Romano Scavolini’s 1981 slasher flick Nightmare is certain about three things: One, little George Tatum, well-mannered and pure, walked in on a dominatrix straddling his father and the experience irreparably destroyed his sanity. Two, despite his persisting fear of feminine wiles, George managed to have a son, C.J., who has inherited his own father’s patricidal tendencies. Three, when a horror film has to choose between guts and glory, guts are universally preferred. Nightmare’s three truths work together. The male characters’ blood connection — volatile, inescapable, and in direct conflict with the innate masculine desire to get laid — gives way to the special effect and peep show excesses.
As the title suggests, George has brief but violent flashbacks to the fateful afternoon where he, perhaps in an initial attempt to save his father from harm at the hands of a woman, whacked the bound lovers — one corseted, the other tied down — to death with a hatchet. The act is an extreme take on the Freudian primal scene, or urszene, in which a child witnesses its parent having sex and becomes horrified by ‘the sadistic concept of coitus’. There’s no debating the forfeiture and acceptance of power present within this particular BDSM sequence. A drop of blood streams down the father’s nose as he is willingly slapped. The intricate subcurrents of adult sexuality are inconceivable to a child of no more than ten. Georgie doesn’t have the capacity to find his father’s situation erotic, or even perverse; it’s simply dangerous. Intensive talk and medication therapy notwithstanding, the primal scene’s conflation of sex with danger renders George equally homicidal and impotent.
Scavolini takes great pleasure in retelling George’s gorey urszene in piecemeal over and over, until it’s realized in full near the film’s conclusion. Even Janet Maslin, who panned Nightmare in her review for The New York Times, couldn’t wholly write off the special effects, observing, “The bloodshed has been rendered with loving attention to detail. Garotting, slicing, puncturing and chopping are filmed at close range and accompanied by gurgling sounds.” Early in the film, George sits bolt-upright after a night terror and sees his father’s lover’s severed head and viscera resting at the bottom of his twin-sized bed; her eyes blink. In the uncensored version, he’ll visit Nightmare’s heterosexual answer to the Crusing’s West Village: a Times Square peep show. But before George can get his money’s worth of live nude women (one of whom boasts a Hitachi vibrator), he experiences an epileptic flashback where, seizing, he foams at the mouth while envisioning the blood spurting from the dominatrix’s headless neck.
Nightmare’s idea of what should constitute consensual adult behavior is less refined than today’s. The film, aiming for guts over glory, followed its Reagan era audience’s understanding of perversity: anything other than married missionary involving one man and one woman counted. Nightmare recalls William Friedkin’s Cruising in more ways than its docu-fictitious look at a long-gone city. Premiering a year earlier, the crime thriller stars Al Pacino as as straight-laced cop sent into New York City’s sadomasochistic nightclub scene to find a serial killer who’s been targeting gay men. Both productions were plagued by censorship, Friedkin’s losing an hour of its most salacious footage and Scavolini’s being deemed a “video nasty” in the United Kingdom. Pacino’s character, like Stafford’s, prefers to gawk, never fully indulging in the tawdriness surrounding him; but, like George, it’s a close call. When one comes into contact with the perverse, he is interpreted as coming terrifyingly close to contracting it.
Today, Scavolini and Friedkin’s pre-AIDS images of leather, lace, and kink’s bloodshed are perceptibly …carefree. The moment preceding before the epidemic’s storm seems more titillated than calm. In reality, during their time, these films almost certainly exacerbated fear in more inexperienced or morally-biased viewers. For better or worse, Nightmare and Cruising were members of a pantheon of B-, C-, and D-movies that helped set the hostile cultural stage onto which the virus eventually entered. Frustrated by his illness after the mortifying peep show incident, George abandons treatment and heads for the foothills of Florida where his urszene transpired decades before, taking a number of lives along the way.
Nightmare, however heavy on the Hawaiian Punch blood and tormented paternal chains, remains light on the peripheral details. It is during Nightmare’s roadtrip portion that the missing pieces become distracting. We’ve never learned whether George spent time in a psych ward prior to his recent attack on a Brooklyn family; nor do we know precisely how he made it from the Jim Crow South to grindhouse era New York City. Despite his psychosexual issues being tethered to his suburban childhood, George’s mother is never mentioned. The ‘classified government projects’ the shrinks tasked with reprogramming George have in store for their subject also remain vague.
Then, there are the details that enter abruptly, as if to fill the excess gaps that the famously forgiving slasher genre just couldn’t permit: While lead-footing it to Florida in search of George, one of his psychologists hastily argues with his colleague about the madman’s connection to a local case from decades earlier. George, it’s finally revealed, is returning to the scene of his first crime. Yet it is only in the last scene that we’re shown his relationship to the family dwelling in his childhood home: George was married to a mother of three who still resides there, aptly-named Susan Temper. Despite the ambiguous terms of their estrangement, it’s fair to assume that George has continued to be a bit of a thorn in Susan’s side, captivity and violence against working girls ostensibly preventing him from making timely child support payments. And now, no thanks to George’s return, she’s out a babysitter (though certainly not for the predictable carnal reasons that are so native to suburban comedies and dramas).
The film is most frustrating in its unwillingness to wholly deliver the details that could make Nightmare even more of a head-trip — rather, it’s the missed opportunity for a handful of alternate endings. While George, in a moment of Oedipal justice, is inevitably offed by his own son (who more closely resembles a Dennis the Menace for the Garbage Pail Kids generation than he does his father’s bloodthirsty offspring), the script’s central thinness allows Nightmare’s conclusion to race in a handful of pleasurable hypothetical directions: with George destroying the home that’s brought him such pain, along with its inhabitants; retaliating against the New York psychiatrists who failed to make him functional; kidnapping C.J. and damning the rest; with a flash-forward to C.J. as a father of his own troubled son; or, perhaps even confronting his own underlying fears of effeminate domination by enjoying a few slappings at the hands of the family’s furious babysitter. Like father, like son.