September 3

Bad Dreams (1988, d. Andrew Fleming)

I’m going to spoil this film for you, so you may not want to read on. Bad Dreams begins as a silly haunting movie, and in its final half hour becomes an amazing parable about mental and spiritual health. A teenager is a member of a rural peace cult, Unity Fields. Under the supervision of their ‘father’ – with similarities to Jonestown – the group commits mass suicide by burning themselves to death. The girl is pulled from the fire and spends 13 years in a coma.

When she wakes, she’s placed in a group therapy environment with a bunch of suicidal people, some with more obviously severe troubles than others (it is easier to empathize with the quiet, defensive members of the group than the loud, pushy imposter/cutter/wannabe rapist). From the moment she is placed into the group, a parallel emerges between the cult of happiness of the 1980s – the fad of the prescribed couch giving way to the self-help movement – and the cult of happiness of the 1970s – where a distinctly socialist spiritual unity and togetherness was embraced as a means of escaping perilous ‘modern life’ and its capitalist ethos. The latter was offered to disenfranchised Californians by alarmist snakeoil salesmen like Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite, whose tradition of exploiting human frailty is continued in more recent memory with religious mass suicides in Uganda and Salvan. In Bad Dreams, when a nervous, shy teenager in the therapy group defends the ideals of Unity Fields during a discussion, I found myself wondering if the Edenic commune cults weren’t, in theory, preferable to the self-dramatizing misery of late 20th Century fad psychoanalysis.

The protagonist begins to hallucinate that the ‘father’ is in the hospital, and when her fellow patients begin to die from apparent suicides, she imagines that he is killing them in order to get to her. Her only ally is the junior psychiatrist who leads the group. For about an hour, the film seems to be a Jonestown-‘themed’ film done in fairly bad taste, very well shot, very scary. In the final act, it is revealed to be completely outside of the realm of the supernatural, that the patients are dying because of intentional mismedication from a doctor who is trying to manipulate the group into proving a theory of his. It ends with the resolution of this, the revelation that her haunted visions are in fact scientifically legitimate hallucinations, and the film finds itself on the side of scientific rationality in place of the torture and salvation of the mystical and unknown.