This is a low-budget Aussie gem. Released in 1983, at the peak of the slasher cycle, it remains true to formula.
Cathy, a little girl, is traumatized upon seeing her mother fornicating with an illicit lover. Later, Cathy's unsuspecting daddy bids goodbye as Cathy and mommy drive off on a road trip. Cathy awakens in the back seat of the car to espy the lover fondling mommy's thighs while she's driving. Cathy panics and intervenes. Mommy is thrown through the windshield in the resulting accident. When Cathy tries to drag mommy back into the car, she inadvertently slits mommy's throat against windshield shards.
Recovering in a hospital, Cathy overhears a nurse mention that Cathy killed her mom. Daddy accuses Cathy likewise, apparently ignorant or indifferent that his daughter was defending him from cuckoldom. With all that guilt and ingratitude, what's a girl to do?
Cathy attacks a hospital employee with a glass shard.
Do you begin to detect a familiar pattern?
Flash forward. Cathy grows into adulthood, changes her name to Helen (played by Jenny Neumann from HELL NIGHT), and becomes an actress who is cast in a theatrical "comedy about death."
Helen also dreams. Dreams about death. Which is curious, because a string of murders is plaguing the theater.
NIGHTMARE's stereotypical characters drawn from the world of theater jell well with what remains in many ways a traditional slasher film. Their superstitions and neuroses form the subtext for the slasher's psychosis. An actress traumatizes her peers by whistling backstage. After one murder, she is reminded, "You're to blame! You whistled! This production's jinxed!" The director is shocked upon seeing an actor in green. "Never wear green!" When not insulting his actors, he spouts artsy-fartsy gobbledygook. "The meaning of the lines doesn't matter. It's the juxtaposition and rhythm of the words." A foppish critic delights in writing negative reviews and hitting on both actors and actresses alike.
NIGHTMARES utilizes standard slasher film aesthetics. POV shots conceal the killer's identity. Jarring melodramatic music heralds ominous events. Characters turn stupid at the most inopportune times. The drunken critic, staggering through the theater's basement just as the killer bursts through a glass door, simply remarks, "Jesus, why'd you do that for? You scared the daylights out of me." But instead of fretting over this unusual entrance, the critic ignores his own query and adds, "Well don't just stand there. Help me find my lighter."
Whereupon the killer picks up a glass shard...
NIGHTMARES is a splendid slasher film, but not so clever as to defy expectations. If you can't guess the killer's identity early on, you haven't been watching the subgenre. Even so, NIGHTMARES does end on a surprise twist, similar to that in INTRUDER (1989).
NIGHTMARES is marred by crass sadism (victims require prolonged and repeated stabbings to die) and gratuitous nudity, but is an overall enjoyable excursion into the world of theater, delineating all its backbiting jealousies, backstage gossip, and petty power politics within a slasher film context. Jenny Neumann makes for a plucky Helen.
NIGHTMARES features very rough productions values. It's the sort of unpolished slasher effort that many critics deride as scrapings from under the bottom of the barrel. And yet the film's very roughness lends it an authentic sensibility. Aficionados of ultra-low-budget horror Z-films (e.g. DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT) will find much merit in NIGHTMARES.