The Essential Movie Library #101: Nightdreams (1981)

This erotic horror film features a pair of scientists who conduct an experiment on a sleeping woman, using electric jolts to induce sexual dreams

One hundred one years after the first feature (Italy’s silent epic Quo Vadis), just outside the realm of the (more or less) cinematically respectable that culminates with the movies’ consideration of God (Essential Movie Library #100), for our 101st and last entry in this series let us finally consider the forbidden. Nightdreams is a porn film; what is meant by “porn” anymore may be disputable, but that Nightdreams is porn is indisputable. Earlier in the 20th century the courts, anyway, regarded a depiction of sex as not porn only if it didn’t turn you on, even if the point of porn that doesn’t turn you on is as mysterious as the point of comedy that doesn’t make you laugh. The paradoxes of a culture for which the mayhem and sadism of countless R films is mainstream whereas sex remains beyond the pale have become so familiar as to be trite, but something about our collective psyche supports such a contradiction.

These absurdities aside, more inescapable are the artistic dilemmas. Ultimately sex, even between strangers, is intimate in a way that violence isn’t, which is to say our personal involvement with sex when it’s being dramatized onscreen is complicated. Halfway through the marathon getting-it-on of the lovely lesbians in last year’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, the mind wanders to whether this month’s propane bill got paid. Sex is so personal that it stops drama in its tracks and takes the audience out of the drama, whereas detached violence pulls the audience in; therein are enigmas beyond the movies’ comprehension. Co-written by Permanent Midnight author Jerry Stahl, Nightdreams wasn’t the first porn film to have dramatic pretensions but, as video and later DVD technology took porn out of grim Hollywood Boulevard theaters where audiences didn’t want to even come in contact with the seats, it was the first American porn to be so conspicuous about its cinematic pretensions. Often silly and infantile, Nightdreams is also defiantly bizarre, the filmmakers certainly having watched their share of David Lynch (Essential Movie Library #18 & 70)—and unless you insist on being superior to it all, come on, the Arabian desert scene is hot, in a climactic as well as climatic sense. Nightdreams was a landmark in the white sticky afterflow of which came Café Flesh and the avantporn of Michael Ninn’s Shock and In the Garden of Shadows. The forbidden isn’t what it used to be. But then, neither are the movies.