It’s day two of our week-long Video Nasty series and, in an exhaustive two part feature, Matty Budrewicz examines director Romano Scavolini’s wonderfully lurid NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN…
Also known as: Nightmares, Blood Splash (US video)
It’s one hell of a story: The Thatcher-led dark-lands of eighties Britain. Home video has revolutionised how we watch movies and a slew of ultra violent horror films are leading the charge. A mixture of eclectic drive-in fillers and assorted Euro-pudding gorefests, they’re ‘Video Nasties’ in the damning eyes of the press and the law – sick filth to be targeted, seized and destroyed. Titles are quickly condemned left and right, blasted by the Director of Public Prosecutions and banned under the Obscene Publications Act. Actually getting jail time because of them though is something else entirely. For David Hamilton Grant however, that’s exactly what happened.
The head of distribution label World of Video 2000, Grant was busted for issuing VHS copies of a low-budget terror pic one whole minute longer than the official BBFC-approved theatrical release. It didn’t matter that it was still a compromised version, the victim of all the same censorious snips as the R-rated US print, and still shorn of just under ten minutes of expository bumf; sixty additional seconds after all was more than enough time to destroy the moral fabric of British society. On February 3rd 1984 Grant was sentenced to eighteen months at her majesty’s pleasure (though later reduced to twelve) for being “in possession of over two-hundred copies of an obscene article for publication for gain”.
Crazy for sure, but it’s worth noting that in the expanded Grant universe it’s barely a footnote; just another part of his sordid mystique. The self-styled King of Sexploitation, entrepreneurial porn don Grant’s personal saga is one strange and convoluted web that – if former sports presenter turned conspiracy theorist David Icke is to be believed anyway – involves Grant’s own faked death at the hands of a contract killing, and his position as a major player in a high-reaching international paedophile ring.
It’s one hell of a story then, one every bit as bizarre and disturbing as the film he was once banged up for: director Romano Scavolini’s 1981 shocker Nightmares In a Damaged Brain.
Looking back, it’s not hard to see why Nightmares In a Damaged Brain would land someone in such hot water. Anything promoted with such a ghoulish gimmick as a Guess the Weight of the Brain In the Jar Competition – a human brain no less, procured from somewhere as shady as Grant no doubt – was bound to attract some kind of negative attention. Still, it was an ingenious and appropriate marketing ploy, considering Grant’s tacking on of the latter half of the title: “Well, the film’s real title is simply ‘Nightmare’,” says Lee Christian, the erudite exploitation flick guru who curated the extras for Code Red’s region one DVD release of the film back in 2011. “I’m told by Bill [Olsen, Code Red’s owner] that Scavolini was not even aware of the Nightmares In a Damaged Brain variation – I’m not sure I buy that, but he definitely had nothing to do with that title! It’s interesting that most American fans of the film are very sensitive about which is the proper title though: in the online horror enthusiast community, they all refer to it as Nightmares In a Damaged Brain. That title, in reality, was slapped onto it by your British distributor. Your Video Nasties scandal re-branded the film with a title it was never meant to have!”
Nightmares In a Damaged Brain deals with George Tatum (a terrific performance from Baird Stafford, whose only other screen credit is Scavolini’s 1985 Vietnam war-action pic Dog Tags), a dangerous schizophrenic wrongly deemed cured and released back into the streets of New York City. Plagued by violent recurring dreams, Tatum sets off on a blood-thirsty journey back to his family home in Florida; a house now occupied by single mother Susan (the perfunctory Sharon Smith) and her three children. Edging ever closer, Tatum’s homicidal mania increases, a plot point mirrored by the increasingly worrying penchant Susan’s super-brat young son CJ (blonde moppet CJ Cooke) has for sadistic practical jokes. Soon, all is set for the inevitable confrontation: a suitably frightening and distressing final act in which Tatum and CJ’s past, present and future entwine with claret-soaked consequences…
Of all the Nasties, Scavolini’s film – along with fellow Italian Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – is one of the most genuinely affecting.
Though the likes of Tenebrae (1982), The Burning (1981) and the Lucio Fulci undead double of Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and The House By the Cemetery (1981) all remain potent frighteners, by and large the seventy-two titles under the Nasty label (of which thirty-nine were successfully DPP prosecuted) are more liable to provoke unintentional laughs than spine-scraping frissons. They’re tosh: tawdrily entertaining clag gross-outs, even something as mean-spirited as Cannibal Ferox (1981), which veers dangerously close to camp thanks to the eminently watchable scene chewing of perennial victim John Morghen (or Giovani Lombardo Radice, to give the spaghetti splat regular his real name). Of course, that’s not to say Nightmares In a Damaged Brain isn’t trash because, well, ostensibly it is: “The end result is a film that looks like it was trying to be something a little different,” says Christian, “but it’s really more of a slasher movie.”
Scripted under the title of Dark Game and inspired by a magazine article which alleged to the CIA’s use of mental patients in mind-altering pharmacological experiments, Scavolini’s original vision of the film was, according to Christian, very different: “It wasn’t really the same movie. It’s been a long time since I read [the original script], but as I recall, it was a little more centred around CJ. Also, you got a much better insight as to how the script seemed to be more aware of what would visually make sense. One example of this is the scene towards the end in which Kathy, the babysitter, is murdered. I have to admit, I always found this scene logically very awkward; when she sees Tatum coming towards her and exclaims “CJ!”, thinking he’s just playing another trick on her, even though Tatum is clearly too tall to be confused with him. In the script, this scene takes place in the dark, with Kathy only sensing another presence in the room. It’s more logical but, additionally, more creepy too.”
Though a handful of core ideas remain – the notion of whether Tatum’s pills are helping or making him even worse, most teasingly of all – Scavolini’s more thoughtful intentions are marred somewhat by his over-reliance on clunky slash-horror cliche. Empty false scares and the usual uninspired killer-on-the-loose histrionics plague the narrative; bizarre considering just how vocal – and somewhat arrogant – Scavolini is about his disdain for the genre and its by-the-numbers approach. “I don’t watch horror films; they don’t interest me,” he says in Code Red’s ninety-minute interview with him. “If I do, it’s twice or triple speed because I immediately know everything. I immediately understand what the mechanisms are.”
Beneath such low-end schlock trappings though, there still lurks a provocative and distinctly adult horror movie: a surprisingly striking study of mental disintegration, neglect and the long-term repercussions of extreme violence. Flawed in its execution it may be, but Nightmares In a Damaged Brain is still pretty powerful. As Christian says: “The concept of a masked killer stalking a troubled family… Only to turn out to be the father of the boy who plays cruel tricks on his family is something that could’ve had more resonance. It could’ve made a more subversive statement on the state of mental health treatment in America and the potential for mental illness to translate through blood ties, but yeah: a little of that still comes through.” Certainly, it’s more than your usual dead teenager/body count flick…
Nightmares In a Damaged Brain fits more with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) than Friday the 13th (1980) – a proto Henry: Portrait Of a Serial Killer (1986)-style bracket occupied by the likes of Don’t Go In the House (1980), Visiting Hours (1982) and Maniac (1980). Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s immediate peers, they too are character-based frighteners; grindhouse dissections of the psychological make-up of murder.
Though banned for theatrical release and never a “proper” Nasty itself (unlike Don’t Go In the House and Visiting Hours, which found themselves on the non-prosecuted Nasty heap), it’s with Maniac that the greatest parallel can drawn; from it and Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s joint depiction of an especially grimy New York, to each movies vice-versa-like way of beginning and ending. Just as Bill Lustig’s scuzzy fleapit classic starts with a murder set piece (“Jaws (1975) on land” as Lustig once described it) and closes with a fevered gore-dream, Scavolini bookends his psycho saga the other way round; kicking off with Tatum’s nightmare vision of a bloodied, severed head dumped at the foot of his bed and finishing up with a hyper-real stalk n’ slash sequence.
Alluding to both The Shining (1980) and Halloween (1978), Scavolini’s denouement is thrilling stuff: clad in the same creepy old man mask that CJ had been larking about with earlier in the film – the same creepy old man mask that looks remarkably like Sid Haig – the claw hammer-wielding Tatum pursues CJ through the house. Barricading himself in his mother’s bedroom, CJ desperately begins to search for something – anything – to fight Tatum off; all the while Tatum is smashing the door down from the other side. From under the bed, CJ pulls out a handgun – a revolver – and, without hesitation, begins to fire repeatedly through the door at Tatum. It’s long, lingering and luridly drawn out; Jack Eric Williams’ screeching score peaking as the mortally wounded Tatum hits the floor.
It’s not over, however: proving once again that you can’t keep a good slasher anti-hero down, Tatum slowly begins to rise, his last iota of strength then used for one last-ditch attempt to get CJ and his sisters.
For his troubles, Tatum is quickly shot by CJ again, once with the revolver – “You don’t understand!” screams Tatum as the bullet hits – and then by a double dose of shotgun blasts; tipping events into the same realm of pitch-black comedy as the infamous ED-209 boardroom bloodbath in Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987). As Tatum expires at the foot of the stairs, Scavolini finally pieces everything together: Tatum’s visions – his nightmares – are revealed to be the fractured recollections of him brutally murdering his own mother and father as a child. Wielding a ruddy great axe, young Tatum dispatches his folks as they’re in the throes of kinky, S&M passion – a likely nod to the ‘Dark Game’ of the original title and a more full-on re-work of a similar scene in Ulli Lommel’s earlier cult favourite The Boogeyman (1980, and also a Nasty). “You don’t understand!” his father also screams, before the axe smashes down into his head, the old slasher maxim of “you have sex, you die” now taken one step further. In Scavolini’s universe, fucking is no longer just punishable with death by masked maniac; it’s the reason said maniac is loco in the first place. Sex-as-psychosis-catalyst is one of the director’s most fully realised and satisfying concepts, an idea at its most obvious during Tatum’s frothy-mouthed meltdown at a XXX peepshow.
The punchline to Nightmares In a Damaged Brain – as previously mentioned by Christian – is the paternal revelation: dead body unmasked at the crime scene, Tatum is exposed as Susan’s estranged husband, thanks to her cry at a pitch only dogs can hear. Often criticised for its perceived predictability – though, admittedly, more seasoned narrative detectives will see it coming a mile off – it’s more sickeningly inevitable than predictable; the real twist being CJ’s exposure and subsequent reaction to the violence. It’s just as the strapline to Screen Entertainment’s 2002 British video re-release (which ironically features the same print that landed distributor Grant in bother) promises, “One moment of ultra violence that once seen is never forgotten”. CJ’s seen the violence. He’s been complicit in it, and killed his own father just as his father did. And just like dear ol’ Dad before him, he’s doomed to repeat it, as signified by his shocking fourth-wall break at Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s close. It’s just a pity then that, as Christian also noted, its development throughout the rest of the movie wasn’t quite as well fleshed out as it could have been, getting a little muddled somewhere amidst the film’s slightly saggy middle stretch. Nonetheless, it still packs an emotional wallop.
Its status as a Nasty aside, Nightmares In a Damaged Brain is best known for the controversy surrounding its squirty gore effects; “I first sought it out because of the then-notoriety of the Tom Savini credit scandal,” says Christian. “Certainly here in America, it was far more well-known for that scandal than it was – at the time – for having been banned in England.” Long attributed to the Dawn of the Dead (1978) effects man – the grue legend who also supplied the splatty stuff for the aforementioned Maniac, Friday the 13th and The Burning – Savini himself vehemently denies any official involvement; he served only as an adviser to the then-fledgling Ed French (later of Sleepaway Camp (1983), The Stuff (1985) and Rejuvenator (1988), despite Scavolini crediting him as Special Effects Director. As he firmly explained to author Christian Sellers in 2007, “I was not involved in that film in any way I want to talk about. They keep using my name and I did not do the effects on that piece of shit. The guy who did do the effects, Lester Loraine, killed himself. He was a friend and they gave him no credit but tried to steal my name to promote this trash.”*
It’s a claim supported by French too, who also told Sellers, “I recall that the make-up effects guy in charge was a man named Les Loraine or Larraine. I had never heard of him before this movie and I never heard of him again after that… I remember Tom coming in, perhaps twice, to give the crew advice, direction and impetus to finish the preparations on time for the first day of shooting. I have no idea if this was a favour to Les or if he was a paid consultant. Tom didn’t do any hands-on work but he definitely influenced the techniques, style and game plan for staging the blood gags. Obviously, he was the coach. The splatter coach, if you will. Anything else I could tell you would be pure speculation.”*
Understandably, Scavolini’s version of events is grossly different, the bottom line being Savini was a much more active participant in the film’s sangre department than he’d care to admit: he didn’t do the latex, but he sure as hell “pumped the blood”* according to the fiery filmmaker. It’s hard not to deny the similarities between Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s effects work and Savini’s stuff; they may be a little cruder than the watershed, artery-splitting money shots in The Prowler (1980) et al, but they certainly have Savini’s trademark, bright red gush behind them – a little more so than him just simply coaching. What’s more, it’s hard not to deny that Savini was actually pretty hands-on from a production photo readily in circulation showing him giving young actor Scott Praetorius (Young George) a crash course in axe handling. Very odd, considering Savini once stated that, as he was working on George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) at the time, he’d never even set foot on the Nightmares In a Damage Brain set!
Whatever the truth, to paraphrase Sellers, it will most likely never be known; denial, accusations and libel-baiting stories of greed and Savini’s alleged licentiousness unrepeatable here will forever just fill its place. It’s a shame really, as such a mystery overshadows both the contribution of Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s other effects man on the Florida-lensed leg of the shoot – the wonderful, future Charles Band alum, and star of the short-lived SyFy series Monster Man (2011), Cleve Hall – and actually just how good the film itself is.
Still, who doesn’t love a bit of gossip? And, as Code Red’s Lee Christian alluded to earlier, if it wasn’t for such scandal – especially its reputation as a Nasty for us Brits – Nightmares In a Damaged Brain would probably have just fallen into scare cinema oblivion by now. As it stands, the film is a bonafide classic of sorts: naff in spots and incredibly rough around the edges in others, but with a quiet, unspoken influence on the more introspective strain of extreme skin crawlers that have emerged in the last half-dozen years or so – a legacy of brutality that can be felt in the likes of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) and Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die (2010) – it’s an essential, must-see, cult slab of down and dirty horror. Seek Nightmares In a Damaged Brain out or just pay it another visit: you’ll be glad you did.
For Part II of this feature, in which Matty chats further with Code Red’s Lee Christian, click HERE
A massive, massive thanks to Lee Christian – an all round good egg.
Code Red DVDs essential limited run blu-ray of the film, under its American title NIGHTMARE, is out now. Get buying it from their store here: http://codereddvd.bigcartel.com/
* taken from Scavolini vs. Savini: Nightmare In a Damaged Brain by Christian Sellers, originally published on retroslashers.net. Used by permission, with thanks to the author. Read the brilliant full article here: http://retroslashers.net/scavolini-vs-savini-nightmare-in-a-damaged-brain/
To go to part two of this feature, click HERE
Follow Matty on twitter @mattybudrewicz