Have you ever seen a movie so entirely up your alley, so perfectly attuned to your interests, so entertaining on a personal level that you find it difficult to step back and professionally criticize it? That’s been me with NIGHTMARE CINEMA. If there is a target audience for this thing, I am the goddamn bullseye. I knew this going into watching it, because the film — a five-part anthology, with a frame story — is produced by director Mick Garris, who happens to be responsible for one of the only television obsessions I’ve ever had.
Back in the mid-2000s, when cable “television” was still a thing (streaming service, what?), there was a little show called MASTERS OF HORROR. Created by Garris, the show was an anthology series that gave horror directors the chance to riff on a story, often based on material by a notable writer, for an hour-long episode — a kind of medium-length exercise in scary narrative, like little digestible terror-bites. And the results were downright spectacular: everyone from Dario Argento to Tobe Hooper directed episodes, some of which — such as John Carpenter’s CIGARETTE BURNS and Takashi Miike’s IMPRINT — I consider to be among the best in their director’s catalogue. Mini-masterpieces.
So when I heard Mick Garris refer to NIGHTMARE CINEMA as “the spiritual successor to MASTERS OF HORROR,” well, I knew I had to get on board. And by god, he’s absolutely right. It’s difficult to express what makes this movie so different from other horror anthologies, but I’m going to try.
Each film — “The Thing in the Woods”, “Mirari”, “Mashit”, “This Way to Egress”, and “Dead” — is introduced by its main character stumbling upon an old marquee displaying its title at a movie theater in what looks like an abandoned part of town. The character inevitably enters the theater and sits down, only to be treated to a story starring his or herself in a worst-case nightmare scenario.
What seems like a gimmicky setup at first is actually perfectly appropriate for films that seem to be watching themselves play out against the background of existing horror movie tropes. One of the things I appreciated most about NIGHTMARE CINEMA is its self-referential wink-wink, nudge-nudge attitude. There’s a shout out to pretty much every genre of horror, from slasher to ghost story to David Lynchian nightmare, and while the humor isn’t always overt (“The Thing in the Woods” is probably the closest thing here to horror-comedy), NIGHTMARE CINEMA has no problem recognizing its own well-traveled roots.
The five directors all play to their own strengths. With “The Thing in the Woods”, Alejandro Brugués (JUAN OF THE DEAD) brings an appropriately campy send-up to every backwoods slasher movie ever with a scantily clad girl tripping over corpses and landing in their intestines. Then it takes a complete left turn into Sci-Fi territory with several surreal sequences that I can only describe as “spider-cam”. Following this rollicking opener, Joe Dante, best known for 80s classics like GREMLINS and THE HOWLING, takes social commentary on plastic surgery into gratuitous mad-scientist territory with “Mirari” (featuring a cheeky and chilling performance by Richard Chamberlain), and you’ll appreciate it all the more in context of the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Eye of the Beholder”.
Ryuhei Kitamura (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, DOWNRANGE) gives us the best of Satanic children and creepy priest figures with “Mashit”, a segment that begins with a shady suicide at a Catholic school before it explodes into full-on exploitative joy: nun-sex, demonic possession, a priest chopping children in half, and 80s-tastic creepy organ music accompanied by an appropriately whiny electric guitar. Next, in David Slade’s (30 DAYS OF NIGHT) “This Way to Egress”, we once again find ourselves somewhere in THE TWILIGHT ZONE with a black and white industrial nightmare featuring a mother lost in a high rise while looking for her missing children. Inhuman janitors mop the floor of slime-covered hallways to the rhythm of disconnected payphone signals. It’s the film that feels most like an actual nightmare, and the collection’s highlight.
The finale is Mick Garris’s own “Dead”, an intense and emotional commentary on the paranormal I-see-dead-people subgenre starring a piano prodigy whose parents are brutally murdered. In a lot of ways it’s the most straightforward entry in the anthology, recalling classic ghost stories but remaining very much its own beast. It’s the perfect note to segue into the final scenes of a frame story that boasts Mickey Rourke as “The Projectionist” as he smokes mysteriously while his theater patrons die.
What makes NIGHTMARE CINEMA work, unlike a lot of anthologies, is that that same amount of care that was found in every episode of MASTERS OF HORROR is given to each of the five segments. The selections have been carefully curated to run the gamut of styles and emotions available in horror cinema, from absurdity to gore to minimalism and back again. This isn’t just a bunch of directors throwing paint at a wall. NIGHTMARE CINEMA is not a collection of films that exists in a vacuum; it exists, and acknowledges its existence, as part of the larger horror tradition. And that is its greatest strength.
Along with some good old-fashioned exploding heads.