[NOW ON BLU-RAY] DREAM STALKER/DEATH BY LOVE From SEVERIN FILMS

I recently praised Severin Films’ recent release of CATHY’S CURSE, mentioning how their treatment of cult obscurities fills the void that zines had in the earlier age of fandom, but their talents range beyond just delving into the drive-in era. Their InterVision arm has taken a similar tactic with the VHS era, and their recent double bill provides a welcome digital release for two shot-on-video obscurities, DREAM STALKER and DEATH BY LOVE, originally released on the obscure Artistic License, Inc. label, a California-based video production and distribution company formed in 1988 by producer Thomas Naygrow. (One hopes that the remaining titles they distributed, the killer scarecrow pic DARK HARVEST and Mark Pirro’s musical NUDIST COLONY OF THE DEAD, will follow.) No doubt formed in an effort to cash in on the video boom, the only Artistic License title I can recall ever seeing in video stores was NUDIST COLONY, with the others receiving negligible releases advertised mostly on the back pages of horror movie magazines.

1991’s DREAM STALKER is shot on video, but certainly has enough professional qualities going for it that allows it at least a veneer of legitimacy – so much so that you strive to think that it’s coherent. If you think about the proceedings at all, of course, it falls together almost immediately, but if you go along for the ride without trying to understand why any of this is happening, DREAM STALKER can pass as an entertainingly amateurish ELM STREET knockoff.

It also sports an original antagonist – our chief body count raiser Ricky (Mark Dias) is a motocross racer and spends most of the film in his full motocross outfit, accented by some genuinely good gory facial make-up. At the start of the film, the long-haired Ricky is dating Brittany, an up and coming model played by Valerie Williams. After presenting her with the gift of a weirdly creepy silver jack-in-the-drum doll and promising that they’ll be together forever, she leaves for New York to be in a “fashion video.” However, she has dreams about his motocross-related death, and when she returns, she finds that he actually did die on the track.

Brittany begins to have nightmares about Ricky, and her mother takes her to a dream specialist with a ridiculous German accent despite her objections. (“I don’t want to see any doctor named Frisk!” she yells, as though it’s the name that’s the issue.) Dream Ricky soon appears again, having sex with her in her nightmares and making a very strange gag about a condom breaking that seems like it would lead to some pregnancy-inspired subplot. (It doesn’t.) Ricky also starts showing up in real life, offing Brittany’s adversaries and appearing at a costume party (!) to harass his mortician about adding concrete to his grave.

The film then cuts to three years later, with Brittany at her mother’s cabin in a location that’s somehow simultaneously isolated and populated by roving gangs of “troubled youth.” Ricky begins appearing again, offing anyone who poses a threat to Brittany while she sleeps, while Brittany romances Greg, a guy staying at a nearby cabin. (Or possibly the same cabin. The geography of DREAM STALKER is tricky to place.) It all climaxes in a slaughter and the final confrontation between Brittany, Ricky, and the new man in Brittany’s life.

(Entertainingly, the IMDb plot for DREAM STALKER is completely wrong, stating that the film is about how “a young woman joins the Crime Commission just as women employees are being murdered. She dreams about the murders and tells her boss and the police.” “She dreams about the murders” is the only accurate part of this synopsis, as this, along with the cast and crew listed, actually refers to a 2004 film with the same name.)

This all sounds relatively coherent, and DREAM STALKER has the edge over many SOV films of the era by having a thin veneer of legitimacy. The acting is, German accent aside, competent, the entire film is in focus, it’s mostly audible save for a few scenes when the ambient sound drowns out the dialogue, and the plot holds together if you don’t look directly at it. It’s certainly never dull thanks to a pace that keeps action happening every couple of scenes and only a few stretches of overly talky bits.

Of course, it falls apart on close, or any, inspection. It seems to be set up as though it’s unclear whether Brittany or someone else is actually causing the mayhem, especially in a scene that suggests that Greg may be the real killer, but Ricky’s clearly the only one responsible through the entirety of the movie. Character traits are sketchy at best, like Brittany laughing after she’d been beaten up and catcalled, or her waking up from a dream in which a friend is killed on a toilet by feeling all horned-up, embracing Greg to begin a relatively explicit1 sex scene.

The most puzzling thing about DREAM STALKER is the aforementioned silver jack-in-the-drum doll, which appears through most of the film, is legitimately creepy, and yet doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything going on. It’s a fitting icon for the film, however, as much of the movie feels the same – it’s weirdly compelling even if it’s clearly a thrift store treasure that doesn’t make any logistic sense.

The incongruities of the film are addressed in the two interviews associated with it, one featuring Ricky himself, Mark Dias, and the other by producer Thomas Naygrow. (The director is uncredited, and his name is bleeped when mentioned by Dias, so I’ll just assume it was Robert Altman.) Both are great looks into the making of the film and low-budget (but not quite amateur) SOV filmmaking, and the reasons behind some of the film’s oddities, such as the climactic slaughter being off-camera. Dias also looks a hell of a lot better with short hair, and you can read a lot more from him with Sharon Gissy’s interview with him here.

The co-feature on the disc, DEATH BY LOVE, is such an obscurity that it doesn’t even have an IMDb entry. A 1990-shot, Texas-lensed tale of a sculptor who becomes involved with a series of murders, DEATH BY LOVE is a lot more straightforward than DREAM STALKER, but it also suffers from some of the flaws of SOV filmmaking, in that it’s often talky and dull.

Alan Grant, who also directed, wrote and produced the film, stars as Joel, a sculptor with a penchant for jogging. It’s during one of his runs that he meets Amy (Yvonne Aric), and the two begin a romance heralded by a prolonged montage and a relatively explicit sex scene. Unfortunately, their tryst is short-lived, as Amy turns up dead.

Suspicion seems to point to Ed (Frank McGill), a mysterious man from Joel’s past that a pair of cops has determined has been following him for years. It seems that Ed is convinced that Joel is actually the devil, and Ed disappears as Joel takes refuge in creating art at his reclusive cabin. He’s not alone, however, as he’s first assisted by his publicist Eleanor (Tamara Betz), leading to a half-sex scene, and then real estate agent Renee (Erika Mills), leading to a semi-explicit2 sex scene.

Before the end of the film, the body count increases, and there are a few twists and turns, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary, even if the way it goes about its twists is sometimes befuddling. (Ed’s niece turns out to be involved with Joel, which would be fine if the character isn’t introduced until nearly two-thirds of the way through the film.) Much of the running time, however, is spent with montages (Joel doing art things, Joel romancing a lady), dialogue-heavy sequences or moments with a pair of generic ‘80s cops that, while entertaining in that the actors actually have good chemistry, leading to a few witty moments, don’t really do much in terms of moving things forward.

DEATH BY LOVE does sport some impressive make-up (thus giving it something in common with DREAM STALKER beyond its initial distributor) and a solid, if not entirely unexpected, ending, but it’s a bit too slow going to recommend to anyone beyond the more die hard SOV curiosity seeker.   It’s also strangely sex-focused for a film whose plot doesn’t seem to have anything to do with sex – at least two scenes feel as though they were shot exclusively to get the woman out of their clothes. DEATH BY LOVE feels as though it should be an erotic thriller, but the justification for the deaths turns out to be so vague that it feels a bit like an underdeveloped WITCHCRAFT sequel.

Two extra features, both conducted via Skype, provide some insight into the film’s creation. In the first interview, Alan Grant talks about the minimal crew and how the film came about because he was inspired by a failed production that he worked on and decided to write a screenplay despite having not known anything about screenwriting before. In the second, actors Yvonne Aric and Brad Bishop (who plays one of the cops) talk about their memories of working on the film, with Aric mentioning that her cat in the film was actually hers, and Bishop discussing an injury he had that kept him seated while filming for much of the shoot. Neither segment is particularly Earth-shattering, but both are entertaining pieces of SOV cultural history that I’m glad InterVision has procured.

That’s a statement than can pretty much go for the disc itself. DREAM STALKER is a genuinely entertaining, if bizarre, film that should win over low-budget cinephiles with a penchant for ‘80s sleaze, as it never drags and features enough WTF moments (either intentionally or by happy accident) to keep them happy. DEATH BY LOVE isn’t as compelling, but it’s a worthy bottom of the double bill, especially since both films have remained almost entirely unseen since their threadbare VHS incarnation 26 years ago.

DREAM STALKER/DEATH BY LOVE is now available from SEVERIN FILMS

1– “Relatively explicit” is the movie reviewer term for “you can see the guy’s ass.”

2– Side ass.

 

 

Paul Freitag-Fey

Chicago-based, cinepheliac, mostly harmless writer for Daily Grindhouse. Sole enemy: Lorraine Bracco in MEDICINE MAN.

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