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Romano Scavolini's Nightmare (better known under its UK title Nightmare in a Damaged Brain) has a history of controversy and censorship. The video was banned during the "Video Nasty" debacle in Great Britain and remained so until 2005. Additionally, Tom Savini, who is credited with the special effects, has publicly denied that he worked on the film, although there is some evidence to suggest he served as a consultant to effects artist Ed French. Further, the fact that Nightmare has had spotty availability on VHS and no availability on Region 1 DVD has lent the film an air of foreboding mystery. Don't let any preassigned notions about Nightmare deceive you. While it's a worthy film on several levels, it suffers from Scavolini trying too hard to give the typically juvenile slasher subgenre an adult sensibility.
George Tatum (Baird Stafford) is a murderous schizophrenic who has violent nightmares about the murder of his parents. Subjected to an experimental psychological treatment, he is released from the mental hospital into the sleazy atmosphere of downtown New York City (long before Guiliani cleaned it up). George doesn't take long to regress back to his murderous habits, fleeing to Florida to stalk a single mother (Sharon Smith) and her three kids, one of whom is turning into a little psycho himself.
One area where Nightmare does not disappoint is the gore. While the majority of the blood is limited to the beginning and end of the film, what we do get is particularly gruesome. In particular, the brutal double slaying that comprises George's recurring nightmare is a parade of plasma, a spurting decapitation coupled with an axe to the skull. The technical skill with which these effects are realized is impressive; it's not difficult to imagine that Savini had at least some influence on their production.
Another standout feature of Nightmare is the character of George Tatum. He's not a remorseless automaton, slicing and dicing without feeling or personality. As portrayed by Stafford, George is a student of the Norman Bates school of serial murderers -- a haunted man defined by the death of his mother and cursed with a desire to kill. He expresses regret at every murder (to the point of actually apologizing to a woman as he slits her throat) and seems distraught at his inability to stop killing. When the film is focusing on the tragic aspects of George, it works well.
Nightmare works less well as a member of the "faceless" slasher genre. After we've gotten to know George, the film switches its focus almost entirely to the family he stalks as George becomes more of a spectre working in the background. There's a few really good knocks here, the best of which is the moment when the single mom, Susan Temper, is taking Polaroids of her house and notices a figure in the window. Soon after we're treated to a well-composed sequence where Susan and her boyfriend search the house, while George, hiding in a closet, desperately tries to halt his murderous impulses long enough for them to go away. Most of the scenes, however, focus on nattering domestic issues and the supposed creepiness of Susan's little boy (he comes off as mischievous rather than unnerving). This section of the film doesn't gain any real momentum until the last twenty minutes, when George's psychosis goes to 11.
The subplot about George's "reconditioning" is completely unnecessary and frequently confusing. Reportedly, the entire film was inspired by a New York Times article Scavolini read about how the CIA was doing drug experiments with schizophrenics. It's an interesting angle, but at some point in production, Nightmare's focus shifted to George's inner turmoil and the Temper's skewed family dynamic. Unfortunately, no one had the wisdom at the time to yank the reconditioning angle, which has become extraneous to the film. Instead, we are stuck with a lot of poorly scripted scenes involving George's psychiatrist and the "Man with Cigar" (a whiny guy in a trenchcoat who apparently runs the treatment program) trying to track down the AWOL George. If you excised everything related to this subplot, you'd come out with a better, leaner film that suffers no undue loss in the story department. Unfortunately, whenever one of the reconditioning-related scenes show up, Nightmare slows to a lugubrious pace.
Also, be forewarned that when I say that Scavolini tries to bring an adult sensibility to the slasher genre, I'm including everything the word "adult" entails. Nightmare displays a certain maturity in the way George's pathos is handled, but it also enjoys a good roll in the sleaze. I'm not talking about the pubescent "tee-hee boobies" mentality of other slasher films made in the same era. Certain early sections of the film take us in the bowels of New York porn emporiums, and light BDSM play forms a significant part of one of the major subplots. Much of it is unnecessary, but unnecessary sex and nudity can be an enticement rather than a detractor; your enjoyment of certain sections of Nightmare will depend on your side of that particular divide.
Apparently, Nightmare will be coming out on DVD from Code Red at some point in the future; Baird Stafford and makeup artist Cleve Hall have recorded a commentary track for it. It should be fascinating to hear what went into making this sometimes, dare I say, schizophrenic film. It's one of those slashers that every fan of the subgenre should see at least once. All flaws aside, Scavolini's alternately sleazy and mature approach makes Nightmare an original in a sea of Friday the 13th clones.