For people of a certain age, 80s films are almost a genre in themselves. In truth, the 80s was as diverse a time for cinema as any decade but when someone of my generation says “I fancy watching an 80s film”, you know damn well they’re not talking about Koyaanisqatsi. They mean the big, colourful, outlandish, popcorn-crunching rollercoasters, the less timeless the better, and if Spielberg can be involved in some way that’s a bonus. I’m as much a sucker for these films as anyone but there is a clear difference between the ones you love because they’re great films and the ones you love because you’ve loved them since you were 8 years old. And once you’ve seen all the major classics, the Indys, the McFlys (not The Goonies, that’s a definite 8-years-old one!), it’s easy to become a tad cynical when approaching ones you haven’t seen because the question you ask immediately is ‘why?’ Why haven’t you seen this particular film in the near thirty years since that dayglo decade drew to a close? Sure, you’ll always find a handful of adoring fans online but whether you join their number will probably depend on whether the film is actually any good or whether it just reminds a handful of people of those specific feelings you have during childhood that, let’s face it, you never quite manage to recapture.
The sentiments of that opening paragraph certainly governed my consumption and relative levels of enjoyment of lesser-known 80s films during my 20s. But when I stopped looking for that elusive feeling of waiting excitedly all afternoon to stick on that hired VHS of Innerspace, I began to enjoy even the lesser 80s films a whole lot more, not always for how they made me feel but for what they told me about the time and place they were made, how they fit into the broader history of American cinema and why that tiny cult clung so dedicatedly to a film everyone else had either trashed or overlooked. So when Second Sight’s new releases of two 80s films I’d never seen came up for grabs, I seized them enthusiastically with both hands, safe in the knowledge that I would probably enjoy them on some level. Here’s how my adventure panned out:
Director: Steve Barron
Screenplay: Rusty Lemorande
Producers: Richard Branson, Larry DeWaay, Rusty Lemorande
Starring: Lenny Von Dohlen, Virginia Madsen, Bud Cort
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 112 mins
In an age in which computers are no longer a novelty, generations of people have a hard time imagining the thrill of seeing one on screen in the 80s. My family didn’t get our own home computer until the late 90s and in the lead-up to that momentous event I remember being thrilled by the primitive electronics of WarGames, D.A.R.Y.L. and even that crummy ice-wizard game at the beginning of Big. These windows to our technological past are often criticised by reviewers for dating their respective films but I still find it fascinating and endearing to witness these awkward, angular prototypes being treated as status symbols and worshipped for their plethora of pixelated possibilities. This angle is certainly tapped into in Electric Dreams, a film I’d heard of only through its hit single of the same name by Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder. Electric Dreams envisages a computer with the ability to perform tasks far beyond the capabilities of such a machine in 1984 but this aspect of futuristic fantasy is now probably lost on those viewing the film retrospectively who will see only plausible primitive forerunners of actual functions available to them. But Electric Dreams’ prominently retro look to modern audiences is, to a viewer like me, more a cause for celebration than derision.
Electric Dreams tells the rather thin story of Miles Harding (Lenny Von Dohlen), an architect who is working on his concept for an earthquake-proof brick (a plot wrinkle that quickly gets all-but-forgotten, save for a brief, almost apologetic reference at the end). In order to organise himself, Miles reluctantly buys a personal computer which he quickly becomes obsessed with, purchasing numerous add-ons which allow the computer to control his household appliances and communicate through a basic speech synthesiser. However, when he attempts to download the entire contents of a mainframe computer at his workplace, the computer overheats and, in a panicked attempt to cool it down, Miles douses it with champagne. In one of the 80s’ most brazen just-go-with-it moments, the bubbles in the champagne somehow imbue the computer with sentience, after which he identifies himself by the name Edgar. Miles uses Edgar’s skills at composing music to woo his cellist neighbour Madeline (Virginia Madsen) but when Edgar begins to develop a fractured understanding of human relationships, he too falls for Madeline and his jealousy proves a disruptive and dangerous influence.
Electric Dreams doesn’t so much walk a fine line between inspired and ridiculous as leap frenziedly across that line with unrestrained gaiety. The premise of a love triangle involving a computer was explored with greater focus in Spike Jonze’s acclaimed Her, a film often likened to Electric Dreams but which shares only a thematic hook. Electric Dreams instead opts for an inconsistent, sometimes mildly disturbing and sometimes batshit crazy tone that gives the impression that Rusty Lemorande’s screenplay was written as they went along. Plot elements the viewer has every reason to believe will be followed up drop out of the story completely (the aforementioned brick) and characters outside of the central triangle seem to be there for no reason whatsoever. A slightly bewildered Maxwell Caulfield plays a non-entity called Bill who is less human than Edgar, which we may be tempted to believe is the whole point were there any kind of indication from the film itself that this were the case. The major problem with Electric Dreams is the central performance of Lenny Von Dohlen as Miles, which mirrors the film’s uneven tone in its own bland intangibility. Von Dohlen is almost completely flat, which to be fair is part of the oddball Miles’s personality, but in scenes where he is required to emote, such as an excruciatingly poorly staged scene at a concert in which squirming embarrassment is disastrously overplayed, he remains coldly monotone, making the central romance hard to root for.
So why did I enjoy Electric Dreams so much? Well, it does have a few things going for it. Virginia Madsen, in only her second film appearance and two decades before her Oscar-nominated turn in Sideways, is effervescent as Madeline, making her attraction to Miles all the more baffling, but the best performance is fittingly given by the electronic star of the show. As the voice of Edgar, Bud Cort continued to indulge his penchant for taking deeply unusual roles. From his roles in Robert Altman’s MASH and Brewster McCloud through his ace star turn in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (my favourite film of all time, incidentally) and his comatose cameo as God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, Cort is a man associated with the deeply and often troublingly weird. This flair for the freakish makes Cort the perfect Edgar and, far from the cutesy or cartoonishly malevolent voices you might expect a film to assign to an evil computer, Cort delivers a finely judged, if electronically enhanced, performance that bounces between whimsical, eerie, childlike and genuinely terrifying.
On the face of it, Electric Dreams is a bad film but it is a whole that manages to offer so many appealing, if awkwardly sewn-together, parts that the experience of watching it leaves you smiling a slightly crooked smile. Among these enjoyable elements are the aforementioned performances of Madsen and Cort and a handful of genuinely amusing moments (when Miles starts up his computer he accidentally types his name as ‘Moles’ and is referred to as such by the machine for the duration of the picture) but the film’s major trump card is its superb soundtrack. Pop music soundtracks were big business in the 80s and Electric Dreams, alongside Pretty in Pink, can comfortably lay claim to having one of the best. Director Steve Barron had made his name in music videos, with Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and A-Ha’s Take On Me being two of his most famous works, and Barron’s intention with Electric Dreams was to create a film that used the aesthetics of 80s music videos to create a feature length entertainment. That the result was somewhat patchy was perhaps inevitable but it also means that the film is liberally peppered with virtuoso visual moments accompanied by extraordinary music. As well as the famous title track (one of the finest synthpop hits of the era) and cracking contributions from the likes of Jeff Lyne and Heaven 17, Electric Dreams also benefits from Giorgio Moroder’s superb scoring, especially in a scene in which Madeline performs a cello piece accompanied by Edgar’s improvised electropop (the track appears on the soundtrack album under the title The Duel).
For all its flaws, when I think back to watching Electric Dreams it is that superb, uplifting soundtrack and its accompanying visual images that spring to mind. Like a musical that is strong on songs but weak on plot, Electric Dreams only sags on the few occasions when music can’t be heard and its mad stab at a plot takes centre stage. For some, Electric Dreams was a great premise which fell short of its potential and, while I can’t argue with that contention, oddly enough there’s no part of me that wants to change it in any way either. That would somehow make this invigorating mess less unique.
Director: Joseph Ruben
Screenplay: David Loughery, Chuck Russell, Joseph Ruben
Producers: Chuck Russell, Bruce Cohn Curtis
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Kate Capshaw, Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 99 mins
When I signed up for this 80s double-header of Dream films, I’ll admit Dreamscape was the one I was looking forward to the most. Not because of the plot synopsis, the director or the actors but because of the poster. The poster for Dreamscape, retained as the cover art for Second Sight’s new release of the film, is by the legendary Drew Struzan whose promotional artwork for the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future films is as instantly evocative of 80s film culture as a John Williams score or a Bill Murray quip. The problem here, then, is that Struzan’s poster is just too damn good for the film it’s advertising. Struzan taps into everything that is thrilling about big budget blockbusters and manages to splurge it out onto one eye-delighting canvas but his work is so instantly exciting that when paired with a film that can’t begin to live up to the promise, both the film and the poster end up being devalued. Sure, Struzan has done his job if he’s encouraged us to see the film but if the artwork doesn’t match the tone it must be deemed an artistic failure. In making Dreamscape look like an Indiana Jones adventure, Struzan is way off the mark.
But we can’t hold a film responsible for its inappropriate artwork and while Dreamscape did foster an intense dislike in me for its accompanying artwork, I felt at least partially well disposed towards the film. For all its flaws, Dreamscape boasts an admirable ambition to do something different and exciting with some semblance of restraint. The premise, in which psychic Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid), who uses his powers to place winning bets and score with women, is coerced into taking part in a research project that allows him to enter and manipulate people’s dreams, has been compared to Christopher Nolan’s Inception in much the same way Electric Dreams was compared with Her. Also in much the same way, Dreamscape’s similarities with the later film with which it has drawn comparisons do not go far beyond a superficially related central premise. I was one of the few people who found Nolan’s film a crashing bore so caught up with serving up startling effects that it left little time for the necessary exposition which then had to be delivered on the hoof, with characters babbling away exhaustingly as events unfolded around them. Dreamscape unfortunately suffers from the opposite and, perhaps due to budgetary concerns, seems to be constantly holding back from exploring the world of dreams to which it tantalisingly offers us the keys.
The major problem with Dreamscape is it tries to be too many things at once. A good two-thirds of the film feels like set-up, with Gardner repetitively restating his reluctance to participate and his sexual chemistry with Kate Capshaw’s scientist Dr. Jane DeVries shown only through their instantaneously established habit of standing too close to each other during dialogues. Quaid’s Gardner is a typical male hero of 80s cinema, his leering womanising quietly celebrated beneath unconvincingly implied condemnation, but the script fails to capitalise on our familiarity with this stock type and we end up kicking our heels with him as we wait to finally enter a dream. The restraint Dreamscape shows in only spending about twenty minutes of its runtime in the dreams themselves is to be admired but it also scuppers a film too dull when outside the dreams to really keep us caring. The script’s solution to this problem is to try and make Dreamscape a political thriller as well, introducing Christopher Plummer’s corrupt government official into the mix via a silly plot thread about the President (Eddie Albert) having nightmares inspired by the threat of nuclear war. It’s clear from the moment he turns up that the President of the USA has no logical place in this story but Dreamscape takes the why-the-hell-not approach, slinging him into an already over-seasoned mix. In the first forty minutes alone, I counted about four different scenes ending with an ominous shot of yet another new character watching events from afar. By the time these characters start resurfacing, there’s no time left to do anything other than start bumping them off.
Dreamscape’s failure to deliver on a strong premise does become frustrating but it’s easy to see why the film ultimately went in that direction. Across the course of the film we enter exactly five dreams; one is mere set-up, another is a forced comedy routine about a jealous husband and a third is a sex scene that is more laughable than erotic. That leaves two scenes that deliver on the promise of the film’s advertising, one of which features a scary snakeman and the second of which features a… scary snakeman. Although this reptilian reemergence is explained by the plot, it still feels like the result of a film running short of ideas when it should have infinite possibilities at its fingertips. The snakeman is a cross between a Harryhausen-esque animated figure and an actor in a rubber-suit and, while I love these old-style effects, director Joseph Ruben doesn’t seem to have any confidence in their ability to convince, using quick cuts to stop us being able to properly focus on the beast. Nevertheless, the snakeman remains the main thing most people remember about Dreamscape, perhaps because it’s the only real moment that comes close to delivering on the poster’s promise of a horror-tinged adventure.
Ultimately, Dreamscape squanders a promising cast and premise through an inability to settle down into any one style. Sadly though, I was left with the realisation that even with a greater focus on the dreamworlds, the filmmakers probably didn’t have the means with which to create anything more hallucinatory than the few hazily shot slanting doorframes that stand in for enchantment in the few brief dream sequences we do get. With its numerous threads, Dreamscape isn’t completely tedious but as its feeble Hitchcock-esque comic final scene played out the phrase ‘gallant effort’ was all that came to mind.
Electric Dreams is released on Blu-ray by Second Sight on 31 July 2017. Special features are as follows:
– Is This a Story? – a new interview with director Steve Barron
– Electric Dreaming – New interview with writer/co-producer Rusty Lemorande
– Miles and Madeline – New interviews with stars Lenny Von Dohlen and Virginia Madsen
– Limited edition slipcase with premium spot gloss varnish
– New SDH subtitles for the hearing impaired
Dreamscape is released on Blu-ray, DVD, On-Demand and Download by Second Sight on 31 July 2017. Special features are as follows:
– The Actor’s Journey – Interview with Dennis Quaid
– Dreamscapes and Dreammakers – Retrospective including interviews with cast and crew
– Nightmares and Dreamsnakes – Looking back at the Snakeman with Craig Reardon, David Patrick Kelley and others
– In-depth conversation with producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and co-writer/producer Chuck Russell
-Audio commentary with Bruce Cohn Curtis, David Lougherty and special makeup artist Craig Reardon
– Snakeman Test Footage