The ultimate legacy of Roger Corman will be many things be it his legendary accomplishments and tactics as a producer or his films as a director, however perhaps Corman’s biggest impact on film is the mentorship and opportunities offered by Corman to young upstarts eager to break into film. The names are numerous and many illustrious, some of the obligatory mentions being a young Joe Dante cutting trailers for Corman, Francis Ford Coppola helming Dementia 13 (1963) for Corman’s Filmgroup or Martin Scorsese later being hired by Corman to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972). Even Nicolas Roeg got in work for Corman, Roeg’s cinematography being one of the defining characteristics of Corman’s Vincent Price led Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Having his hand in many projects throughout any given year, it’s inevitable that for every graduate of the Corman school of filmmaking to become known names, other names might escape film fans, even fans of the low budget genre and exploitation films Corman made his name trafficking in. Kristine Peterson probably isn’t a household name to most genre fans, and by her own admission she worked as a “hired gun” on most of her directorial credits.¹ A quick glance at her filmography probably does little to convince otherwise with franchise sequels like Critters 3 (1991) and Redemption: Kickboxer 5 (1995) however along with shoestring budgets and exhausting schedules, a producer like Corman also gave tremendous creative freedom. For a brief window in time Peterson was at the helm of some of the most interesting and psychologically ambitious low-budget and direct-to-video films that should absolutely be of interest to genre fans, especially as the 90’s erotic thriller is finally experiencing a slop of enlightenment of sorts and films that become all the more interesting in hindsight considering Peterson’s current, post-filmmaking profession of psychoanalysis.
After cutting her teeth working as an assistant and second unit director on cult classics like Chopping Mall (1986), The Ladies Club (1986) and Reform School Girls (1986), as well as working for former Corman protégé Coppola, Peterson made her pitch to Corman. “Roger Corman lets people direct… I knocked on his door and said I want to direct a film,” Peterson would later recall.² Backed by Corman’s Concorde Pictures on a budget of $500,000, Peterson’s debut film Deadly Dreams (1988) was sold as a slasher, the timing of its release along with the “Dreams” of the title surely leading many to believing it to be a Nightmare on Elm Street rip off when in actuality the film is one of the most psychologically admirable and visually arresting horror films of the 80’s. Opening with a Christmas Eve set scene somewhat reminiscent of William Friedkin’s Rampage (1987) with a young Alex Torme (Mitchell Anderson) witnessing the murder of his parents when Perkins (Duane Whitaker), a disgruntled businessman whom Alex’s father recently put out of work slaughters the Tormes right in front of Alex’s eyes. Fast-forward to an older Alex in college, plagued with reoccurring nightmares of being chased down and murdered by a hunter wearing a wolf mask, the same worn by Perkins on the night of the murders. The nightmares of course become more intense, setting forth one of the more unique dream vs. reality scenarios as Alex’s psyche and life unravels by his fears of his dreams becoming reality.
Avoiding the usual dream clichés with surreal imagery like the wolf-masked hunter, striking use of deer and Peterson’s deft handling of the dream/reality conundrum that can pop up at any moment in the film, Deadly Dreams is certainly a standout in the crowded field of late 80’s dream-based horror. Even more deft however, is Peterson’s handling of psychology and trauma, with the cruel, giallo-esque twist of having Alex’s troubles orchestrated by his older brother Jack (Xander Berkeley) and new girlfriend and lone source of comfort in the film, Maggie (an excellent Juliette Cummins), preying on his fragile mental state in the hopes of him cracking, the end goal being the totality of their late parents inheritance. Deadly Dreams not only presents a sympathetic portrait of trauma, and the downbeat mood of the film properly reflects Alex’s morose mindset, but Peterson also adds in details that further highlight the psychological interest, seemingly noting on the dismissal of issues like trauma often by those closest to the affected individual, like Jack’s telling Alex, “We don’t have mental health problems in this family.” Peterson turns this on Jack at the eleventh hour with one final swerve, that Jack has not only been seeing the hunter figuratively like Alex, but literally as well, with Maggie revealed to be Perkins’ daughter, manipulating both brothers from the beginning to avenge her father. Viewed in isolation, this final twist of Maggie pulling all the strings can been seen as nothing more than that, a last minute pulling of the rug out from the audience, however Peterson would take the idea of a woman use her mind and body to lure in vulnerable men much, much further in her follow-up to Deadly Dreams.
Coming at the very beginning of the erotic thriller’s explosion in popularity post-Fatal Attraction (1987), Peterson’s second film Body Chemistry, released to theaters in a limited run by Corman’s New Concorde in 1990, may have at Peterson’s admittance been sourced directly from Fatal Attraction per Corman’s instructions to the screenwriter,³ however after reworking the script herself along with Deadly Dreams co-star and writer Thom Babbes, Peterson turned Body Chemistry from a Fatal Attraction cash-in into a benchmark film for its genre. The most explicit similarities to Fatal Attraction are in the set-up. While researching sexual response, sex researcher Tom Redding (Marc Singer) is tasked with acquiring a lucrative contract for his lab from Dr. Claire Archer (Lisa Pescia), a fellow scientist with big money connections. Soon after beginning their research, Tom and Dr. Archer embark on a passionate affair with Archer taking Tom to his sexual limits, although Tom, a happily married father starts to have regrets and ends the affair. Dr. Archer and her overactive libido however aren’t exactly ready to stop, and Tom soon finds himself in a situation far more dangerous than Michael Douglas. It’s somewhat of an irony that Body Chemistry did end up in select theaters as it’s a sterling example set by the direct-to-video erotic thrillers that would soon dominate the genre in that compared to its bigger budget studio counterpart, Body Chemistry takes its core idea and takes it down considerably darker and more psychologically difficult roads. For all the discussion Fatal Attraction and its themes generated in the zeitgeist, particularity when it comes to the gendered consequences of affairs, when compared to Body Chemistry the psychology of the former appears rather surface level. Peterson’s film on the other hand is clearly far more fascinated with the ideas of sexual power dynamics and control, steering the film into obsessive, fetishistic terrifies involving bondage and a sex tape.
The character of Dr. Archer herself is one of the biggest dividing lines between Body Chemistry and Fatal Attraction. While Glenn Close’s character of Alex may have mentally unraveled as a result of Michael Douglas’ unrequited love, Dr. Archer is revealed throughout Body Chemistry to be a sociopathic predator, getting off in more ways than one in her targeting of Tom. This again makes Archer a more lethal “other woman”, the conclusion of Body Chemistry being the biggest difference between Peterson’s lower budget yet braver film and Adrian Lyne’s glossy, studio backed work. As has often been lamented by critics of Fatal Attraction, the end of the film gives the impression that for Michael Douglas’ Dan everything will happily go back to normal between him and Anne Archer following the death of Close’s Alex. Peterson however gives no such reprieve to Singer/Tom, having Archer burn his family home down, provoking him to the point of breaking into Archer’s house, physically assaulting her resulting in Archer shooting Tom dead. Yet at the same time unlike the final reveal of Deadly Dreams where Maggie’s actions could be seen somewhat as an act of righteous vengeance (in the case of Jack anyway), Archer’s actions aren’t so black and white villain with Peterson and the incredible Lisa Pescia giving Archer plenty of shades of gray to complicate the psychology. Dr. Archer would go onto become an iconic character for the genre with three sequels following the first Body Chemistry. While Pescia would reprise her role of Dr. Archer in the second film before dropping out of the series, Peterson would have no involvement in the sequels, though curiously enough the third and fourth entries were handled by Jim Wynorski, director of Chopping Mall which again Peterson worked as 1st AD. Peterson took her most mainstream detour following Body Chemistry with the aforementioned Critters 3, though it wasn’t long until she returned to the video realm of sexual obsession.
Combining the genre thrills of Deadly Dreams with the psychosexuality of Body Chemistry, Lower Level (1991) sees Peterson swapping the gender roles for a more traditional male predator, Sam (David Bradley), the night watchman at a high-tech architectural office who has been long harboring an obsession with architect Hillary White (Elizabeth Gracen). After her boyfriend Craig bails on their plans for a romantic night out together, and after Sam dispatches of Craig for a time in the elevator shaft, Sam unveils his own special night he had planned for Hillary and himself. Hillary however doesn’t reciprocate, sending Sam over the edge and setting in motion a game of cat-and-mouse in the building in which Sam has control of all the exits. Peterson’s most accomplished and tightly directed work as a piece of genre entertainment, Lower Level is also perhaps Peterson’s most psychologically sophisticated film. The roles of predator and prey may have been reversed in Lower Level but Peterson’s carries over from Body Chemistry the fascinating psychology driving the antagonist. Sam may be established as the clear-cut villain from the outset whose intentions are much more defined than Dr. Archer, however Peterson once again manages to turn certain aspects of the scenario on their head. This is most evident in the rather brilliant against type casting of the muscle bound David Bradly as Sam. Best known as a martial artists for his roles in the American Ninja sequels, Bradley, while certainly physically imposing, also gives Sam a surprising awkwardness and obsessive method to defend his madness, giving him dialogue like,“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to sleep with you Hillary. It was just that I wanted, I needed to wake up with you once.” Peterson once again goes the extra psychological mile in exploring the pathology of obsession, even acknowledging how stalkers typically form an idealized or fetishized version of their victims that can never be lived up to, Hillary telling Sam, “I’m not real for you, am I? A fantasy. And now that you’ve turned me into this fantasy, I’m suddenly the most beautiful and sensual woman in the entire universe. I’m looking at myself in your eyes and I see something I’ll never be again. Perfect.”
Peterson continued directing throughout 90’s, including a season one episode of Silk Stalkings, “Intensive Care”, shot during Stephen “Rinse Dream” Sayadian’s tenure as production designer. Following her self-produced final feature, the music-based drama Slaves to the Underground (1997), Peterson made the transition to her current field. Reflecting on her career trajectory, going from filmmaking to psychoanalysis, Peterson remarked: “What is it about filmmaking… is it a natural step to lead to psychoanalysis? And in some ways, yes, there are many people who do psychoanalysis who come from the arts. Why do they come from the arts? Well, the arts are involved with peoples emotions, why do they do what they do and how do they express what they do? And in a way it was really a natural progression. I was always interested in people’s emotions and why do they do what they do. In fact one of the major objectives in making a film is to make people feel. When you direct a scene and you say ‘Cut’ and forty heads go ‘What do you think?’ you’re not actually going ‘What am I thinking’ you’re going ‘What am I feeling?’ Do I feel the scene? Did something happen? Is it a print, or do you have to do it again?”⁴ Peterson even compared the filmmaking process to a session with a patient saying, “That’s like directing a movie… in film we’re showing it, we’re acting it out. In psychotherapy we’re living it and trying to articulate it.”⁵ Like the erotic thrillers of Gregory Dark made around the same time, Peterson’s genre work not only showed, but also articulated its psychosexual ideas, Peterson rising above any “hired gun” status with some of the most legitimately psychologically and sexually progressive genre films from the direct-to-video era.
1-5.“Kristine Peterson Returns to Deadly Dreams”. Code Red, 2016.