“Lost somewhere between life and death, time and eternity, there are places which…leave you forever changed. This is one such place…Each door leads someone to that second chance that will turn their life around and to others that reckoning that will end their sleep forever. Welcome to…the Nightmare Cafe.”
– The opening narration to Wes Craven’s Nightmare Cafe (1992).
On January 29, 1992, auteur Wes Craven and horror icon Robert Englund introduced the world to their latest genre collaboration: the NBC TV series called Nightmare Cafe.
Although the series only lasted for six hour-long episodes before abrupt cancellation, it nonetheless remains a fascinating and unusual entry in the cult-tv Valhalla.
At the time the show premiered (the year following David Lynch’s Twin Peaks…), many people involved in the production referred to the program as “The Twilight Zone meets Cheers.”
Writing for New York Magazine, critic John Leonard called the Craven TV series “rather witty” (March 2, 1992, page 59) though, in contrast, Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker opined that Nightmare Cafe was “Dull, stupid, and really annoying.” (February 28, 1992, page 42).
Nightmare Cafe involves two “average joes,” Faye Perronovic (Lindsay Frost) and Frank Nolan (Jack Coleman) as they unexpectedly become entangled with a supernatural, or perhaps mystical edifice: the Nightmare Cafe.
The cafe itself is a kind of art deco, retro-noir-styled eating establishment perched on a seedy waterfront; the kind of joint — or “dive” — that is open all night every night, and no one seems to notice…or care. In one episode, the diner is even called “a dump.”
Already stationed inside the mysterious cafe is a third character: Blackie (Robert Englund), a sardonic, faintly-demonic man of unknown origin, motives and agenda. In the first episode of Nightmare Cafe, he informs Faye and Frank that “Good or bad, dead or alive,” the Cafe gets “all kinds” and that this duo has “been selected” (by the cafe…) to help such strangers “and maybe learn something” about themselves “along the way.”
So, rather unconventionally, Blackie serves as both the “Rod Serling” of the unusual TV series — a narrator and master of ceremonies in the individual installments — and an unpredictable, Loki-like player in the proceedings themselves. At various points, you wonder if Blackie is the Devil, or simply a reformed soul doing “penance” for bad deeds in life.
In various guises and appearances, Blackie leads men and women (the series guest stars…) either to redemption or doom, and Englund is perfect in this unique role. After all, Englund had played both the innocent Willie on V: The Series (1985) and the most famous screen-monster of the 1980s, Freddy Krueger. A truly versatile player, Englund’s Blackie proves a “wild card” and his very presence in Nightmare Cafe — so ambiguous and unexcavated — adds a sense of fun to each segment.
After confronting their own personal demons in the pilot episode directed by Philip Noyce, Faye becomes waitress in the cafe; Frank the short order cook. And their weekly clientele is anyone who happens to wander in, perhaps at the heeding of the sentient Cafe itself.
Various doorways in the colorful cafe lead to other worlds, to other times, and to alternate possibilities. In fact, the Cafe is not entirely unlike Dr. Who’s famous TARDIS: it can come and go to different locales as it chooses, and seems very much alive. In one episode, “Faye and Ivy,” the Cafe even nurses hurt feelings for a time.
In interviews at the time, Wes Craven described the Nightmare Cafe premise this way: “two people inherit a cafe that’s somewhere between life and death,” and that “People come to experience their worst nightmare…turning point…comeuppance…breakthrough. (Steve Biodrowski. Cinefantastique, Volume # 22, Number 2: “Wes Craven, Alive and Shocking.” October 1991, page 11).
In other words, imagine the Twilight Zone as a diner; but with a set of continuing characters to shepherd visitors through the strange happenings and twisty narratives. Thus Nightmare Cafe is a wholly unique show: part-anthology and part serial adventure with regular characters. Perhaps the clearest, most familiar TV antecedent is ABC’s Fantasy Island (1977 – 1984), which also saw regular characters (Mr. Roarke and Tattoo…) leading guest stars through weekly stories that could leap across established genres. Romances, horror tales, fantasy, etc…
Accordingly, the six episodes in Nightmare Cafe’s stable really run the gamut in terms of narrativesand style.
“Dying Well is the Best Revenge” (March 6, 1992) is a film noir-styled murder story, replete with a femme-fatale and a would-be “patsy,” Frank himself.
“Faye and Ivy” (March 13, 1992) is a kind of family drama about Faye making peace with her long-estranged sister, Ivy (Penny Fuller).
“The Heart of the Mystery” (March 20, 1992) involves another interesting variation on noir conventions, with an obsessed detective (Timothy Carhart) offered the opportunity to travel back in time and witness a crime that he has never been able to solve.
“Sanctuary for a Child” (March 27, 1992) — starring Angela Bassett and William B. Davis — involves a dying boy, Luke (Brandon Adams, of Craven’s The People Under the Stairs ) — who cannot ascend to the spiritual realm until his bickering, resentful parents reconcile.
And finally, “Aliens Ate My Lunch” (April 3, 1992) is a crazy satire about a Tabloid reporter who makes up a story about alien invaders. The Cafe makes his unbelievable story all too true, and Crven uses this story (which he penned) to make a comment on the “mob mentality,” in the very spirit of Serling’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”
In many ways, Nightmare Cafe remains an importantelement in the career of Wes Craven. At the time of the program’s broadcast, it was the latest develoment in his “rubber reality” horror formula (which included the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Serpent and the Rainbow , and Shocker ) and an indication of the Pirandello-esque direction he would soon take in cinematic efforts such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and the blockbuster, Scream (1996).
I’ve always believed that given a little more time — and some patience from NBC — Nightmare Cafe could have proved a really potent, beloved, and long-lived horror series. But with only six episodes in its canon, one might feel rightlfy that the show never truly found a consistent voice or approach.
Following cancellation, Nightmare Cafe matriculated to the Sci-Fi Channel in the mid-1990s. There, it would often air as part of the “Series Collection” at 5:00 am on Sunday mornings, a time slot no better for the unusual series than its original Friday night perch.
Under that umbrella “Series Collectin” description, Nightmare Cafe joined other failed — but oft-remembered and appreciated efforts — series such as Planet of the Apes (1974), The Fantastic Journey (1977), The Amazing Spider-man (1978), and Darkroom (1981).