I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Dreamscape: Nightmares from the 1980’s

by Anthony Galli
Jan. 18, 2015

Why are these people having such terrible dreams? Dreamscape reminds one that if somebody with a very strong European accent asks you to psychically infiltrate the dreams of strangers, ask why. And then, politely, say no. And always-always-use your powers for good, not evil.

Dreamscape has everything a movie from 1984 needs; premonitions of nuclear annihilation, the up-and-coming, always smiling All-American Dennis Quaid, evil meddling government bureaucrats, occasional cheesy dialogue, synthesizer soundtrack (by the brilliant Maurice Jarre; Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Hot Shots!), Amtrak, gratuitous love story. There’s even a scene where Dennis Quaid wears his sweater over his Izod polo shirt; how 1980’s yuppie scum is that?

However, one look at the official poster would tell you almost everything you need to know about the movie, except, the poster does not adequately reveal the depths of terror that occur in Dreamscape. This movie is actually very scary in parts.

The story follows young psychic Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) as he becomes involved in top secret dream research being conducted by Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) and his trusty assistant Jane (Kate Capshaw). Novotny refers to Gardner as “an authentic genius…exceptionally gifted,” which is interesting, because most people wouldn’t know what “an authentic genius” is in the world of telekinesis…like, can Gardner move buildings or something? We are only shown film of him moving a small metal ball around, and even that isn’t too impressive. However, if Max von Sydow declares Alex Gardner a genius, I’m buying!

The plot thickens as Gardner discovers that he is being used as a tool for a government mind control program that trains psychics to be assassins. Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) is the head of “Covert Intelligence,” an organization not unlike the CIA, and he is scheming to infiltrate The President’s dreams and assassinate him while he is sleeping. The President, played by Green Acre’s Eddie Albert, with a lovable, Reaganesque befuddlement, has been waking up in the middle of the night from terrifying dreams, convinced that he will be the cause of the nuclear annihilation of the world. Covert Intelligence has planted false memories in his head, and The President is not aware that his thoughts are being tampered with.

Dreamscape is similar to John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate in theme, although not so much in execution, which doesn’t mean Dreamscape is a bad film. It is actually quite good for a 1980’s Cold War thriller. There is, however, less at stake in Dreamscape than in the Cold War paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate. When The Manchurian Candidate was originally released in 1962, America was at the height of Cold War fever, and all of the brainwashing techniques demonstrated in the film could have been true. America did not know. As far as the country was concerned, we had enemies who would stop at nothing to spread their propaganda around the world.

Dreamscape places the responsibility for brainwashing United States citizens squarely on the shoulders of the American government. “Covert Intelligence” has become so brazen that it is meddling in the consciousness of The President himself. There is actually a modicum of truth in this scenario, as the CIA is documented as experimenting with mind control techniques as far back as the 1940’s. By the 1980’s, it should come as no surprise that the CIA could actually infiltrate our dreams and direct us to do their bidding.

Dreamscape, however, is over the top where The Manchurian Candidate was subtle and oblique. Remember that Salvador Dali scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound? Well, the nightmares in Dreamscape are scarier. These are truly terrifying visions from deep within the subconscious, and it is interesting to note that the original Nightmare on Elm Street, another argument for not going to sleep, was released the same year as Dreamscape.

Whether or not Dreamscape director Joseph Ruben referenced the Hitchcock film consciously, or subconsciously, he did, in fact, pay homage to the great director by naming the college conducting the mind control experiments Thornhill University, after, of course, the Cary Grant character Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest. If we remember, in North by Northwest Roger Thornhill is confused for a government agent and pursued by foreign spies, most notably in a small airplane in the middle of nowhere.

And perhaps, just perhaps, the train scene at the end of the film, and its dream sequence in the middle, pays tribute to the train action in North by Northwest. You know Hitchcock, with all of his subliminal trains through tunnels subconscious imagery. Ruben also names the building where the experiments are taking place on campus Bates Hall, another reference to The Great One and his film Psycho

Cute, right? Well, to show what a clever lad the director is, he pays homage to an even more obscure source in a very subtle way in the cafeteria sandwich scene between Alex Gardner and dream assassin Tommy Ray Glatman (all assassins have three names, don’t they?) One may notice the camera set-up emphasizes a two-shot of the faces very similar to numerous scenes in Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 Persona. What makes this bit of cinematic hocus pocus worthy of attention, and a slight chuckle, is that Max von Sydow collaborated with Bergman on so many of his best films. Clever.

Further, Dreamscape displays a little more humor by having Dennis Quaid play the “Love Theme from Dreamscape” on his saxophone while practicing in his apartment, only to have it play on the soundtrack for real in the next scene. Also, pay attention to the race track announcer’s commentary as Quaid is being chased through the bleachers after the horse race. Subtle.

And, herein, is one of the major problems with Dreamscape, but also one of its most endearing qualities. The film is not sure what it wants to be, yet…there is something for everyone. For example, is it a situation comedy? A love story? A spy thriller? Science fiction? Horror? Kung Fu-ploitation?

It’s all there, along with glowing eyed devil dogs, and Kate Capshaw beating on an old woman’s chest long before she became Mrs. Steven Spielberg. And George Wendt, the Norm guy from Cheers, rocking it as a conspiracy theorist!

If telekinesis, parapsychology, and shape-shifting evil things are for you, perhaps Dreamscape is the date movie you may have overlooked.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.