In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week we look at British surrealist horror, Dream Demon
Writing this column, we’ve covered a lot of cinema, but I find a few countries tend to get the majority of the praise when it comes to cult cinema. Japan’s respect for straight to video cinema has led to a booming cult movie industry with great export and cache, a cult movie scene out of which we’ve been lucky enough to cover Terra Formars, Versus, and Cure. Italy has been a bastion for cut film fans for decades and we’ve covered films like Cut & Run, Opera, & A Cat In The Brain, and America with its grindhouse circuit has led to some of the most enduring cult film careers, Britain is an underrated site for cult film glory. Now while we have covered films such as A Field In England and Cockneys Vs Zombies, those are recent offerings, but while filmmakers like Argento and Craven were running amok, there were people making films every bit as weird, low budget, and inventive, but with a distinctly British air.
This brings us nicely onto 1988’s Dream Demon, which is, even with my pretty broad experience in cult cinema, is handily one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.
The first thing I’d ever seen from this movie is also the first proper scene, (there’s a brief wordless scenario as the opening credits role), where our lead character, Diana, leaves her husband at the altar and, returning a strike, punches his head clean off, to a spurt of blood straight out of the offerings of Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. The image of the blood stained wedding dress is particularly potent. This is revealed to be a dream, and her fiancé is somehow very understanding, at least on the face of it. He later turns out to be somewhat of a cad. What we don’t expect though is that her dreams get increasingly more real, and tangible, and reality and dreams starts to fold in on itself, we also don’t expect how successfully satirical and sapphic this movie is.
At this point it’s important to acknowledge the proximity this movie has to the Princess Diana debacle. For a start, our lead character is called Diana, but she is also getting married into a family with a lot of media connection to something very royal and proper and British and unimpeachable, being a veteran in a very controversial war that a certain sect of our great nation wants to white wash for the sake of maintaining a very plastic and artificial form of nationalism and patriotism. In the same way, in many ways Diana exposed what was wrong with the way we look at and relate to our own monarchy, and the press vilified her for it, and to this day we’re trying to whitewash that very parasitic eating of a monarchical critique as its own parasitic eating of such critique. One of the ways this happens is though our institution of tabloid press, for whom this shit is their bread and butter, in a ways only too relevant today with the Harry & Megan debacle today, in which problems with the way we as a culture relate to the monarchy have been quite inarguably evidenced and in the constant attempts to close down this conversation, all nuance has been totally expunged in an attempt to maintain the invulnerability and infallibility of the monarchy. One of the ways this happens it through the beautiful institution of our wonderful tabloid press. Unflatteringly but maybe honestly portrayed in this film by Timothy Spall and Jimmy Nail. Timothy Small was a long way off his Secrets & Lies breakout role but you can see the origins in his performance here. Because the film’s marriage is one of low level media interest, Spall and Nail pursue Diana only for her to be rescued by an American lady who has a strange connection to this house, and thus… weird shit begins.
Now it’s important to say first and foremost, that this was really intentionally a rip off of A Nightmare On Elm Street, and also a bit of Hellraiser but the filmmakers had only seen the trailer at the time, and those aspects are inarguable there. It’s got a flip on it in that the dangers are reversed. In A Nightmare On Elm Street, an awful person is killed and thus he is able to make it so that if you die in your dreams you die in real life, whereas in Dream Demon, a woman, (Diana), has a situation where if you die in her dream, (not your own), then you die in real life, (this is actually set up brilliantly with almost no exposition), which leads to an awful person dying and then said person terrorises Diana’s own dreams. So it’s less a direct rip off, per se, to me, but a remix, and it adds a lot that’s new. For a start, as beautifully helmed as A Nightmare On Elm Street and Hellraiser are, and they are, but Jesus is this film’s cinematography on another level entirely, the surrealist visuals are so majestically realised it’s honestly transcendent, and the film is truly of dreamspace in a way neither of those films begin to approach and can only really be approached by filmmakers like Maya Deren, Alexandr Hackenschmied, Guy Maddin, Luis Buñuel, and David Lynch. There are whole stretches of half an hour and longer where you are not meant to be able to tell what is real or what’s not, and it’s evoked with such specificity it feels ripped from the pages of ‘Sandman’. It’s worth remembering the director, Harley Cokeliss, directed an acclaimed short adaptation of ‘Crash’ by J. G. Ballard starring the man himself. Also, unlike those other films, this film feels very ‘of Britain’. Now, we’ve already talked about the contemporary relevance to Britain’s politics but it also utilizes the sense of its Britishness superbly. I look at these streets and I feel like I know them, like I’ve visited friends living on these streets in Greenwich, Bexleyheath, or Bloomsbury. Also, Hellraiser is a film that went out of its way to sell Britain as America, to its detriment in my opinion, but not only is this a film where I know the locations but the British accents feel unaltered and not ‘movie British’, when these people speak I hear real people, and not what people expect British people to sound like in cinema. This to me separates it also in its own field. Also, the whole thing looks like a Kate Bush music video, and nothing can be better, nor more British. Kate Bush actually grew up very near to where I’m staying right now, so I feel a sense of ownership over that.
It’s also worth noting as the film goes on Timothy Spall gets more and more goopy and gross and the effects to accomplish that are astonishing.
So, it somewhat goes without saying at this point that I love this movie. I think it’s superbly acted, visually daring, narratively invented, and poignant, and prescient, and very gay. I recommend it highly!