Project Nightmare (1987) is bad and you should watch it

Currently, this bit of obscure techno-thriller is sitting at 4.4/10 on IMDB. This is quite fair, as it’s quite badly and very cheaply made. But, when I watched it as part of the Bela Lugosi’s Shed Poor Quality Film Club, I unironically enjoyed it. It’s possibly because I spent most of the time working out the film director and writer Donald M. Jones was trying to make, or I just have an unquenchable thirst for proto-cyberpunk concepts. Either way, I wanted to share news of its existence.

The first thing to note is that whilst it was released in 1987, it was made in 1977. So it’s worth putting yourself into that post-Vietnam era USA mindset. The film starts with Gus and Jon, two All American and Very Middle-Aged men waking up in The Wilderness with their tents destroyed. Confused, lost, and both badly acted and poorly dubbed, they wander across the house of Marcie, with who they proceed to have a rambling conversation about not much. Gus has a vision of computer-generated tartan, and if you want to be wilful about it you can probably cram some unintended homo-erotic subtext between them.

“Have you heard of the ancient art of fondue?…”

Eventually, they get attacked by strange lights in the sky and an unwilling determination for the script to tell rather than show everything that happens. They find a half-dead man in a car, drive around and then walk to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and constantly discuss how strange everything is in a way that suggests it happens all the time.

The keyword is “subtext”

Once all the forest locations are used up, they head into the desert where things just get plain dreamlike. Aircraft appear, people disappear, tensions are theoretically raised but everything stays very even, and the party splitting up is about the first major plot point of any interest. At the mid-point of the film, Gus finds a secret government bunker, things get a bit of a The Prisoner feel to them, and not much gets explained. Finally, a giant green head appears to terrify us all, things feel like they get resolved, and Gus and Jon head off.

“Kneel before Oz!”

All of this is done on a budget of $30,000, and you’ll swear most of it isn’t on the screen. At a sparse one hour and fourteen minutes, you’ll also wonder why it wasn’t sold as a perfectly serviceable Twilight Zone episode, rather than being padded out with cinematic insulation foam. This is assuming you’re able to maintain interest in it. So, why the hell do I like it? Mostly it’s because it really does have a dream-like quality to it. Not necessarily the most exciting or interesting of dreams, but it’s there and it’s (intentionally or not) quite well executed. You can see touches of Lost, Twin Peaks, and other strange content in there, and its no-beat passivity combined with the frequently random asides makes it something you’re unlikely to have seen before (for good or for bad).

[[Coding Intensifies]]

But also, as the story is so minimalist and all but the most fleeting of explanation as to what is happening is offered, you really can have fun placing your own ideas into what the heck is going on. It’s a coloring-in-book for you to play with, and a space to throw in concepts with wild mix-and-match abandon. There is also an unrelenting sense of dread about the computer age, and of government projects gone out of control, reduced to a level of personal persecution, that is both indicative of when it was made and somehow predictive of the modern era.

“Did I leave the gas on?”

Again, this is a very badly made, very slow film, that has the same air of ambiguity that putting the phonebook on random shuffle would bring. Even as I think back over it I couldn’t tell you what really kept me engaged throughout, but only that it wasn’t snark or cynicism. So, on the off chance that it might also work for you, I thought it fair to let you know it’s out there for your consideration.

The Raggedyman

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