Stephen King's "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" Mini-Series Reviewed

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I recently caught up with the eight episodes of Stephen King’s mini-series from late 2006, Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Based on an earlier collection of short stories by the same name, it was recently released on DVD in both a standard version and a more expensive collector’s boxed set. I went into this viewing with mixed expectations. Though I believe the quality of King adaptations show improvement with recent projects like Secret Window and 1408, it’s difficult to forget the legion of cheesy, low grade TV movies that appeared in the ‘80s and ‘90s. After viewing all eight episodes, however, I am pleased to say the upward trend of King productions continues with Nightmares and Dreamscapes. I dare say some of the stories blew away some (but not all) of the mini-movies from Masters of Horror.

Generally, faithfulness to the original tales of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, along with creative cinematic effects, make this one a winner. Innovation, as expected, marks out the best episodes of this series, and may set a precedent for future installments of Masters of Horror or any other dark televised experiments to come. That said, the old habit of many series to produce installments of variable quality remains in Nightmares. Fortunately, the divergence isn’t as wild as in others, but for this reason, it’s still useful to examine each episode separately:

  • “Battleground:” In this first piece, an assassin becomes hunted by animate toy soldiers who attack him in his own apartment. The most interesting aspect about this one is the lack of spoken dialogue throughout the entire episode. The human figure is forced to suffer alone in silence, a fitting cinematic tool to mirror his fear. So effective, in fact, that the producers are able to pull off sufficient quality to make an otherwise silly threat seem real and terrifying.
  • “Crouch End:” Crouch End is a legendary backwater just outside London proper, a place where thin spots to another dimension exist. An ignorant American couple stumble upon this place, and quickly find themselves trapped. The madness of the other place intersecting Crouch End was well portrayed, aided by quick glimpses of the monstrous and fluid blurring techniques appropriate to a dimension always in flux. The husband and wife, however, left something to be desired. Their fear came through accurately enough, but they definitely maintained an air of ignorant clumsiness typical of Americans in foreign places. Best of all, this was the most Lovecraftian story of the eight. Explicit references to Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and others pop up alongside the degenerate residents of Crouch End and a few tentacled monstrosities.
  • “Umney’s Last Case:” A stereotypical private eye from the late 1930s rudely realizes his world is fictional, following a visit from the writer who controls his every move. Through mechanics that are never really explained—apparently a magical laptop—the author then proceeds to take over Umney’s life in exchange for his own guilty existence of a cold wife and dead son. With predictable characters and life situations, this one is no better than a moderate quality episode of “The Twilight Zone.” However, the meta-fictional twist at the end is delicious.
  • “The End of the Whole Mess:” A tale that strongly pulls at apocalyptic sci-fi roots comes off as one of the most interesting here. A film maker records his last hour, discussing how the end of the world came about as a result of his brother. Clearly, this brother is no ordinary boy—and the first half of the piece launches a detailed, sometimes heartwarming biography of the genius’ life. After living as a modern Renaissance Man and coming to hate the cruelty of mankind, the young man makes a startling discovery in a small town’s water, and seeks to introduce it to the rest of the world to end war. From here, this episode becomes a rather predictable story of unintended consequences and the failure of science as savior. It still makes for good storytelling, and comes off as politically relevant through allusions to 9/11 and other recent events.
  • “The Road Virus Heads North:” A middle aged writer discovers a bizarre painting from a disturbed young man who recently killed himself. This painting, “The Road Virus Heads North,” is right out of “The Twilight Zone.” And I mean the mostly inferior ‘80s one, not the classic original. Throw in an indestructible, self-changing painting which summons up the murderous spirit of the artist, and you have what I found the poorest installment of the series.
  • “The Fifth Quarter:” This episode is a decent enough piece about convicts and the ultimate heist, but clashes with the other seven episodes since it contains nothing truly extraordinary, supernatural, or horrifying. Its protagonist is a recently released convict, who goes after a treasure hinted at by his mortally wounded cohort one night. Interesting rival criminals, after the same treasure, are encountered throughout his journey, but little else. Expect a passable adaptation of crime or prison film, but nothing really horror-like here.
  • “Autopsy Room Four:” A man being dumped on the table, fearfully mumbling to himself, gets things off to a ripping start in “Autopsy Room Four.” As it turns out, he soon makes the hideous conclusion he is about to be dissected in an autopsy. The episode then becomes a tense standoff, as the idle man seeks to remember how he got there, and to move something to prove he is still alive. This one is effective because it leaves the viewer guessing—both at the man’s condition, and whether or not he will save himself in time before the grisly procedure begins. Overall, a fine piece in the historic tradition of stories about burial alive.
  • “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band:” Another bumbling couple, as seen in “Crouch End,” wanders the back roads of an isolated region in their car. Eventually, they come upon a strange little town called Rock ‘n Roll Heaven. The town lives up to its name, and it quickly becomes evident dead rockers who have lost none of their passion inhabit this weird place. Heaven for Elvis, Hendrix, and Buddy Holly, however, has a hellish side for tourists—they become automatic targets for the old artists, who are perpetually seeking to expand their afterlife audience for the shows they put on. Definitely the most fun piece of the entire series, and a good note to end it on.
Nightmares and Dreamscapes is a series that will beam memorable scenes filled with horror, weirdness, and humor into viewers' minds for years to come. Not just because it is a Stephen King product, but because it dares to innovate where many televised horror series falter.

-Grim Blogger

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