The 1983 horror anthology flick Nightmares can be seen as telling moment in director Joseph Sargent’s career arc, a waystation between the apex of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the nadir of Jaws: The Revenge. The collection of four shorts was originally envisioned as a made-for-TV affair, but concerns over the subject matter led Universal to repackage the project for cinematic release. Regardless of whether or not Nightmares was really too horrific for network suits to handle, it was certainly well behind the prevailing shock ‘n’ gore standards for cinematic horror at the time.
The decision to go for a theatrical release turned out to be ironic in hindsight, as most of the folks who’ve seen Nightmares did so because of its use as off-peak filler programming by cable movie channels.
The individual segments are about what you’d expect from an early 1980s made-for-TV spookshow, updated riffs on Rod Serling’s twist-driven formula with dashes of Dan Curtis (or should that be Richard Matheson) and diluted drive-in material thrown in for mediocre measure. Tales of psycho killers and devil rats share a platform with a story of a priest (the great Lance Henriksen) whose crisis of faith manifests as a limited-budget “homage” both Duel and The Car.
They aren’t particularly awful, but they do have the qualities of entertaiment Olestra — experiences that go in one end and out the other without leaving any trace of their passage. The same cannot be said for “The Bishop of Battle,” which is the primary reason anyone even remembers Nightmares these days.
The segment features Emilio Estevez as “J.J.” a walkman-wearing video hustler who has dedicated his surly teenage existence to conquering the “thirteen progressively harder levels” of The Bishop of Battle coin-op machine. The game is essentially a three-dimensional variant of Berzerk, kitted out with an absurdly complex set of controls, fancy vector graphics, and synthesized speech. It’s the type of videogame that could only be envisioned by folks with little-to-no direct experience of the actual scene (though that hasn’t stopped post-millennial strivers from trying to code an accurate recreation of the game).
J.J.’s heroic journey to best the Bishop brings him into conflict with his friends, his parents, and his romantic interest (a woefully underused Moon Unit Zappa), but the life of a true video warrior requires determination and a willingness to make sacrifices.
Oh, and you should probably prepare yourself in case the arcade machine explodes and sends digitized adversaries to chase you through an abandoned shopping mall. (It happened to me once after a long session of Final Fight and getting bodyslammed in front of a Panda Express by a glam metal ninja is no picnic, let me tell you.)
“The Bishop of Battle” features both the future Repo Man and the original Valley Girl, plenty of shots of 1980s arcade (and mall) culture at its high water mark, and a selection of punk rawk tracks from the likes of Black Flag, Negative Trend, and Fear (whose ferocious frontman Lee Ving also appeared in the psycho killer segment of the film as the, well, you figure it out). I’d be hard pressed to find another 1980s artifact so perfectly tailored to my retro-obsessions and so deliriously goofy in execution.
Though the home video versions of Nightmares are currently out-of-print, you can catch the entire “Bishop of Battle” segment here for the time being. It may not be great, but it sure is a wonder to behold.
Recommended listening: Bobby & Synthia – Video Violence (from Thirty-Six Hours, 1982)
No quarters given.