‘Dream Demon’ (1988) revisited

❉ This graphic and blackly comic low-budget film wears its Elm Street and Clive Barker influences on its sleeve.

“Inspired by American horror like Nightmare on Elm Street, whose horror surrounding dreams and reality this film very much imitates, and casting a satirical eye over the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, Dream Demon is an intriguing prospect that almost didn’t get made.”

In 1980s London, sensitive and resolutely buttoned-up Sloane Ranger Diana (Jemma Redgrave in her cinema debut) is about to marry Oliver (Mark Greenstreet), a handsome hero of the recent Falklands War. Their wedding gift from Diana’s parents is a house in North London – a house that doesn’t seem quite right to Diana, who is becomingly increasingly plagued by disturbing dreams and two sleazy reporters (Auf Wiedersehen Pet’s Jimmy Nail and Timothy Spall) eager for the inside story of her love life with Oliver. When Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite), a punky, straight-talking American, turns up on Diana’s doorstep claiming to have a connection to the house, the pair begin to investigate her background and uncover some truths about the psychological unease at the heart of Diana’s own subconscious.

Dream Demon is an interesting, though not necessarily successful, film whose origins go back to a screenplay written by three Time Out journalists, David Pirie, Richard Raynor and Radio On’s director Chris Petit, who was also slated to direct. Inspired by American horror like Nightmare on Elm Street, whose horror surrounding dreams and reality this film very much imitates, and casting a satirical eye over the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, Dream Demon is an intriguing prospect that almost didn’t get made. What with one thing and another, the project’s founding fathers all walked away, leaving only producer Chris Webster in situ. Webster, eager to make a go of what would be his first producing credit, took the screenplay to British-based American director Harley Cokeliss, who  agreed to helm the picture and completed a final draft of the screenplay alongside Christopher Wicking.

The end result is a (low budget) film that is very much of its time. It’s graphic and blackly comic, wearing its Elm Street and Clive Barker influences on its sleeve. Inevitably with any project that changes hands as often as this did, there’s a lack of cohesion and an air of incomprehensibility to proceedings – who or what exactly is the titular ‘Dream Demon’ anyway? As a result, not everything makes (a lot of) sense as residues of first, second or third drafts cling to the finished film. But, that said, the themes that Dream Demon possesses are genuinely thought-provoking. Admittedly, naming your central character Diana is a bit on the nose satirically, but the context of what we now know of that royal marriage combined with the film’s exploration of the character’s innate repression, her virginity and an inherently feminine anxiety over her impending nuptials, makes for a satisfying psychological horror whose scares are deeply allegorical.

Like her royal namesake, Redgrave’s Diana is hounded by the press in the shape of investigative journalist Paul (Nail) and his obnoxious photographer Peck (Spall). It is the latter’s crude baiting of Diana’s sexual inexperience (“How big’s his wanger?” he asks in between door-stepping, frenzied snaps to her utter incomprehension) that leads to him (or at least a grotesque version of him – rapidly putrefying and gorging on disgusting meals) lurking in the basement of the house that her dreams repeatedly take her too, because it is sex that she is most afraid of.

Likewise, the other major concern that she is too afraid to confront – whether Oliver really does love her – is subsequently confirmed when Paul’s muckraking discovers that he is only marrying her for her money, as his coldly arrogant aristocratic family is on their uppers (a plot twist that skewers both the House of Windsor and the Thatcherite establishment-led consensus that the Falklands was a just war). As another fear is thus brought to the surface, the underlying consciousness sees a hideous version of Paul appear in her dreams, teaming up once more with his snapper to terrorise Diana in the blurred lines between nightmarish fantasy and reality that the house seems to exist upon.

There’s also the mystery of just what connects Jenny to the house. Jenny has recently learned that she was in fact born in the UK and was brought up in the house that will become Diana and Oliver’s marital home, but why this period of her life has been blocked out she does not know. Could the vision of the man in flames and the stricken, angelic child that Diana sees in her nightmares have something to do with it? A bond develops between the pair that doesn’t just rely on the common ground they share in the house. There’s a genuine friendship here that is a strong and successful element of the film (especially when you consider how inherently chauvinist so many horrors actually are) but there’s also a sense, an indication, that there could be something more…

Is their link somehow psychic – after all Diana’s subconsciousness reveal just what Jenny has blanked out of her formative years, the house  containing the horror within its very brickwork; like Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, the screenplay seems to suggest that the hidden trauma has manifested itself as a negative energy that has been absorbed into the home – or is her repression merely an indication that she hasn’t explored her sexuality at any length to realise she may be a lesbian and that Jenny may be the one? Cokeliss doesn’t labour either point and certainly doesn’t wrap the latter up in a neat bow, but the suggestion of something Sapphic is arguably there between this seemingly chalk and cheese pair.

Wrapping the whole thing up in a neat bow leads me to this Arrow release. The original theatrical release was hampered by a series of decisions out of its control and Dream Demon promptly fell into obscurity. Long forgotten by all but Cokeliss, the director has spent some time over the years trying to locate the original negatives. This release has been beautifully restored and digitised by the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme. It looks wonderful, making the most of Ian Wilson’s excellent cinematography and the eerily chilling, evocative soundscapes of Be-Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson.

The release also afforded Cokeliss the opportunity to create a ‘director’s cut’, though I must admit I prefer the original cut. It’s the wrapping things up in a neat bow thing again – Cokeliss’ director’s cut differs in only one respect really, it excises the final scene which reveals the fates of Peck and Paul. I understand why he chose to do it as he believes the film works better concluding with the story of its two female protagonists but, without it, a film that already struggles to make much sense at times makes even less.

Of course, one thing a British horror might have over many exploitative quickies made stateside is a classiness when it comes to the casting. Dream Demon is no exception. As well as the cast I have already mentioned, the film also boasts Nickolas Grace as a figure from Jenny’s past and Susan Fleetwood as Diana’s therapist and both perform well. Redgrave may have been relatively green when it came to appearing before the camera but her natural talent, with all the credentials her dynastic family possess, shines through. Her Diana is suitably Sloaney, a trifle horsey, but she is beautiful and fragile and above all easily sympathetic.

Kudos too the the production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski who goes for the typically Laura Ashley aesthetic so favoured by yuppies of that era and can’t resist putting a Kate Bush LP front and centre in Diana’s record collection. Casting Redgrave alongside the radically different Wilhoite works in the film’s favour, allowing something harder and more wry for her to bounce off and it was a decision that probably helped Redgrave find her feet during the production too. Lastly the double-act of Nail and Spall was already well-defined in two series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and it’s a joy to see them riff along again here. Spall in particular is having a ball with the increasingly OTT aspects of his nightmarish character.

If I have one complaint with this Arrow release it’s that it seems that the deleted scenes from the film could not be found or incorporated into the special features. It’s a shame as an interview with Cokeliss reveals that a subplot involving a private detective hired by Diana and Jenny and played by My Beautiful Laundrette’s Gordon Warnecke was filmed but discarded because it felt his presence detracted from their own agency. I’m inclined to agree, but I’d have liked to have seen the scenes nonetheless. Also missing are sequences featuring Diana at work teaching deaf children at nursery school – a nod to Princess Diana’s own job as a classroom assistant.

It may not be the discovery of a forgotten horror classic, but Dream Demon is definitely worthy of a new appreciation. Alongside Saxon Logan’s fifty-minute horror Sleepwalker it’s a rare example of 80s British cinema mixing satirical social observation with chills and thrills.

‘Dream Demon’ (1988) was released on Blu-ray from Arrow Films in June 2020 (FCD1963), RRP £24.99.

Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.

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