“Nightdreams”: Filmmaker Rinse Dream’s visionary and surreal first foray into the world of X-rated adult films

By on February 17, 2016

In the early 80s, filmmaker Stephen Sayadian — credited as “Rinse Dream,” made Nightdreams, his visionary first foray into the world of X-rated adult films, but it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before: an avant-garde and artsy tale about a woman having weird, erotic dreams while stashed away in surreal sex therapy clinic, including one sequence where she has sex with a man inside a giant Cream of Wheat box. Obviously, this post is a little NSFW.

Sayadian — who says he used the pseudonym Rinse Dream at the time because he didn’t want to get arrested, as it was actually against a felony to pay people to have sex on camera at the time, which we mentioned here — collaborated on the script with co-writer Jerry Stahl, who is credited as “Herbert W. Day.”

Stahl is probably best known today for penning the best-selling 1995 autobiographical Permanent Midnight (and the film, also called Permanent Midnight, released in 1998 and starring Ben Stiller as Stahl), which detailed his heroin use while working on numerous TV series, including “Twin Peaks,” “thirtysomething,” “Northern Exposure,” “CSI” and “Alf,” to name just a few, but at the time of making Nightdreams, all of that stuff hadn’t happened just yet. At the time, he was a copywriter for Hustler magazine (for a good read, track down his excellent first-person account, entitled “‘Cafe Flesh’ And Me: Confessions Of A Cult Sex King,” published in Playboy, April 1985, or check out his awesome memoir).

Sayadian’s first love was directing theater — independent theater — and he came up with the idea of funding his theater projects by making a film where he could put together staged theatrical suites where the action could veer into the arena of hardcore action, obviously lensed in a controlled studio setting, lit theatrically and dramatically, with splashes of color and great costumes filling the frame in surreal, nightmarish vignettes that are essentially extended fuck scenes.

Sayadian had met Stahl when he was working as Hustler’s creative director in charge of humor and advertising, making the advertisements for Larry Flynt’s novelty sex products, parodies of real products, and he’d developed a relationship with the Los Angeles-based porn world, including meeting and knowing the people behind Pussycat Theater chain at some point. They agreed to fund Sayadian’s visionary Nightdreams film (still called “I Know You’re Watching Me” at the time, which was later rejected before becoming “Cracked” and finally Nightdreams) as long as he would agree to their unique payment scheme: they wanted to pay him the $60,000 budget in coins — quarters, actually — which they had obtained from paying customers who visited their peep shows across the city. It was a hassle for them to convert the money into bills, apparently.

Sayadian agreed to this monetary craziness, and says he later had to send a production assistant to the store to buy a huge quantity of socks, and anytime someone needed to be paid, they were handed a sock full of change.

There weren’t actually too many people working on Nightdreams, though. Sayadian’s partner, Francis Delia — credited as the director of photography (sometimes as director) on the film, using the pseudonym “F.X. Pope” — actually operated the camera. Delia — a native New Yorker — had studied at Cooper Union and worked as as commercial photographer for Madison Avenue Ad agencies, but he was still at the very start of his career, according to his IMDB credits.

(As an aside, your humble writer actually met him once and spent an afternoon talking with him at a screening of his 1988 movie Freeway — held in a tiny room at Raleigh Studios as I recall — when he was looking for a music label to release the soundtrack. Sadly, our label passed on that opportunity).

But make no mistake, despite any involvement in Nightdreams by others, even Delia and Stahl, this is clearly a Sayadian film, a vision borne from his unique imagination and talents.

Sayadian has said that maybe five people worked on the crew of the low-budget art/porn film — in addition to Sayadian and Delia, there was a focus puller who made sure the camera stayed in focus, and a construction supervisor who worked on the sets that Sayadian carefully had art directed and he helped build the sets too. Despite the budget limitations, this gorgeous 35mm production is about visually similar — with its German Expressionist-influenced lighting scheme — with the production values of a high-quality, low-budget TV adverts.

That P.A. was probably Bruce Moreland, the bass player in the L.A.-based band Wall of Voodoo, who ended up working on Nightdreams because Sayadian’s and Delia’s studio office was located in the same building as Acme Soundtracks, on Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from the Masque — located in the basement of the Pussycat Theater — which had begun a few years earlier when Wall of Voodoo synth player/vocalist/composer Stan Ridgway and guitarist Marc Moreland had formed a company in order to make off-kilter music scores for films. (Wall of Voodoo also play an important part in Nightdreams, but we’ll get to that in a moment).

Sayadian and Stahl came up with the idea of showing their female lead being stashed away in some kind of strange sex clinic, where she has a series of strange, fantastical sex dreams which allowed Sayadian to stage the entire film as if it were some kind of strangely surreal X-rated vaudeville review.

Sayadian and Stahl gave her the name “Mrs. Van Houten”– Van Houten happens to have been the surname of one Leslie Van Houten, one of Charles Manson’s followers, sentenced to a lifetime in prison for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca — and she was played by strawberry blonde actress Dorothy Le May, who by then had already appeared in more than two dozen mostly-adult films.

When we first see her, in extreme close-up (ECU), she’s got electrodes connected to her forehead, and she’s constantly masturbating the entire time she’s being watched, fantasizing and looking directly at the camera as she says “I know you’re watching me. I feel your eyes like fingers touching me in certain places.”

The camera pulls back to reveal that she’s kneeling in a start white observation chamber of some kind, being observed through a one-way glass wall by two lab-coated clinical doctors, played by Jennifer West and Andy Nichols, who attempt to electronically stimulate her libido, resulting in a succession of eerie and bizarre erotic reveries.

Nichols, by the way, has a great role in Sayadian’s second film, Café Flesh, playing Max Melodramatic, who hosts the proceeding at a futuristic sex club in a strange post-apocalyptic world in which 99% of the population has been rendered sexually inert. The remaining 1% perform endless sex shows at futuristic clubs like Café Flesh, trying to arouse the populace into sexual expression. We told you all about that one here.

For the rest of the film, Mrs. Van Houton provides us with what she sees in her “night dreams,” stream-of consciousness monologues spoken directly to the camera that segue into stylized hardcore sex sequences that play out like hallucinatory fantasies, all while the two doctors try to make sense of what she’s telling them.

In our favorite non-politically correct and quite obviously racist sequence, we see her in a kitchen, preparing a pot of Cream of Wheat. “Mmm. I love Cream of Wheat,” the nymphomanical housewife says. “It’s so hot and creamy. It feels so good when it goes down my throat.”

A black dude in a large cardboard Cream of Wheat box agrees, saying “It really fills a girl up. Nutritious and delicious.”

Then, we’re treated to an oral sex scene where Mrs.Van Houton felates the black dude in the box while we hear the Ink Spots’s “Old Man River,” and we see her head keeping time with the song’s beat, all of this intercut with images of a man, dancing and playing the saxophone (played by Sayadian himself), while dressed as a slice of white Wonder bread.

The other conceptualized suites that Sayadian and Stahl hashed out were also like scenes from dreams or nightmares, often presented as religious-themed afterlife tableaus, both heaven and hell, but mostly they appear to be tied to movie genres — including westerns, thrillers, and comedy, not to forget that faked-up TV commercial.

There are fantasy sequences that involve having sex with a Jack-in-the-box (accompanied by creepy laughter that isn’t what you’re likely to hear in most porn films), a pseudo-rape scene over a toilet. Sayadian is said to have told the actors onscreen to act as if they’re mother had just died, he wanted it too look and feel very dark, and it does: imagine a subconscious David Lynchian fantasia. Scratch that — this one is uniquely Rinse Dream-ian.

Another favorite sequence takes place in the Wild West, where a trio of Playboy-pretty cowgirl cuties have an erotic cowgirl-on-cowgirl-on-cowgirl sex session around a campfire in the desert; the scene unfolds while we hear Wall of Voodoo’s “Ring of Fire,” which Sayadian had used in its entirely without the band’s permission (it’s the only porn movie to officially feature a top 100 hit!).

The thriller sequence seems to be patterned on Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (Delia did the key art photography for the movie poster for Dressed To Kill). There’s a cigarette-smoking fish head that pops up in bed next to a lovely lady, and an incredible scene where a woman caressing a man opens his fly in pulls out a … fetus! (The cast also features Loni Sanders, Kevin James, Fast Steppin’ Freddie, Paul Berthell, Ken Starbuck, Jacqueline Lorains, and the singular-named “Danielle”).

Musician Mitchell Froom — who was friends with Sayadian and Stahl — was brought on as the film’s music director, and came up with great musical pieces for the sound design, (Morton Subotnick was also involved), which the L.A.-based Slash Records label subsequently released (along with music he did for Sayadian’s second film, Café Flesh) on Froom’s solo album from 1984, The Key of Cool. Here’s one from Café Flesh, and this one this one too.

Froom would of course go on to produce albums for Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos and many more, establishing himself as someone with a keen ear for inventive musical experimentation.

Francis Delia (known to everyone as Frank) went on to direct scores of music videos (like Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” and many, many others), and lots of TV directing/writing credits and scads of memorable feature films as a director and/or writer.

Meanwhile — despite the critical response to both Nightdreams and Café Flesh — Stephen Sayadian aka Rinse Dream didn’t make another hardcore sex film until 1990, when he returned to the fold with Nightdreams II, once again returning to the idea of having patients at a sex clinic acting out their surreal fantasies. Playboy magazine, quoted on the VHS tape box, called it “The first avant-garde adult film…Fellini meets Eraserhead.

A longtime Night Flight fave, Sayadian’s made a handful of really incredible films — his 1989 film Dr. Caligari also concerns a Mrs. Van Houten, by the way, an attempt to move away from pornography and into pure cult — and we’ll no doubt return to tell you about those movies at some point.

Here’s a really great interview with Sayadian at a screening of his film at the L’étrange festival in France (fast-forward to 3:41).

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Aaron Swain

    It should also be noted that Mitchell Froom was (is still?) married to Suzanne Vega.