The life and times of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, have permeated the popular culture ever since her induction into the British royal family, her persona capturing the public imagination in her home country and abroad. Biopics about Diana began to appear as early as 1981 (the same year she married Charles, Prince of Wales), and her tragic death in 1997 only served to proliferate movies and other artistic works about her. The latest is director Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (our review here), and early word on the film indicates that it has the vibe and tone of a horror movie. This wouldn’t be the first horror (or horror-adjacent) movie to come along that used Diana as inspiration, however. That dubious honor goes to 1988’s Dream Demon, a movie that stars Jemma Redgrave as a young Englishwoman who’s marrying into royalty and is named—you guessed it—“Diana.” Such an unsubtle choice might lead one to assume the film belongs to the same exploitative trash family as 2019’s The Haunting of Sharon Tate, but Dream Demon is far from being basic. It’s a messy, deliberately surreal picture that never quite finds its footing, but its disparate pieces make it utterly fascinating, and the “Diana” material is a large part of that.
Dream Demon began as a blatant attempt to capitalize on topical material and then-recent successes at the box office, but the parade of filmmakers who contributed to it eventually turned it into its own unique film. After seeing the impressive box office returns of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), that movie’s UK distributor, Palace Pictures, sought to essentially make their own version for their market. They were serendipitously approached by three filmmakers who already had an idea for a film entitled Dream Demon: David Pirie, Richard Rayner, and Chris Petit, the latter having recent success directing 1979’s Radio On. The trio and Palace attempted to get the film off the ground for several years with no luck, despite their best efforts. Producer Stephen Wooley then approached director Harley Cokeliss, who’d just completed a pair of action movies in Black Moon Rising (1986) and Malone (1987), convincing Cokeliss to direct the film as well as rewrite it from scratch with Christopher Wicking (a third writer, Catherine de Pury, came on board later to polish dialogue). According to Pirie, Rayner and Petit, the script was rewritten so extensively that they turned down credit. While information about the initial draft is sketchy, it’s possible that the Princess Diana allusions were already present, and Cokeliss and his team not only kept them, but added to them.
The final version of Dream Demon is a melange of A Nightmare on Elm Street dream logic, Hellraiser-style labyrinthine landscapes, and classic ghost story tropes. In the midst of a series of disturbing dreams about her life, Diana meets an American girl, Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite), who feels a connection to the house that Diana has just moved into. Soon, Jenny is sharing Diana’s dream space, the two young women seeing visions of past events involving a little girl (Annabelle Lanyon) being menaced by her father (Nickolas Grace). Meanwhile, a pair of muckraking sleazy tabloid rag employees (Spencer co-star Timothy Spall and Jimmy Nail), both of whom start out hounding Diana for exclusive salacious tidbits about her life and her Falklands war hero fiancé, Oliver (Mark Greenstreet), become somehow possessed or claimed by the house and Diana’s dreams, slowly transforming into demonic versions of themselves. Jenny and Diana make the discovery that the girl they keep seeing visions of is in fact a young Jenny, and the freeing of the girl’s “spirit” allows Jenny to reconcile her past trauma.
Dream Demon would be rather simple to understand, albeit rote, if the film was merely Jenny’s story. It’s the fact that Diana is not only present but the clear lead of the movie that gives the film such a compelling oddness. If Jenny’s arc involves freeing herself from the trauma of her past, Diana’s acts as a sort of wish fulfillment for the real Diana Spencer, especially when taking into account the eerie prescience of the character. Cokeliss, Wicking and de Pury make their Diana an on-the-nose doppelgänger for the Princess of Wales, presenting her as an upper class schoolteacher engaged to a lauded member of the aristocracy. As the marriage of the real Diana and Charles was being revealed to be one fraught with infidelity in the late ‘80s, so the filmmakers made Oliver a philanderer, undermining Diana’s sense of safety as her reality crumbles. Diana’s befriending of Jenny and determination to save the ghostly young girl could be read as representative of Princess Diana’s extensive charity work, especially her focus on children. While it was already abundantly clear that Princess Diana’s life was beset by the media, there’s no way the filmmakers could’ve known about the future circumstances of her demise, caused in part by aggressive paparazzi tactics. The fact that the film’s chief “demons” that threaten Diana are a reporter and his photographer feels like a spooky, astute warning for the real Diana.
Dream Demon is a frustratingly uneven film—it can’t quite marry the stories of the two women together properly, its supernatural “rules” are vague and inconsistent, and the movie’s out of place original theatrical ending even lets its villains off the hook (the newly released Director’s Cut fixes this but remains unsatisfying in other ways). Yet it deserves consideration as an engaging horror movie that’s distinctly British despite being made by an American, and that identity is owed to the Diana character and the allusions to the real Princess. In retrospect, the film acts as a fairy-tale, “what if” ode to Diana Spencer in a similar way as Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019) does for Sharon Tate. Dream Demon’s Diana defeats her paparazzi enemies, helps the innocent, and literally knocks the head off of her insufferable fiancé. Clearly, it would be hard for any other Princess Diana biopic to beat that.