Dreamaniac (1986): Born This Way

Matty takes a look at David DeCoteau’s much-maligned ‘debut’ feature and finds a filmmaker almost fully formed from the outset. 

According to legend, when David DeCoteau presented his director’s cut of game-changing LGBTQ+ creeper Voodoo Academy (2000) to Charles Band, the producer was so shocked by the sizzling homoeroticism that he demanded a whopping twenty minutes of snips before he’d even think about releasing it. Despite DeCoteau’s wry assertion that Band could tout it as “a horror movie for girls” — and despite Band having let DeCoteau push the rainbow-coloured envelope to the limit on Curse of the Puppet Master (1998) and The Killer Eye (1999) — the Full Moon chieftain thought Voodoo Academy beyond the pale. 

It was too damn gay. 

Of course, ever savvy to his audience’s evolving tastes — and a genuinely progressive guy to boot — Band quickly relented and allowed DeCoteau to unleash the unexpurgated version of Voodoo Academy on DVD as one of Full Moon’s Lunar Editions: an innovative strain of home video releases, packed to the gills with supplementary material, that, in the early ‘00s, served as the company’s in-house answer to Criterion. It was a wise move, commercially and artistically. Voodoo Academy’s Lunar Edition sold like hot cakes, and the film finalised DeCoteau’s metamorphosis from gun-for-hire to auteur. Realising there was demand for Voodoo Academy’s blend of light chills and studly hunks clad in bulge-enhancing tighty-whities — a mix he’d been refining over the course of his last round of Full Moon flicks, which, in addition to Curse of the Puppet Master and The Killer Eye, included Shrieker (1998) and Talisman (1998) — DeCoteau founded Rapid Heart Pictures. Essentially Hammer by way of an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial, the rest is history. DeCoteau’s current tenure as the architect of Lifetime’s Wrong series aside (The Wrong Roommate (2016), The Wrong Crush (2017), The Wrong Mr. Right (2021) etc.), it’s the Rapid Heart formula of boys, briefs, and lush photography for which he’s best known. 

Thing is…

It was always there. 

Well, maybe not quite the accomplished photography. With the exception of Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988) [1], that wouldn’t really — truly — kick in with any regularity until Prey of the Jaguar (1996). But the queerness and commitment to style were DeCoteau trademarks from the outset of his ‘legitimate’ career.

They were certainly there in the first three shots of the very first scene of his debut proper, DREAMANIAC (1986). 

Shot One 

EXT. A SPOOKY HOUSE – NIGHT

The camera drifts past… 

“Love stories” is what David DeCoteau calls them. And by Dreamaniac’s making, he’d told a boatload. 

Beginning his professional career as a gofer for Roger Corman and Donald P. Borchers, DeCoteau popped his directorial cherry in the hardcore porn arena. His ascent up the ladder was swift. Moonlighting between regular gigs, DeCoteau became acquainted with legendary skin-flick impresarios Sal Grasso and Terry LeGrand, and learned the nuts n’ bolts of filmmaking by working on their productions as a set hand. It was LeGrand, the mind behind Gayracula (1984), who encouraged DeCoteau to pick up the megaphone. LeGrand agreed to let DeCoteau tackle a script the then twenty-one year old upstart had written specifically for the mogul called Making It Huge (1985). In the film’s wake, DeCoteau became a requested talent and more XXX offerings followed, all of which were credited to his alias ‘Dave McCabe’. Alas, DeCoteau started to feel personally and professionally weary. With the black cloud of the AIDS pandemic hanging over both the flesh trade and the gay community, a crisis of conscience and his yearning to break into ‘regular’ features led the enterprising helmer to squirrel away $10,000 in order to seed fund a little horror movie.

$500 of that went to Ann Lewis Hamilton.

Today best known as the Emmy-nominated writer and producer of drama series thirtysomething, Hamilton was an aspiring scripter when DeCoteau recruited her to whip an idea he had for a supernatural slasher flick, ‘Succubus’, into shape. DeCoteau’s brief was simple, and the blueprint he provided would be how he’d mount his later Rapid Heart epics: this recent successful film meets that film or this trend (see: The Brotherhood III: Young Demons (2003) and Speed Demon (2003), which DeCoteau once humorously described as “Suspiria (1977) crossed with The Lord of the Rings” and “my Fast and the Furious (2000)”, respectively). Thus, ‘Succubus’ — or, as it was soon renamed, Dreamaniac — was A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) by way of Satanic panic; a shameless Wes Craven rip-off that invoked two of ‘80s America’s biggest fears, the devil and heavy metal.  

That said, with its miniscule budget, Dreamaniac could never achieve the same level of FX-driven fantastique as Craven’s classic. After all, even with a comparatively hefty $1million price tag A Nightmare on Elm Street’s reality-warping set-pieces had famously put the strain on producers New Line, forcing Craven to significantly rein in his original vision. Thankfully, DeCoteau’s hardcore background fostered a pragmatic streak: he instructed Hamilton, who took the pseudonym ‘Helen Robinson’ on the finished film, to condense Dreamaniac. He wanted to ‘Evil Dead (1981) it’: go for broke with the horror stuff and squirty gore (the deliciously rubbery effects in the final product are by Tom Schwartz and Linda Nottestad), but keep everything confined to a single location and small time frame for maximum ease and efficiency. Again, like his potpourri-esque approach to narrative, it’s a battle plan DeCoteau has stuck to with few exceptions. Though he’s long nixed explicit bloodletting due to gratuitous violence not travelling in foreign markets [2], compact settings and time spans are as much an artistic statement as they are a cost-governed decision. DeCoteau is a master of the chamber piece; and for the flaws that permeate such small-scale fare as Dreamaniac, Voodoo Academy, Shrieker, Talisman, and the sprawling 1313 series — a multi-chaptered, thematically tethered saga that, like Dreamaniac, unfolds in one house — his claustrophobic and tightly woven sense of place always grips. 

Shots Two & Three

INT. A HALLWAY – NIGHT

Dry ice swirls…

David DeCoteau is a filmmaker of immense aesthetic verve. While several of his pictures fall victim to the ramshackle nature of their making — the point-and-shoot stylistics of Nightmare Sisters (1988), American Rampage (1989), and Bikini Goddesses (1996) being the most prominent examples — once DeCoteau found his groove with the aforementioned Prey of the Jaguar (which, as with Dreamaniac, was lensed by frequent collaborator Howard Wexler), visual pizzazz and technical polish were placed front and centre. Post ‘96, DeCoteau ensured that each of his programmers, be they merc jobs or auteur joints, had a robust cinematic sheen irrespective of their overall quality and the fact they were designed for the 4×3 confines of VHS. In keeping with the perfunctory script they’re built from, Dreamaniac’s protracted scenes of talking are as rudimentary as the film’s hokey cast (porn star Ashlyn Gere and a pre Ozark Lisa Emery among them). However, Dreamaniac looks wonderful during the bulk of its horror sequences. As its attention-grabbing opening demonstrates, DeCoteau clearly wanted to throw the gauntlet down. The strange and ethereal atmosphere that he and Wexler conjure with only a smoke machine, a smattering of lighting gels, and more Dutch angles than a Flemish Maths department is intoxicating — and a trick the helmer would employ across the remainder of his career, particularly on his horror pictures.       

And a nude male figure enters the scene…

Upon completion, Dreamaniac’s exec producer, Charles Band, was impressed. Then operating Empire Pictures, the B-svengali came aboard the project after Hamilton showed her friend Debra Dion — Empire’s head of development and the then Mrs. Band — a copy of the ‘Succubus’ script. Dion loved it and wanted to buy it — but what really fired her up was that the film was ready to go and less than a week away from principal photography, which was scheduled for ten days. Dion told Band and he wanted in. Band fielded DeCoteau an offer: he’d pay back the money DeCoteau had already funneled into Dreamaniac (which was around $30K by this point), give DeCoteau a fee, and bankroll the film’s entire post production in exchange for distribution rights. The sweetener was that if Band was happy with Dreamaniac, he’d get DeCoteau on the Empire payroll — and evidently he was, given how many films DeCoteau has shepherded for him since. Band released Dreamaniac via his iconic tape outfit Wizard Video on 26th November 1986, promoting it as being “an original made-for-video feature film” that was “too gory for the silver screen!”.

An unsubstantiated trivia nugget on IMDb states that, following a screening of Dreamaniac, an anonymous Empire exec phoned DeCoteau and asked him outright if he was gay. Seemingly, Band was either oblivious or, more accurately, probably didn’t care. Quite why Band was aghast at Voodoo Academy but not Dreamaniac remains a mystery. If anything, it’s as equally queer in tone and gaze. Male nudity is present from the start and peppered throughout the film’s brief seventy-six minute duration. Moreover, the whole thing — like Jack Sholder’s previously reviled but now rightly canonised queer horror landmark A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) and Tony Scott’s testosterone-fuelled bromance Top Gun (1987) — can be read as a giant coming out allegory. Conceptually and in terms of plot mechanics, Hamilton draws upon the biblical myth of Adam and Lilith; but DeCoteau pitches the relationship between Dreamaniac’s namesakes — Tom Berren’s teenage wannabe rock god and Sylvia Summers’ demonic antagonist — as a thinly-veiled metaphor for a man wrestling with his increasingly obvious sexuality.

[1] Mind you, it was 2016 when that became apparent, when DeCoteau’s post-modern classic hit Blu-ray. Prior to that video and DVD editions were pitch black eyesores.
[2] Dreamaniac and fellow slasher Murder Weapon (1989) — a Dreamaniac sibling of sorts — are as claret-heavy as DeCoteau gets. The gooey Creepozoids (1987) and Leeches! (2003) bring up the rear with their primo spread of squelchy yucks.

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