Written for Varied Celluloid by Neil Mitchell and he can be contacted: Here

The Plot: George Tatum, a patient in a mental asylum, regularly suffers horrific nightmares linked to a traumatic incident during his childhood. In an effort to modify George’s behaviour and control his psychotic episodes his doctors have used an experimental treatment program.
Outwardly George responds well enough to the treatment to be released back into society, but inwardly George is still tormented by violent flashbacks. A visit to a sleazy sex show is the catalyst for another of George’s episodes, driving him over the edge for good.

Fleeing New York, George passes through South Carolina, where he follows a stranger home from a bar and viciously murders her, kick-starting a brutal killing spree. The increasingly unhinged George moves on to Florida where he becomes obsessed with one particular family who seem to hold some deep significance for him. With the asylum’s doctors and the authorities desperately trying to hunt him down can George be apprehended before the body count rises further?

The Review
Scavolini’s shocker from 1981 is a prototype low budget video nasty: variable acting, flimsy plot, discordant soundtrack, nudity and explicit violence are all present and correct. Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (also known as Nightmare and Blood Splash) became notorious during the moral panic that surrounded the video nasty era of the early 80s. It may not be as excessively gory as other examples of the ‘nasty’ such as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters or William Lustig’s Maniac, but with scenes of sadomasochistic sex, a child murder, graphic violence and a genuinely bleak and unpleasant portrayal of psychological torment it was vilified by the media and various self appointed moral guardians and branded along with a host of other films of it’s ilk as being liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’ impressionable minds.

As with many of the ‘nasties’ Nightmares is relatively tame in comparison to today’s horror movies, the gruelling French torture flick Martyrs or the seemingly endless Saw series for example both far exceed it in terms of brutality and sustained scenes of graphic violence. Nightmares is still strangely watchable though, thanks largely to Baird Stafford’s enthusiastic central performance as George, flipping from quiet introspection via screaming tortured soul to deranged wild eyed killer, and being pretty convincing at all three. When George screams, flips out and even foams at the mouth the effect is pretty unsettling, he’s more than a blank faced, relentless killing machine, his inner conflict gives him more depth and plausibility. The grainy film stock and lo-fi soundtrack, including a theme tune that could (and might have been) lifted straight from a 70s porno, give Nightmares a suitably squalid air. The sequence shot on the streets of one of New York’s sleazier districts, with George wandering past drunks, drug dealers and hookers and taking in various sex shows have a grubby authenticity. With the likes of Caligula and Five Deadly Venoms being advertised on cinema hoardings that he passes George is surrounded and overwhelmed by visual reminders of sex and violence, triggering another of his regular psychotic episodes, Nightmares plays into the fears of the moral majority, both towards movies and the more salacious parts of society in general.

The rudimentary plot is bolstered by the frequent jump cutting and flashbacks to George as a child, who, seeing his father tied up and being slapped around the face in a kinky sex session with a scantily clad lover, takes an axe to them both, so confused and traumatised is he by what he has witnessed. This explanatory sequence is neatly broken up and gradually elongated throughout the film until it is shown in full during the climax, helping to carry Nightmares through its longueurs, of which there are unfortunately far too many. The main problem with Nightmares is that there are long scenes featuring the family George obsesses over that are just padding, and dull padding at that. Whenever George isn’t onscreen Nightmares loses all momentum, the family, whose relevance is revealed in the final scene, are more irritating than interesting, I found myself rooting for George to massacre the whole miserable, argumentative lot of them.

The violence itself is pretty graphic: throat cuts, shotgun blasts, hammer blows and a decapitation by axe being the highlights (or lowlights depending on your point of view), but the child murder and what looks by the aftermath like the sadistic murder of a jogger both appear off-screen. Though the opening scene (a disturbing nightmare sequence hinting at George’s dark secret), the film’s tense climax and George’s childhood axe attack are eye-catching and well constructed the hardened gore hound is likely to feel pretty short changed on the shock front considering the film’s reputation. To its credit though, where a lot of ‘nasties’ and horror movies revel in their over the top bloodbaths, there is a realistic unpleasantness to the violence on show, in keeping with the film’s overall atmosphere much like the later and effortlessly more disturbing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

The Trivia
  • Although Tom Savini was credited as being responsible for Nightmares special effects he later stated that he merely offered brief advice when visiting the set.

  • Nightmares British distributor, David Hamilton Grant organised a ‘guess the weight of the brain’ competition to publicise the film’s release.

  • Hamilton Grant was subsequently jailed for six months for releasing a version of Nightmares that was sixty seconds longer than the BBFC approved cut.

  • The Conclusion
    Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is a minor cult addition to the horror cycle when compared to classics such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Dawn of the Dead but it is a perfect time capsule of the themes, looks and styles of horror/exploitation genre film-making in the late 70s and early 80s that, helped by the home VHS market taking off, created such a media furore and Governmental panic resulting in the now infamous list of banned films. Ironically, many of those movies would have slipped away into obscurity had it not been for the unprecedented publicity given to them by the very authorities desperate to suppress their distribution.

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