Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
In the opening scene of the 1981 “Nightdreams,” porn princess Dorothy LeMay furiously works her pussy as she barks lines at the camera. The sound of a heartbeat thumps below her monologue. “I know you’re watching me,” she says, “I can feel your eyes like fingers, touching me in certain places. I can feel my pussy, so open you can see inside me.”
Those lines reveal what writers Jerry Stahl and Stephen Sayadian, and director Francis Delia, are after: they want to play around in the confluence of voyeurism and subjective fantasy. LeMay is playing Mrs. Van Houten, the subject of a series of tests in which two doctors administer electric shocks intended to inspire erotic dreams. The doctors, a man and a woman, constantly observe Van Houten through a large window. They analyze her reactions, and comment on them. But their professorial demeanors can’t mask their amorous agitation. Like the porn audience, they occupy a position of helplessness: Unable to act on their arousal, or participate in their subject’s visions, they’re forced to consider both in the abstract. They’re rendered impotent by the act of observation.
This theme of postmodern frustration — born of the gulf separating experience from our analysis of it — seems an important one for the creators of “Nightdreams.” Delia and Sayadian returned to it the following year. In their “Cafe Flesh,” a post-apocalyptic group of theatergoers, neutered by exposure to radiation, is forced to watch the world’s remaining “sex positives” engage in naughty acts — the very acts they are no longer capable of performing.
Yet “Nightdreams” is a lot more fun than “Cafe Flesh,” because it consistently builds on its premise, and because its fantasy sequences have a conceptual daringness — a drive — that’s keyed to LeMay’s peculiar fervency. (That fervency is wrought on her face, which has the uncouth animal jaw of Elizabeth Siddal, the Pre-Raphaelites’ favorite model.) Strung one after the other, separated by ever-more-exasperated banter on the part of the two doctors, these scenes progress from a playroom penetration by an animated jack-in-the-box into weirder and more sinister territory. The visions eventually culminate in a netherworld tryst in which LeMay swallows the load of Satan himself. It’s here that Mrs. Van Houten finally climaxes (if the devil can’t get you off, you’re hopeless), and in the following scene we see her enter the heaven of the sexually satisfied, where she lovingly screws an angel to the calming strains of Satie.
These fantasy sequences are the movie’s raison d’être, and each of them is conceived with an art director’s fastidiousness (they’re like porno Powell & Pressburgers). Delia’s and Sayadian’s experiences in publishing and on Madison Avenue serve them well: Despite the picture’s modest budget, its components have a sensual and iconographical pithiness that evokes television and magazine advertisements. The filmmakers court rather than duck these comparisons: They like the pre-packaged absurdity of commercialism. More importantly, they know that ads are readymade fantasies, and that longing and frustration are built right into them.
In one of these fantasy bits, LeMay is dressed in Western gear. Her pussy and ass are eaten by two subordinate cowpokes while a new wave rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” plays on the soundtrack. (The song’s title can be taken as an allusion to the redheaded LeMay’s vulva.) The Old West iconography — a cow skull, a blue-black horizon, the orange glow of a campfire — is the simple, boiled-down stuff of dreams and cartoons; it connects to our predigested fantasies. And the cutting and camera movement, which proceed according to the tempo of the song, give the action a choreographed, self-contained quality that help it to avoid the monotony of standard hardcore fare. In the succeeding fantasy, LeMay is laid out for the delectation of a group of Arabs inside what seems to be a torchlit seraglio. This time there’s no musical accompaniment, but the cramped compositions and stark lighting give the images a Caravaggio-like intensity, and the incessant murmuring — the only sounds aside from LeMay’s moans — suggests a spatial depth that the images barely hint at. There’s an air of suspense. Who, you wonder, is lurking back there, waiting to fuck her next?
But the film’s most memorable sequence is more satirical than titillating. It’s a comic sketch in which LeMay, interrupted while fixing breakfast, jauntily blows a black man (the chipper Fast Steppin’ Freddie) who is dressed as a box of Nabisco Cream of Wheat. (“It really fills a girl up,” announces the package-cum-pitchman, “nutritious and delicious.”) Scored to a swinging (and very white) version of “Old Man River,” the scene prods the nexus of advertising, consumerism, sex, and race in ways you can’t quite parse. And in its gleefully subversive rudeness, it recalls the best underground movies of the ’60s and ’70s, like Robert Downey’s “Putney Swope” and Brian De Palma’s “Hi, Mom!”
There is more in “Nightdreams” that is suggestive of De Palma. Sayadian and Delia, who helped to design a number of posters for Hollywood movies, use one of the fantasy sequences in “Nightdreams” to recreate their poster for De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” in which a pair of stockinged legs is threatened by a murderer sliding through a door in the composition’s background. (Of course, in “Nightdreams,” the figure doesn’t murder the woman; he fucks her.) Many of the predilections that make “Nightdreams” so memorable are on display in that poster, namely a capacity for activating cramped, box-like spaces; a love of pop iconography; and a nose for titillation that is all mixed up with a looming menace.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that De Palma recently named “Nightdreams” as one of his favorite guilty pleasures. Certainly, it’s easy to imagine the director of “Carrie” responding to the movie’s ending, in which the character we know as Mrs. Van Houten appears outside of her cage, and reveals a twist that inverts the meaning of all that has come before it. Well-fucked and triumphant, LeMay looks directly into the camera. You’ve watched her. Now she’s watching you.