Monday, April 24, 2023

"One Fat Zero" - Project Nightmare (1987)

It is time to examine the unfortunately obscure science fiction classic Project Nightmare (1987), a blend of 
psychedelic mind-tripping and, of course, 1960s Star Trek. (The film has nothing to do with Robert A. Heinlein's 1953 story "Project Nightmare.")

Predictably for a film about the nature of reality itself, some of your universe's critics have been unkind to this film. For example, reviewer carlos-pires writes, "It warrants watching just because it is the silliest, weirdest, worst movie ever." Reviewer Brennan Dortch Cornelius Thunderbolt writes, "it’s all unequivocally weird and unashamedly dull." And reviewer Paul Senior calls the film "painful to watch. Generally nonsensical, ugly and boring."

Read on for a more nuanced appreciation of Project Nightmare...

In the artistic opening, shots of beeping and buzzing electronic equipment are intercut with a gravestone sporting the large initial “W.” After the computer-text titles, the film cuts to two men in a forest having a cryptic conversation about something chasing them without any logical explanation. They walk out of the forest and emerge on the side of a mountain, which one of the men finds peculiar, because there should be cities visible from their vantage point. “As a matter of fact, I don’t see any cities anywhere,” Jon says.

“What do you make of it?” his friend, Gus, says.

“I don’t know, but I think we should find that shelter for the night.”

They walk farther through a seemingly abandoned landscape, finally finding a charming cabin where a woman holding a teapot named Marci greets them. She lets them enter the cabin but tells them she doesn’t have a phone. She offers them drinks, so they ask for a scotch and a beer.

“Don’t move,” she tells them as she heads toward the kitchen, “revival is on the way.”

“You sound like a missionary,” Jon says.

“I said revival, not salvation.”

Nursing their drinks, the men explain their situation to Marci. They were camping, and when they woke up their tent was ripped apart and their supplies were scattered.

“Probably the wind,” Marci offers sensibly. She adds, perhaps not as sensibly, “I’ve seen the wind around here rip the trees right out of the ground.”

“No!” says Gus. “It was more than that. There was this…”

“Anyway, we just started running like hell, as fast as we could go, and this…whatever it was was right behind us.”

(One can only wonder if the film would have been more effective if we had seen the tent, or the implied monster. The answer can only be no. Or perhaps yes.)

“Oh come on. Two grown men? Must have been something you ate.”

Over salads, the men tell Marci about their former life as football players, and then their current lives as air conditioner repairmen who enjoy camping on the weekends. When Marci leaves the room to get coffee, Jon detects Gus’s sudden feelings for their host. “Looks like our Gus is slipping his neck into a noose,” comments Jon insensitively.

When Marci returns with coffee, there is some more banter that can only be described as incomprehensible (“I’ve got to practically burn Gus’s books to get him out of the house.” “I’ve often wondered why you bother.” “I need somebody to run interference for me, old buddy.”) After a nightmarish shot of Gus staring at his salad, Gus looks at curtains and imagines he sees something out beyond the curtains.

Gus and Marci share an intense dramatic scene that could have come from a Bergman film. They both stare at the curtain. Gus says, “It’s like a nightmare. If I’m dreaming I want to wake up.”


“Oh, Marci, I didn’t mean you. You’re so…Damn. I never say what I feel.”


“Well, all these things inside me and I want to get ‘em out and when I try people leave. Or I lose them before I get them.”

“Do you think you’ll lose me.”


“I’m here, Gus.”

“Mm. For the moment, but what about tomorrow?”

“All we ever have is the moment.”

“It’s not enough. I may be alone tomorrow. There’s too much pain.”

“Pain goes away too.”

“Then there’s nothing. One fat zero.” He goes on to tell Marci that his father drowned while trying to rescue Gus, and that his mother shot herself and he was sent away to school. Furthermore, Gus broke up Jon’s marriage to a woman named Phyllis because Gus lived with them for too long. Also, Phyllis lost the baby she was pregnant with. “I do destroy everything. Tomorrow I’ll be all alone again.”

Of course, there can only be one response to this somewhat depressing life story. Marci goes to Gus and hugs him while Gus has a vision of a cemetery where a priest gives him last rites as he lies on a grave, accompanied by electronic sounds and indiscernible voices.

The next day, Marci gives Jon and Gus some food in a big paper grocery bag to take on their unspecified journey. They leave the cabin and walk along a road through the forest, where they encounter some kind of energy being/discoloration hovering over the trees.

Although the energy seems harmless, they try to avoid it by sneaking through the forest. “Oh God, what am I doing?” Jon says, perhaps looking for guidance from the audience, though he will get no answers. A branch falls. He steps back onto the road, and he and Gus continue walking.

Eventually, they encounter a car with a flat tire and a mustachioed man who resembles director Russ Meyer. While Jon replaces the flat tire, the man explains his story: He was flying a Cessna 172 when the engine went dead and he made an emergency landing. Then he stumbled upon an abandoned car, but soon the tire went flat. Unusually, these coincidences occurred as an apparent consequence of the man’s inner thoughts—after the plane crash, he thought about where he could find a car, and before the flat, he thought the only thing he needed now was a flat tire.

Then the man has a heart attack.

Jon and Gus get the car working and drive the afflicted man back to Marci’s cabin. Unfortunately for all involved, the energy being has enveloped the cabin.

Gus runs into the cabin and rescues a befuddled Marci. All of them return to the car and drive away, only to find that the Russ Meyer doppelgänger has passed away.

Later, Jon and Gus leave Marci in the car while they hike to a restaurant in the middle of a canyon. They find a phone booth but the phone is disabled. “What is this?” Jon asks. “It’s crazy! What in God’s name is going on around here?”

After they climb around the hills surrounding the restaurant for about twenty minutes, hearing an electronic buzzing sound that might be diegetic or might be part of the soundtrack (the filmmakers are clever enough never to give away which is correct), the two men return wordlessly to the car and drive away. Suspensefully, the gas gauge is near zero.

They stop the car to look at lights in the mountains ahead and use the last of the gas to drive across the desert toward the mountains. In one artful shot, the worried protagonists stare through the windshield that reflects the uncaring, unforgiving sun.

Suddenly, Gus sees something in the desert sands. He tells Jon to stop the car, then he and Marci get out and run across the desert. A curious Jon follows them in the car.

They find an intact airplane sitting on the sand—the mustachioed dead man’s plane. Gus, who hinted earlier that he trained to be a pilot, though he never got his license, finds nothing wrong with the plane.

“Could you even land this thing?” Jon asks.

“I’ve done more landings than you could count,” Gus says. (It is possible he knows that Jon can’t count very high.) “A hell of a lot more than some people with pilot’s licenses.”

Jon is skeptical. When he turns away to watch a small tarantula crawl across the desert, he hears the plane’s engine start up. Gus has started the plane and is now taxiing toward takeoff, and Marci has disappeared. “Gus!” Jon shouts, perhaps unwisely running after the plane.

After the plane takes off, Jon wanders across the sand and finds a purple jacket.

Up in the air, Gus loses control of the plane and its propellor stops. He has a vision of a red tunnel, similar to the view through the curtains of the cabin window. Then, suddenly, he regains control of the plane.

The film dissolves from a shot of the plane flying near the ground to a shot of Gus walking through a forest, with no indication that he landed the plane or how he reached the forest. He walks through the trees for about twenty minutes, then  he sees a silver pyramid structure a few feet high that appears to be the top of a large pyramid buried in the ground.

When Gus moves too close to the pyramid, he encounters what seems to be an electrical force field, but after a moment he is able to move forward. Suddenly, the top of the pyramid vanishes, revealing a hole into the structure, and Gus courageously climbs inside.

Passing through red doors that automatically slide apart a la Star Trek, Gus enters an elevator that brings him down to a corridor. Entering a room, he is assaulted by a large man brandishing a two-by-four. 

Another man in the room says, “You have nothing to say? Not even as much as a feeble excuse?”

“What?” Gus stammers. “Who the hell are you?”

“I don’t understand,” the man says.

Suddenly, the man with the board disappears and Gus finds he is holding a revolver.

“Kill yourself,” the other man says.

“What is all of this?” Gus asks, throwing the gun away. It fades to nothing on the floor.

Back in the corridor, Gus encounters Marci, but another man tells him he shouldn’t explore on his own because “this place can be dangerous.” Gus follows this man into an office, where the man uses a Star Trek-like food synthesizer to make Gus a meal. “How did you get in here?” the man asks Gus.

“I don’t know,” Gus says.

“What are you doing here? This is a restricted area.”

The filmmakers cut to Jon wandering in the desert, then back to Gus in the underground pyramid, who tells the mysterious man that he saw Marci inside the structure. “I suspect that she is out of your imagination,” the man says. “I guess I should explain a little bit about this place. It’s called Project Touchstone.” He adds, “The word means any test of inner strength. That’s what this project is about. Whatever goes on in the test subject’s mind—his fears, hopes, loves, needs—are transformed into physical reality…with the help of my computer. These emotions…become solid entities, and must be dealt with by the subject.”

After Gus expresses confusion about how he is involved, the man continues. “Touchstone was designed to serve as a mental testing ground for astronauts or scientists assigned to duties in isolated parts of the world. People like that.” However, he got word that the government was coming to shut down the project. He thought Gus was one of them.

“I’m not, but if I was, I would shut it down. Gladly.”

“And destroy a man’s life’s work?”

“Yes, if he’s working to, uh, control my mind!”

“Control your mind? I said nothing about controlling your mind. Only you can do that. Or your mind can control you. That’s what we’re interested in. Who’s in control. The main computer only reads and analyzes the test subject’s mind, and then it recreates in physical form his thought patterns. This is accomplished by pulsating electromagnetic fields in such a way as to slow down high level energy—“

“Look, I don’t care what’s going on here. I was just with a friend on a camping trip.” Gus talked about when he and Jon woke up to a ravaged campsite, and that something was chasing them. “You’re not gonna believe it. It was frightening. Tall, about thirty-five feet. It glowed. It glowed.” (One only wishes the filmmakers had shown this glowing creature.)

“I’m sorry about this, but you and your friend will have to be debriefed by my superiors.”

“What? I’ve had your Touchstone up to here. I’m leaving, and your superiors can go to hell.”

“I’m afraid your leaving is impossible,” the man says. “The computer seems to have selected you as its first subject. It let you in. It will have to let you out.”

Suddenly, Gus is back outside in the forest, which is now dark. Jon is in the same forest. Gus sees Jon running through the trees but can’t contact him. Then Jon is back in the desert, and Gus is back in the sterile room in the Project Touchstone pyramid.

The scientist speaks with his computer, which speaks perfect English despite the fact that its screen shows only scrolling programs written in the BASIC language. The computer’s voice complains, quite justifiably, that the electrical power it is using to generate imaginary people, cabins, and monsters is outside normal limits.

“Is Gus the subject,” the scientist asks.

“Yes,” the computer replies. “There’s a danger of conflict between the manifestation and the human.” It describes Jon, and says conflict is imminent.

Out in the desert, Jon alternates between running for his life from an unseen threat and casually strolling along the sand like a male model with his shirt unbuttoned. 

Back in the underground pyramid, the corridors rumble. The scientist believes Gus is causing problems with his mind, though Gus is uncertain what is going on. The scientist decides to shut his life’s work down. “Computer, emergency shut down all systems. Implement subroutine two-inner alpha. Don’t worry, I’ll have this thing shut down shortly.”

Gus is suddenly in another corridor. He enters a room that becomes a bar where a woman dances and disaffected people sit and drink, including a man with a large triangular hat.

The behatted man, presumably aroused by the woman’s arrhythmic gyrations, takes off his hat. (It is possible the behatted man represents one of your universe's man religions, but it is more likely that his garments represent the work of a kindergarten class.) Suddenly, half of the woman’s face is scarred. Gus returns to the pyramid corridor, where the behatted man is again wearing his red hat. A man Gus calls “Papa” stands motionless in the corridor. Gus falls to his knees and hugs his father around the crotch region. Then his father’s face is half-scarred.

In a 2001-like moment, the computer tells the scientist it is unable to shut down due to a memory error. The scientist attempts to enter a generator room to manually shut everything down, but the computer tells him he needs his supervisor’s approval. However, he quickly convinces the computer to open the door.

In a surreal climactic sequence, the filmmakers intercut Gus climbing out of the pyramid and watching the energy being coalesce into a face with the scientist entering the generator room and placing an explosive device next to a metal closet. Outside, the Godlike face tells Gus, “You came back. I knew you would. Why have you been running?”

Gus says he will destroy the being, but the face replies, “I have come to destroy you. You are not worth saving. Now you can rest. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Peace?”

Shockingly, the face reveals that Gus killed his father and Jon is taking Marci away from Gus. Suddenly, the face blasts lasers from its eyes, then disappears. He sees Marci. She touches a button on the scientist’s bomb. Then something explodes.

In the end, we see Jon sitting in the desert over a fire he has built. He watches a plane land nearby and Gus gets out. They say nothing to each other. Both of them climb into the plane and fly away.

The End

Project Nightmare has a release date of 1987 but it feels like it must have been made or begun in the 1970s, as it is much more a coherent artifact of that incoherent decade. Of course, computers were godlike beings accessible only to secret government organizations in the 1970s, even if they were programmed in BASIC, whereas by 1987 they were present in every school and many homes. The artificial intelligence in Project Nightmare, I must argue, is the perfect representation of computer technology in the mid 1970s. It speaks in perfect, fluid, fluent English and is able to create the illusion of matter through electrical fields, but it also has a display that can show only 1,024 text characters. To filmmakers in the late 1970s, this computer would have been the perfect representation of the frightening speed of technological progress. One can only wonder what audiences of 1987--if there were audiences--thought of this near-omnipotent computerized nightmare. Perhaps its late release date is the reason the film is not more influential, though it is of course ripe for rediscovery in the 2020s as artificial intelligence is again a threat that will no doubt destroy the universe. Director Donald Jones and his co-writer James C. Lane (who also collaborated on 1982's Deadly Sunday and 1985's Murderlust) are to be commended for creating a nightmare that is at once dated and timeless.