aka Nightmare, but I will use the more evocative title) is a slasher film of some renown in many quarters, there are misguided critics who fail to see its sophisticated qualities. For example, reviewr preppy-3 writes, “There's next to no plot, no brains, no nothing! I was equal parts bored, sickened and just amazed at how STUPID this was!” Reviewer Prismark10 writes, “Its an ultra low budget, seedy film but also dull….A lot of it is just boring with the older George in white underpants distressed and having bouts of screaming. In fact there are a lot of guys in white underpants in this film.” Finally, Rich Wright says, “Yep, this is a disjointed effort indeed, with a meandering story full of weird goings-on.”

I will give Mr. Wright points for his use of the term "goings-on," but I must differ with these reviewers because Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is not only a superior slasher film but an incisive critique of American culture in the early 1980s, approaching the sophistication of The Bees (1978), though substituting that film's images of John Saxon in a karate gi with images of actor Baird Stafford in what are colloquially called tighty-whities. Please read on...

Appropriately for a film about nightmares in a damaged brain, the film opens with a man in bed having a nightmare. The condition of his brain as damaged, however, is not immediately apparent, though it is hinted at when we see he has draped a sheer flowered scarf over his bedside lamp.

The condition of the man’s brain is further supported when he awakens and dramatically flips off the bedsheet, revealing both that he is wearing white briefs and that there is a bloody severed head at the foot of the bed.

After this infamous opening, the film cuts to a hospital, where the man with the damaged brain screams until sedated by two gum-chewing orderlies.

Perhaps inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the film shows a provocative intertitle: “THE FIRST NIGHT, Florida.” A teenage babysitter named Kathy, engrossed in the weather report on TV, is being harassed by her charges, two girls and a 9-year-old boy named C.J. with a penchant for scaring people. Kathy is genuinely frightened when she sees a figure on the roof of the house, but the audience realizes it is just C.J. playing tricks.

After these first two prologues, the film presents another intertitle: “THE FIRST NIGHT, New York.” We see the man with the damaged brain in bed again as he has another nightmare, this one clearly a flashback to a young bow-tied boy walking in on a couple having sex, a scene that ends with a bloody murder and a headless body.

Fortunately, the filmmakers have the sense to give the audience some background about the situation through the gripping use of TV monitors and low-resolution computer screens.

The damaged-brain man, George Tatum, then walks into an examining room, where he meets his psychiatrist, Dr. Williamson. The examination room is also being observed through a one-way mirror by a group of officials, one of whom explains that experimental drugs are controlling George Tatum’s violent outbursts but not his dreams.

George describes his dreams to Dr. Williamson, who asks about the weapon in his dreams. “It’s not a weapon!” objects George. “It’s a hatchet, or something like a hatchet. An axe, maybe.”

After about 20 seconds of interrogation, Dr. Williamson says, “It’s been a good session, George. I think we learned a lot.” Then the doctor stares straight at the mirror.

Later, another doctor summarizes the success of the experimental drugs. “Tatum is our first major success,” he dictates to a tape recorder, or perhaps, the bank of computers in his office. “We have taken a dangerous psychotic and completely rebuilt him. Programming him for future government or private sector use would be our next step.”

We then watch as the released George Tatum, wearing a big overcoat that is not at all suspicious, enters a sleazy peep show and reaches out to touch a stripper.

However, it is clear that George is cured, as he resists the temptations of a woman in a private booth who tries to lure him into a private show by awkwardly licking her lips, though he later succumbs to another woman’s temptation.

Next, it is “THE SECOND DAY.” Dr. Williamson waits for George to show up for an appointment, but George has skipped town, driving a car away from New York City. Director Ramona Scavolini cleverly uses the audio on the car radio to track George’s progress southward, as we hear the call signals for stations in Philadelphia, then Wilmington, North Carolina, then Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. George makes excellent progress, driving in one morning from New York City through South Carolina, a distance of almost 700 miles.

George’s car breaks down in Myrtle Beach, so he takes advantage of the down murder. His victim is a woman named Barbara whom George followed home from a bar. In short order, George graphically slices her throat.

In a sequence that some unenlightened critics might view as heavy-handed, the filmmakers equate murder with sex by having George straddle his victim and repeatedly slide the knife into her stomach.

And then he licks his fingers for no apparent reason.

We reach “THE THIRD DAY.” In Manhattan, Dr. Williamson is berated by the doctor we previously saw with the half-dozen computer monitors on his desk, a short man with a cigar who must be Bruce McCullock of The Kids in the Hall fame acting under a pseudonym.

Meanwhile, George finally reaches Florida, where he begins to stalk the family from THE FIRST NIGHT. In a blistering attack on social mores of the early 1980s, director Scavolini portrays the mother as irresponsible, dallying with her boyfriend on a boat as her three children arrive home from school. The children are forced to climb to the upper story of their home to enter the house, perhaps symbolic of their “elevation” from minors to responsible citizens.

This responsibility comes with serious issues, however, as C.J. Finds out when he carries a garbage bag to the curbside only to find a raincoated stranger—none other than damaged-brain murderer George Tatum—staring at him from across the street.

C.J. being C.J., the prankish boy uses ketchup to pretend he was attacked on the street.

Somewhat surprisingly, his mother’s boyfriend turns out to be the responsible adult in the relationship, taking the whole family (except punished C.J.) out to dinner at a fish restaurant.

The film takes a confusing turn later that night, as we find babysitter Kathy watching the kids, including the punished C.J.; presumably the kids’ mother Susan and her boyfriend are out partying after a satisfying meal of fish. An inattentive first-time viewer, however, might make the mistake of assuming that Susan suddenly became a much younger blonde woman. This hypothesis would be supported by the fact that Kathy, apparently feeling no compunctions about her employer’s hospitality, takes a long shower while babysitting. (Perhaps this behavior is standard practice in your universe.)

In any case, Kathy’s shower is cut short by a classic sequence in which C.J. dresses in an elaborate costume with glowing eyes to scare his babysitter and utter the immortal line “Nanny nanny boo boo, stick your head in doo doo!”

Thus beings “THE FOURTH DAY.” Kathy chooses the next morning to quit her babysitting job. “He scares me, he scares me, he scares everybody,” Kathy tells Susan.

We soon learn that Susan’s boyfriend is a photographer, as she employs him to take some Polaroids of Susan’s house to put it on the market. He jokes, somewhat self-aggrandizingly, “Asking me to take Polaroids is sort of like asking Picasso to paint your car.”

In a creepy scene, the boyfriend shows Susan the Polaroid he has just taken, and it reveals a man’s figure in the upstairs window.

Of course, the two of them rush into the house instead of waiting to call the police, but their brief, haphazard search reveals nothing, even though we in the audience hear a loud heartbeat and see that George Tatum is hiding in a closet, holding a knife.

Meanwhile in Manhattan, Bruce McCulloch uses his bank of computers to search for George. A police report indicates George is presumed dead, so Mr. McCulloch types “QUERY: WHY PRESUMED DEAD?” The computer responds that George’s apartment had massive blood stains inside. He then types the highly useful computer command “QUERY: CROSS REFERENCE AND COLLATE ALL KNOWN DATA ON TATUM: PREDICT DESTINATION PROBABILITIES.”

The computer, whose understanding of probability is no doubt far more advanced than that of mere humans, lists the probabilities for four cities. His most probable location is Daytona, Florida, with a probability of 91%.

Mr. McCulloch concludes, “I think we better go find him, huh?”

At Daytona Beach, Susan is outraged when C.J. says he saw the mysterious man again. Susan shakes him and tosses him down in the sand, frustrated with C.J.’s ridiculous “boy who cried wolf” personality. But Susan’s boyfriend talks to C.J. and says he believes the boy.

On “THE FIFTH DAY,” C.J. proves he has learned nothing from the backlash to his pranks. Cycling to “feed his birds,” he parks his bike by an old abandoned building. Later, a young girl ventures into the building to find not C.J. but George Tatum. We hear her scream and presume that George’s damaged brain has done her harm.

C.J.’s friend Tony discovers the girl’s body in the abandoned building, tied to a chair and nibbled on by rats.

In a long scene that is, it must be admitted, more than a little baffling, C.J. and Susan are summoned to the abandoned building by the police, who reveal that C.J.’s friend Tony has been murdered. In public with neighbors standing around, the police interrogate C.J., who accurately reports he does not know what happened to Tony. The policeman harangues the 9-year-old over and over, apparently trying to get the child to confess to murder, and his mother says only, “Shut up.”

Next appears the ominous title “THE FINAL DAY.” George Tatum hides in Susan’s closet, and when C.J. comes home from school, George uses the upstairs phone to call the downstairs phone and warn C.J. to get out of the house.

Meanwhile, Dr. Williamson and Bruce McCulloch fly down to Florida. Dr. Williamson inexplicably wears a cowboy hat for his trip. The men have discovered that George Tatum’s dream about murdering his own father with an axe actually occurred when George was young. They have come to Florida to stop George from killing more people.

That night, Susan convinces Kathy to babysit her kids one last time because Susan and her boyfriend need to attend some kind of adult pool party. While the kids are asleep and Kathy sits watching a horror movie on TV, we see that somebody is inside the house. Slowly, a closet door swings open behind Kathy, but we soon realize it is not the killer George Tatum but a teenager who turns out to be Kathy’s boyfriend.

In a maneuver that appears to be equal parts romantic and awkward, the two start kissing and sidestepping toward the staircase simultaneously. Then he picks Kathy up and carries her upstairs and then back downstairs into another room with a fireplace.

As they make out on the floor, two horrifying revelations occur. One is that Kathy’s boyfriend wears tightly whiteys just like George Tatum.

The other revelation is that George Tatum is inside the house.

When Kathy goes to take a shower, her boyfriend is garroted by the now-masked George. Tatum then confronts Kathy, but because of the mask she assumes it is C.J. playing another one of his games (a la the “Nanny Nanny Boo Boo Stick Your Head in Doo Doo” incident), though it is clearly an adult she is confronting.

George murders Kathy with a hammer, an act that is witnessed by C.J. standing at the top of the stairs. When the boy runs to wake his siblings, they believe him for some reason and lock themselves into a bedroom, though C.J. runs out to his mother’s bedroom to try to call her on the phone.

In the next suspenseful scene, director Scavolini pays homage to the previous year’s The Shining as George hacks open the bedroom door not with an axe but with a hammer. The director even reproduces Kubrick’s from-the-floor shot that shows Jack Torrance banging on the food locker door.

But C.J. has his own surprise in store, as he fires his mother’s pistol at George Tatum.

George is shot four times in the stomach, which forces him to stagger away and cough a little.

The kids run downstairs, but George follows them. Proving himself a highly consistent shot, C.J. shoots George again in the same spot.

“He’s still alive!” the girls scream, but after getting out of the house, C.J. ventures back inside to finish the job.

Understandably holding his stomach, the hammer-wielding George slowly follows C.J. The climax occurs when C.J. finds a shotgun, which proves more effective than the pistol.

In the end, we find out the full story of George’s nightmares. He flashes back to his own childhood, when he raced home from school, only to find his father playing bondage games with a woman who might or might not be his mother. Of course, as a child would, young George races outside to the shed to get an axe, then returns to decapitate the woman and then, for good measure, murder his father.

With George Tatum finally dead, the New York doctors arrive, along with Susan and her boyfriend.

When the mask is finally removed while George lies on a stretcher, Susan screams, “No! That is my husband! It’s my husband!”

We are thus led to believe that C.J., like George before him, killed his own father.

In the final chilling shot, C.J., sitting in the back of a police car, smiles and winks at the camera.

As is clear from the content of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, director Romano Scavolini's intentions were to create a political thriller about the unintended consequences of an American government-sponsored experimental drug program. Couched in the tropes of a slasher film, presumably for commercial appeal, Mr. Scavolini has revealed that the inspiration for his classic story came when he read an article about a journalist accusing the CIA of testing experimental drugs on inmates of psychiatric institutions. This conspiracy led to the idea that axe murderer George Tatum, apparently cured of his homicidal tendencies by drugs, could be set free to lead a normal life, only to return to his murderous ways following a road trip from Manhattan to Florida. (As we all know, killers who have been institutionalized since childhood are uniformly excellent drivers.)

While Mr. Scavolini's intentions moved in the direction of the conspiracy thriller, his film also provides a scathing criticism of the institution of parenthood. He presents what appears to be a typical American family, with three kids and a single mother. Instead of portraying the family as nobly struggling to attain the American dream, however, Mr. Scavolini presents the mother as negligent, sleeping until afternoon and dallying with her boyfriend on his sailboat instead of caring for her children. Even more caustically, Mr. Scavolini presents the absent father--whom we learn is George Tatum at the end--as a nightmare-plagued, homocidal psychopath desperate to reunite with his children, as well as to kill anyone who either gets in his way or arouses his desire.

It would be safe to say Mr. Scavolini and his film would not serve as poster children for American boosterism.

Like other profound and thought-provoking films, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain provokes a deep sense of curiosity and questioning. For example, how did George and Susan meet? Details about their courtship and marriage would be fascinating. Furthermore, is George the father of all three children, or is C.J. the only one genetically related to the slasher? Are the girls as fond of gruesome practical jokes as C.J.? The evidence within the film's narrative would suggest not. If not, is fondness for gruesome practical jokes a genetically inherited trait? The film opens up this and many, many more fascinating questions for those who are willing to engage with it. Indeed, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is one of the finest and most thought-provoking slashers of that subgenre's golden era, and it can only be described as a tragedy that Romano Scavolini did not direct any further slahser films.