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July 19-25, 2006

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Cult Leader

Battlin' the Bishop: 'Nightmares' is a cult classic from the post-'Creepshow' heyday of '80s horror anthologies

By Steve Palopoli

IN THE EARLY 1950s, William Gaines' outrageous, gory EC Comics imprint gave the world Tales From the Crypt—not to mention the best zombie drawings of all time. It may very well have been American pop culture's first taste of the punk aesthetic, beating out Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran and even James Dean by a few years.

Gaines' comics were also the grisly godfather of the modern horror anthology film. Basically like after-school specials with buckets of blood, EC cribbed from history's greatest short-story authors to establish a formula that still works like gangbusters: morality + irony + grotesquery = whoop, whoop whoop! Classic.

The EC-inspired Creepshow kicked off a Golden Age of horror anthologies in the '80s; there were several good entries, but the cultiest one is probably 1983's Nightmares. Many remember it for its cast, especially the early appearance of Emilio Estevez. I like Nightmares a lot—it's a great example of an overachieving B movie, and it mines the message-heavy EC template with breathless abandon. All four stories are about danger visited upon characters who have lost their moral fortitude in some way, and the first two are flat-out doom prophecies about the deadliness of addiction. When you can directly link smoking to the imminent threat of being murdered by a serial killer, you have definitely got that morality-tale mojo working!

But perhaps the weirdest little badge of honor you can pin on Nightmares is its prescient punk-rock soundtrack, the first example I know of punk's connection to EC and horror being acknowledged in a major movie.

Nightmares whips through its stories like so:

1. Terror in Topanga: This segment takes anti-smoking to the extreme and is a very basic run-through of a famous urban legend. Still, creepy and effective. Lee Ving from Fear (credited as Lee James Jude) plays a key role that won't surprise fans of the band.

2. The Bishop of Battle: The best-remembered segment, for good reason, this has Emilio Estevez facing off against a video game. Alas, his obsession is so all-encompassing he even ignores the advances of the local arcade hottie—played by Moon Unit Zappa! Most of the great music is in this story, including songs by Fear and a classic punk-movie-moment featuring Estevez fighting with his parents to the accompaniment of Black Flag's "Rise Above." Supposedly the Tron-like video graphics used here almost bankrupted the production. They're definitely dated, but something about the disorienting way the game is designed and presented onscreen makes it seem pretty bitchen even today. I'd play it, and if you would too you might want to check out the real-life version of the game some awesome supernerd created at

3. The Benediction: The least interesting of the stories has Lance Henriksen as a priest who's lost his faith (at one point he actually says "I've lost my faith!" in case you somehow missed it). He's terrorized by a black pickup truck apparently driven by Satan; if you were wondering how the devil rolls, there's an upside-down cross hanging from the rear-view mirror. Mostly, though, this is just a poor imitation of Duel, with Our Hero constantly wringing his hands over why he's bedeviled. Hey, padre, maybe God wants you to take the bus, ever think of that?

4. Night of the Rat: Considering that Veronica Cartwright went head to head with H.R. Giger's alien just a couple years before this, you'd think a rat would be no big deal. But this is a "devil rodent"—which, we're led to believe, besieges her family because they've become materialistic jackasses. Fair enough, I say! Anyway, it's a fun suburban gothic in the mold of Poltergeist, and when they promise a giant rat, they ain't kidding! Also features Black Flag's now-famous cover of "Louie Louie," though I cannot for the life of me figure out who in this family supposedly had the stereo cued up to Black Flag.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your pick for best '80s horror anthology here.

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