Wake in Fright: Kristine Peterson’s Deadly Dreams (1988)

Matty goes to bat for the accomplished debut feature of an underappreciated DTV auteur.

Kristine Peterson had been working at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios when, inspired by Coppola’s own beginnings under Roger Corman’s tutelage, she elected to contact Corman about making a movie. In Peterson’s words, she knocked on the B-movie icon’s door and quickly found herself on the Concorde-New Horizons payroll, most notably 1st Ad-ing on Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall (1986). Her Corman-backed directorial debut, DEADLY DREAMS (1988), soon followed, and Peterson went on to helm a slew of rock solid VHS era programmers — namely, the excellent erotic thriller Body Chemistry (1990) for Corman and the nifty Lower Level (1991) for Neo/First Look — before leaving the biz and setting up shop as a psychotherapist.

It’s a fitting career change. Peterson’s films demonstrate a studious focus on character and an intriguing psychological complexity — even such relatively innocuous offerings as Critters 3 (1991) and Kickboxer 5: The Redemption (1995). And despite being a little rough around the edges, stricken as it is with some wince-inducing dialogue, a couple of overripe am-dram performances, and a few hilariously wobbly sets, Peterson’s maiden voyage fits this mould, too. By and large Deadly Dreams is a weighty and suspenseful psychodrama masquerading as a stringent slasher flick.

Shot in eighteen days on a $400,000 budget and promoted as a Deliverance (1972)/Elm Street hybrid ahead of its straight-to-video premiere [1], Deadly Dreams tells the story of aspiring writer Alex (Mitchell Anderson — the doomed Sean Brody from Jaws: The Revenge (1987)). A delicate and somewhat effete soul, Alex is plagued by a pair of problems. First, he’s haunted by the Christmas Eve murder of his parents as a kid, wherein a disgruntled associate of his father, a pelt-clad hunter called Perkins (indie renaissance man Duane Whitaker), burst into their house and went haywire with a shotgun, chasing and nearly killing Alex in the process. Second, his creative pursuits are repeatedly poo-pooed by his older brother, Jack (Xander Berkeley): a churlish, more conventionally ‘macho’ yuppie type who wants Alex to join him in the family business he was forced to take control of after their orphaning. Naturally, both dilemmas collide head-on and Alex is thrust into a waking nightmare when the long-dead, wolf masked Perkins reappears as a seemingly supernatural bogeyman. But is it actually him, malevolently trying to finish what he started years earlier? Or is someone closer to home messing with Alex for significantly more human reasons?

The pleasures of Deadly Dreams are legion. It’s tense and engaging, and there’s just enough blood and just enough boobs on show to satisfy one’s baser horror needs — though what strikes in that department is how Peterson gets an equal amount of male flesh on display, infusing the film with a simmering homoerotic undercurrent, primarily between Alex and his prank-loving bestie, Danny (scripter Thom Babbes), but also between Alex and the domineering Jack. Zoran Hochstatter’s probing photography offers a nice mix of classic stalk n’ slash voyeurism and something weirder, working in tandem with Todd Boekelhide’s swirling score to propel the mysterious, see-sawing notions of what is and isn’t really happening at the heart of Babbes’ dramatically astute screenplay.

Indeed, irrespective of the above-noted issues regarding certain pockets of dialogue and their delivery, Babbes’ script teems with a strong sense of raw emotional honesty — no surprise considering Babbes channelled a lot of his feelings surrounding a then-recent break-up with his fiancée into the material [2]. However, it’s the way in which Peterson shapes that rawness into something so stylised and artistic in its aesthetic yet rich in its motivation that impresses. For example, she laces Deadly Dreams with a distinctive colour scheme that represents the various aspects of Alex’s personality and the splintering levels of reality he’s caught up in en route to either madness or death. Alex’s dreams and memories are bathed with a dark blue hue; the same shade that, along with a multitude of masks, decorates his increasingly claustrophobic apartment, symbolising how trapped he is by the trauma he experienced as a child. Danger, meanwhile, is frequently foreshadowed by splashes of — what else? — red. The painted nails of love interest Maggie (Juliette Cummins); the femme fatale-y dress she wears on her and Alex’s first date; the crimson lampshade that hangs over Alex’s head whenever he bolts upright in bed — and, most prominently, the red lockers juxtaposed with a rack of blue ones in a key scene involving Alex and Jack. It’s a smidge heavy-handed perhaps, but they’re intelligent and ambitious little touches that do a fine job of ramping up Deadly Dreams’ serpentine sense of mystery.

[1] It debuted in the U.S. on 26th October 1988 via Virgin, and was released by Cineplex in Autumn 1990 here in the U.K.
[2] As he stated in his interview on Code Red’s Deadly Dreams Blu-ray. 

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