A Prior Engagement: Night Wars (1988)
Vietnam veterans Trent (Brian O’Connor) and Jim (Cameron Smith) never really left the war behind them. Particularly not the memory of the time when their platoon was betrayed by the eeeevil McGregor (Steve Horton wildly chewing scenery), and they had to leave their friend Jhonny (Chet Hood) – yes, that’s how the film spells the name – behind when fleeing from his torture-loving hands.
More than a decade later, Trent and Jim start suffering from nightmares about the McGregor/Jhonny situation even worse than the ones they already had. Quite peculiar nightmares these are too, for wounds inflicted in them stay right with you when you’re awake. And as our heroes will learn once they’re convinced they are not just suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, this works the other way round too, so they are able to take items, weapons for example, with them from the waking world into their nightmares.
In utterly appropriate dream logic, Trent and Jim decide the obvious solution to their shared nightmare problems is to go kill Dream-McGregor and free Dream-Jhonny. Alas, before they can go and do that, they have to cope with a well-meaning veterans hospital doctor (Dan Haggerty) who understandably thinks they’ve gone crazy, and learn that Dream-McGregor has learned a few moves from Freddy Krueger.
To my perhaps ever so slightly twisted mind, the movies David A. Prior directed for his Action International Pictures (I’m not going to call it A.I.P.) are a delight in their curious mixture of local filmmaking gone direct-to-video, awkwardness, self-deprecating humour and often deft as well as daft high concepts. It’s as if classic (or, depending on your taste “classic”) Men’s Adventure paperbacks from the 70s had gone to the US South, developed a degree of self-consciousness and decided to make strange genre mash-ups that just aren’t satisfied with being one kind of movie at one time.
The sources for Night Wars‘ particular genre mash-up are pretty obvious: firstly, it’s the dreary ‘Namsploitation sub-genre concerned with bringing the boys back home, secondly, it’s good old A Nightmare on Elm Street, which turns out to be a combination as ridiculously un-obvious as it is entertaining. Instead of your usual jingoistic affair, “bringing the boys back home” takes on a slightly different meaning when said boys – or really just one boy – are probably only still alive in the protagonists’ dreams, and the usual story of winning the war after the fact turns into one of people trying to live through their guilt and trauma. Of course, this being a David A. Prior movie, living through one’s guilt and trauma is done by shooting and blowing up nameless Asian henchmen in one’s dreams, but hey, baby steps. Actually, this pinko communist is for once rather happy that these nameless Asian people are commanded by an evil, ranting American (even though the whole traitor “because the Vietcong pays better” angle makes little sense with its suggestion the Vietcong had much money to spare for anything); it at least spares us some really unpleasant stereotyping. In fact, most Action International films I’ve seen by now don’t have their heart set on being racist at all, which is rather uncommon for the action and war genres in their US versions, and is of course quite welcome.
When Night Wars isn’t showing us Asian American extras throwing themselves backwards in absurd death throes, or bamboo huts exploding (we can for once blame hand grenades), it gets around to a handful of creepy scenes too. Particularly the death of Trent’s wife (played by Jill Foors) is rather effective, set up to be at once surreal and horrifying on a very basic human level, and does fine work with the way it turns something normal and pleasant into something horrible. That scene, and a handful of others, are as effectively dream-like as Prior can manage on his budget and with the overly bright lighting the film can’t seem to escape even in dream sequences.
Of course, this being an Action International Pictures film, the neat ideas and effective moments are not enhanced by slick filmmaking. In fact, this late in his career, Prior’s direction wasn’t usually as raw and awkward as it is here, with slow and counter-productively staged action sequences, often little of visual interest shot even less interestingly, and acting so shoddy Dan Haggerty is the best actor on screen. Still, like with most Prior films, there’s something deeply likeable about his approach. Watching even the shoddiest of his films, I never get the feeling a given movie’s problems are attributable to laziness, nor to a lack of interest in the film by its makers but are side-effects of seat-of-your-pants regional filmmaking that can’t always be avoided. Plus, while Night Wars can look unintentionally funny – a boy can take only so much of Dan Haggerty staring dramatically at a dozen alarm clocks, after all – it is never boring or lacking in interesting, if potentially misguided, ideas.
I’m quite sure that the film’s unwillingness to explain why or how McGregor is some sort of dream demon will drive more than one viewer to conniptions because this very basic part of the film’s set-up doesn’t make much sense without any explanations, unless you want to read everything what’s going on here as a metaphor for the protagonists’ PTSD, which I find impossible to believe in an Action International film. Anyway, I for my part think this lack of clarity and explanation just enhances the film’s mood of weirdness, as does the fact that Vietnam looks a lot like California, or as do puzzling moments like the scene where we realize that our heroes are shooting their guns in the real world too when they do so in their dreams; I’d like to have their very patient neighbours.
But then, I’d also like to own Blu-ray special editions of my favourite Action International Pictures films, so my needs and interest just might be somewhat special.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?