Nightmares in a Damaged Brain

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981)

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain first published by Movie Gazette, 21 July, 2005, and here revised and altered

Meet George Tatum (Baird Stafford). Suffering from schizophrenia, amnesia, homicidal tendencies, dream fixation and seizures, he is “a dangerous psychotic”, and prime suspect for the recent sexual mutilation and murder of a Brooklyn family. Yet after undergoing an experimental drug therapy in a New York psychiatric institute, he is released back into the streets – only to vanish. Leaving a bloody trail behind him, George heads cross-country for Daytona Beach, Florida, to the home of single mother Susan Temper (Sharon Smith) and her three children. The youngest, nine-year old C.J. (C.J. Cooke), keeps trying to tell his family that a strange man has been prowling around – but nobody will believe him, as C.J. is an inveterate liar, cruel prankster, and far from normal himself. Yet soon what links George both to his slaughter-filled nightmares and to the Temper household will come rampaging out of the family closet – with a twist.

Like its principal character, Nightmare in a Damaged Brain (aka Nightmare, Schizo, Blood Splash) suffers from an extreme crisis of identity. For the most (and best) part, it is a taut, at times demented Freudian thriller where, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Mario Bava‘s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go In The House (1979) and William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) – to name just a few of the films which have clearly influenced it – a troubled man is tragically doomed to keep reenacting a primal scene of trauma from his childhood which he strives fully to remember. The film boasts the sort of exploitation materials (a skimpily clad, or else unclad, babysitter, and a series of gory cat-and-mouse set-pieces) that were to become a staple of the Eighties slasher genre – and yet there is something truly disorienting in the way dreams are overlapped with reality, and the past with the present, that enables Nightmare in a Damaged Brain to reproduce in the viewer at least an approximation of the experience described by its title.

Such cognitive dissonance is also buried deep in the structure of this film of two halves, or of two split hemispheres. For all George’s murderous misadventures are framed by a bizarre subplot in which his psychiatrist (William Milling) and a man with a cigar (John Watkins) discuss the missing patient. Their references to George as part of a secret psychopharmacological experiment with potential military applications, though tantalising, go absolutely nowhere, dropped no sooner than they are raised – as though writer/director Romano Scavolini had started out with an interest in Cronenberg-style conspiracy theory, but then forgot all about it by page ten of the screenplay. The laboratory in which the pair meets looks like the cheap set that it is, their endless exposition is either entirely irrelevant, or else just repeats unnecessarily what is already clear from the rest of the film, and they deliver lines which would not be out of place in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (“you believed in these drugs, and you rebuilt this man, and you did put him back out on the street, but now he’s out there killing people – and we can’t have that”). All this is far removed from the relative realism of the scenes involving George’s stalking.

Perhaps we are meant to suppose, as is not at all impossible or even implausible, that these lab scenes take place entirely in George’s paranoid imagination. They certainly have little place in the rest of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain – and indeed, while one hesitates to use the word ‘cut’ regarding a film that has for decades suffered at the hands of the British censor, if these ludicrously tone-destroying scenes were lobotomised wholesale from Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, the focus would be kept on the creepiness of newcomers Stafford’s and Cooke’s performances, while there would be little real damage done to the film’s overall integrity, at least as an entirely by-numbers slasher. Yet Scavolini’s feature is never merely that. Rather these scenes, precisely by seeming so out of place, only add to the unbalanced, unhinged feel of a horror that, though in part seemingly fitting into a well-defined subgenre, is in fact deeply unconventional, even schizophrenic in its divided narratives, so that we too are made to share the disorienting nightmare.

strap: Romano Scavolini’s disorienting, gory psychokiller giallo puts us in the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic

Anton Bitel