In 1975, a cult called Unity Fields commits mass suicide in a horrific manner—by fire—at the behest of its psychopathic leader, Franklin Harris (Richard Lynch). Only one young woman named Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin), a child at the time of the fire, survives, though she lies in a coma for thirteen years.
After she wakes, Cynthia is plagued by horrific flashbacks of her childhood at Unity Fields, and is forced to attend experimental group therapy sessions for borderline personality disorder at the hospital led by Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott). Cynthia's visions become more vivid, and include Harris, who often appears to her with his flesh burnt. When her roommate, Miriam, is discharged from the hospital, Cynthia has a vision of Harris in the elevator with her; however, the doors close before she is able to warn her. Miriam is found dead on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, having leapt from a window in what appears to be a suicide.
A male and female patient are later killed by the blades on an industrial fan in a utility room of the hospital, which Cynthia also attributes to Harris, who she believes has come back from his death to kill those around her. Ralph, a troubled masochist patient, becomes enamored with Cynthia; one day, they take an elevator to the basement of the hospital. During an episode, he commits suicide by stabbing himself multiple times in the abdomen.
Awakening from sedation after the incident, Cynthia finds Harris sitting in her room, calling her his "love child," and urging her to commit suicide. Shortly after, Harris visits Hettie, a clairvoyant patient, in her room. Instead of allowing him to kill her, she drinks formaldehyde she stole from a supply room, effectively killing herself. When Dr. Karmen discovers his corrupt peer, Dr. Berrisford, has intentionally laced the therapy group's drugs with psychogenic substances (in the hope that it will effectively make the patients suicidal, and thus corroborate Berrisford's research), he confronts Cynthia, insisting her visions of Harris are not real.
Dr. Karmen then pulls an emergency alarm in the hospital, which elicits chaos. Cynthia escapes to the rooftop, where Dr. Karmen finds her standing on the ledge. Harris, invisible to Dr. Karmen, urges Cynthia to jump. She leaps from the building, but before hitting the ground below, awakens back at the house in which the Unity Fields members committed suicide. There, she is confronted by Harris, who welcomes her; however, it is only a vision, and she awakens to Dr. Karmen holding her by the arm as she dangles over the ledge. Berrisford, aware that Dr. Karmen has discovered his plot, goes to the rooftop as well, and attempts to push Dr. Karmen to his death as well. His attempt is thwarted by the arrival of hospital security, and Berrisford insists that Dr. Karmen is responsible for altering the patients' medication. He then pulls a revolver from his coat, but before he is able to shoot, Cynthia pushes him to his death.Jennifer Rubin as Cynthia
Bruce Abbott as Dr. Alex Karmen
Richard Lynch as Franklin Harris
Dean Cameron as Ralph Pesco
Harris Yulin as Dr. Berrisford
Susan Barnes as Connie
John Scott Clough as Victor
E.G. Daily as Lana
Damita Jo Freeman as Gilda
Louis Giambalvo as Ed
Susan Ruttan as Miriam
Sy Richardson as Detective Wasserman
Missy Francis as Young Cynthia
Sheila Scott-Wilkenson as Hettie
Ben Kronen as Edgar
Bad Dreams was shot on location in Los Angeles, California over a period of eight weeks, with production beginning on October 26, 1987, and concluding in mid-December. Shooting locations included the California Medical Center and California Medical Building in Los Angeles; Lakeview Hospital in Lake View Terrace; and the Brentwood Veterans Hospital. The budget for the production was $4.5 million.
The film was released theatrically in the United States by 20th Century Fox on April 8, 1988. It grossed $9,797,098 at the U.S. box office.
Bad Dreams received largely negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a half-star out of four, writing: "I praise the production only to suggest that these people should be better employed in worthier projects. It is not surprising to see a violent teenage film exploiting the lowest common denominator and preaching a message of nihilism and despair. It is not surprising to see the latest special-effect technology supplying lingering closeups of burnt flesh and other horrors. What is surprising, I suppose, is that nice people would want to wade in this sewer."
Vincent Canby of The New York Times gave the film a middling review, calling it a "a breezy, bloody kind of amalgam of The Breakfast Club and A Nightmare on Elm Street... It doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense, plot-wise, and it's instantly forgettable. However, it's amusing for as long as it lasts. Also, for a film of this genre, it has a cast of unusually good actors."
The film was released on DVD in the United States by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2006. This version is currently out of print.
The film was later released by Shout Factory along with Visiting Hours, first as a double feature DVD on September 13, 2011 and then a similar Blu-Ray release followed on February 18th, 2014.