Nightmare Cafe (NBC, 1992)

1. Nightmare Cafe
2. Dying Well is the Best Revenge
3. Fay and Ivy
4. The Heart of the Mystery
5. Sanctuary for a Child
6. Aliens Ate My Lunch


I was rooting around the Green Man video library looking for something interesting to watch so I could avoid finishing me article on Avalon Applejack for the CAMRA newsletter when me eye spotted tapes of a programme of which I had very fond memories -- Nightmare Cafe!

I can't put it any better than Blackie did at the beginning of each programme: 'Touch that remote and you die! Now that I've got your attention, here's the deal. See those two people? That's Frank, and that's Fay. Strangers when they met, turns out they've got a lot in common. Both died on the same night, both ended up in the same body of water, and both took refuge in the same all-night cafe. Me, I run the place. Name's Blackie. Been here from the beginning. Now, I know I said Frank and Fay were dead, but the cafe needed a new cook and waitress, so it gave them a second chance at life. They do their job, they get to stick around and help unsuspecting customers turn their lives around. 'Course, anything can happen to those who wander in - their worst nightmares, or their forbidden dreams. Yeah, it all happens here in this little place we call the Nightmare Cafe.'

The premise of Nightmare Cafe was that Frank Nolan and Fay Peronivic find themselves mysteriously drawn to an all-night cafe on a dark wharf in a city that has no name following what they think is an apparent brush with death but was very much the real thing. Under the watchful eye of Blackie, who might possibly be dead too, Frank and Fay get a second chance at life. They must face up to their own and others' personal nightmares and relive their final moments with a very real chance of a different outcome this time around.

Ah, but the most interesting thing about this series is that it lasted but six episodes. Yes, just six episodes! Nightmare Cafe was, or so its handful of fans believed, a ratings victim. It aired on NBC from January until April, 1992, before being canceled. Created by Wes Craven (of Nightmare on Elm Street fame) and Thomas Baum, it starred Robert Englund (also of Elm Street fame), Jack Coleman and Lindsay Frost. A pilot was produced along with five episodes, all of which aired on NBC prior to the cancellation. Some years later, the Sci-Fi Channel picked up the series to show in rotation with other programs (such as Space Rangers) that had been discarded by other networks .

As I said, there were but six EPs: to wit, 1.Nightmare Cafe, 2.Dying Well is the Best Revenge, 3.Fay and Ivy, 4.The Heart of the Mystery , 5.Sanctuary for a Child, and 6.Aliens Ate My Lunch. Obviously, Nightmare Cafe sets up the premise by introducing us to Blackie, who may or may not have been, as he jokes to Fay, alive since the dinosaurs roamed Earth, but who certainly is played by Englund as if he was older than Lazarus Long in Robert Heinlein's Time Enough For Love and other novels. Blackie is far, far more interesting as a character than either Frank or Fey, and he would have made a superb character in a novel by Charles de Lint or any of the grittier urban fantasy authors; he's magical, mysterious, and just dark enough to be interesting. The setting was also out of an urban fantasy -- an old diner in a location that made no sense at all, akin to the location jumping bar in Stephen Brust's Cowboy Feng's Space Bar And Grille novel. (The bar moves at least once in the series.)

Each episode has Frank and Fay attempting to correct an injustice. "Dying Well is the Best Revenge" was the tale of Frank getting involved with a married woman, while Fay worries for his safety. But when Fay uncovers the beginnings of a mystery, worry turns to justifiable paranoia that the woman is far more than she appears. Fay determines to learn the truth and rescue Frank from his own libido (being dead does not mean you're not horny) and the woman's jealous and very violent husband. "Fay and Ivy" examines the relationship between Fay and her younger sister Ivy. The younger sister comes to the city to visit her (not knowing she's stone cold), under the mistaken belief that Fay is quite wealthy, an idea she got from Fay. However, Ivy brings serious trouble with her -- her scummy boyfriend Jesse, whose lust for money knows no limits. As he becomes more and more unstable and increasingly violent, it's up to Fay and the Nightmare Cafe to rescue Ivy. (Yes, the Cafe appears to be sentient, since Blackie talks to it!) Next up is "The Heart of the Mystery", in which the cafe, which decides who gets in and who doesn't, admits a detective whose existence has been frozen in slow time just moments before his should-have-happened-by-now death by gunshot. As the bullet very, very slowly advances toward his heart, the living ghosts that are Frank, Blackie, and Fay must help him figure out the one mystery that has eluded solution for fifteen years - why a woman he had sworn to protect was murdered. "Sanctuary for a Child" is a bit different, in that the Cafe literally brings Frank back to his hometown, where he befriends a boy whose comatose body lies in the town hospital. (There are ghosts and then there are ghosts...) The boy's father ran away from the family, and Frank's memories of his failed ties to his father compels him to bring the boy's parents back together. Will he do so? Yes, but at a great cost... "Aliens Ate My Lunch" wrapped up the series with an episode that felt like it belonged in The Chronicle, a series set in a weird tabloid newspaper: Frank's idol, a terribly sleazy tabloid writer, comes to the bucolic town of Fort Weatherhill in search of a story, any story. And the weirder, the better. His pressing need for a front-page tale leads him to invent an alien sighting - but this not so simple falsehood gets completely out of his control as a mob forms to protect Fort Weatherhill and inhabitants by killing the aliens and anyone who aids them... Bad news for Frank and his friend.

Watch 'em in order, as there is some internal character development. Lindsay Frost, sister of Mark Frost, the genius behind Twin Peaks, is wonderful as Fay, the cafe's almost sexy waitress; and Jack Coleman as Frank, the good-natured cook, is rock solid and willing to believe he's dead. Blackie is, as I noted above, perfect for the natty dress and English accent -- He could be Freddie doing penance for his horrible deeds. (Robert Englund has stated that he thinks that Blackie died in the 1920s, and his costume is composed of the clothes he had on his back at the time. His belief is that Blackie was a gambler and probably died because he cheated, but he probably has a good heart. There's nothing is the series to suggest at all who Blackie was when he was (possibly) alive.) The only other recurring character is The Cafe itself; it seems to possess some form of intelligence, notably when someone hurts its feelings! Given that it seems able to travel even to Heaven, the claim by Blackie that it is controlled by a power beyond their understanding may well be correct. And it has knowledge about who needs help, how to get them there, and who should literally go to Hell.

I cannot stress enough that it would have made a superb series if the suits at NBC had given it enough time to develop an audience. If Midnight Caller, another delightfully weird programme on NBC, could last a a number of seasons, Nightmare Cafe could have too!

Thanks to Carson Maynard's comprehensive The Nightmare Cafe Web Page for the groundwork information in this article.

[Jack Merry]