If you ever rented a videotape in the 90s in Australia, chances are high that you got to understand the film ratings with this little video:
As I grew up and my knowledge of films expanded, I was able to pick out all of the movies except for one – that bloody MA15+ rated movie. No surprises, this is that movie.
Night Terrors is an oddity of a film that either shouldn’t have bothered to be made, or could have been amazing in the hands of someone who had a better track-record of quality. Tobe Hooper undeniably delivered with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I hear that Lifeforce is enjoyable in a very hokey way. Poltergeist is of course a big hit, but the inescapable brush of Spielberg’s hand gives a lot of credence to the rumours that Hooper barely directed a scene.
Night Terrors comes to us from the distant time of 1993, when the sexual thriller was in its prime and moviemakers were looking for more and more ways to take advantage of exploitation movies masking as softcore erotica. It’s a movie that wants to be intelligent and artistic but doesn’t have the smarts or talent to do so. In the hands of someone like Dario Argento (Argento in his prime of course) this movie could have been everything it wanted to be and more.
The plot follows Genie (Zoe Trilling), a young American girl who travels to Alexandria to be with her father (William Finley), an archaeologist who spouts off a lot of Christian-zealot dialogue despite his many visitations to a local prostitute.
It also has a framing device of sorts, with Robert Englund playing the Marquis de Sade in prison. De Sade offers soliloquies and musings that semi-narrate the film, and goes for a bit of his trademarked sadism, even convincing another prisoner to tear his own eyes out.
Back in the present day (of 1993) Genie browses a local marketplace when a small throng of locals grabs her and drags her into an alley. They clearly want to have their way with her, until she’s rescued by Sabina (Alona Kimhi), the aforementioned prostitute. Sabina takes her under her wing and shows her around, and introduces her to the writings of de Sade. The next night, they go to a club which is all sorts of exotic (in the way that the early 90s thought was exotic) and Genie gets whacked off her face on opium, which heightens the exotic/erotic shenanigans in the club.
The following morning, Genie’s friends drag her to a horse race. In her post-opium daze and under the blaring sun, she passes out and is revived by Mahmoud (Juliano Mer-Khamis) a handsomely swarthy man who quickly sweeps her of her feet. They kindle up a quick romance and before you can say “Early 90s!” they’re having long elaborate sex scenes in his tent in the desert.
They part ways, and Genie begins reading the de Sade book that Sabina gave her, and the film tries to show her growing sexual intrigue by cutting to this bizarre hallucination sequence of women fellating snakes and Mahmoud riding a horse completely naked.
But before too long, it becomes apparent that Genie’s slowly getting herself embroiled in a cult of de Sade worshippers, and it all comes to a head when she meets Paul Chevalier at a party (also played by Robert Englund), and he claims himself a descendant of de Sade.
Soon enough, Genie’s captured as a sacrifice for the cult, and Sabina and Mahmoud reveal their betrayal, it was all part of a plan, so on and so forth. For added fun, there’s a great special effects failure where Mahmoud reveals he’s beheaded Genie’s dad, and presents it to her.
Some more torture happens, and then Genie escapes, the film cuts to one final flashback of de Sade in his cell, and the film gives up and ends.
It’s a strange movie, in that there is material here that could’ve worked if anybody gave a damn. Englund is on fine form as both de Sade and Chevalier, but he’s the only cast member to give any conviction to his performance.
It would be easy to call Zoe Trilling’s performance as Genie akin to a poor-man’s Reese Witherspoon, but even she didn’t have much of a career at this point in time. But it’s that same sort of girl-next-door naïveté awkwardly mixed with a sexual awakening that’s glossed over in favour of some softcore porn.
No one else fares any better, sadly not even William Finley, whose work I only know from Phantom of the Paradise, but you feel could have made something more of his character if there had been any real attention given to the script,
The film is plotless, and the characters meander from one scene to another. And although the movie has some hilarious moments of craziness, it’s surprisingly dull and bloated, even at only 93 minutes long. There’s also the curiously anti-Christian element of presenting Genie’s dad as a hypocrite for bangin’ a prostitute while he spouts off passages from the bible, but it’s never followed up on. There’s no point to it, other than to make you go “Oh, he has sex with a prostitute. That’s unusual.”
In its favour though, the movie’s very nicely shot and photographed, and although it’s there as part of a shitty movie, Alexandria does at least look like Alexandria and not Egypt, California. Some of the visually out-there moments are really intriguing, and there’s enough of them to give the film a certain style, but it’s ultimately like Tobe Hooper shot a music video for a song that no one remembered to write.
It’s not entirely worthless, but its 3.0 rating on IMDb is more than understandable. But at the very least, I found out where the “When you’re as criminal as I” line from the ratings commercial came from.