Deathdream is a Canadian-financed horror film that never got the wide theatrical release that made successes of other independent George Romero wannabe productions like Last House on the Left. It dribbled out onto movie screens under different titles, so slowly that the English Monthly Film Bulletin didn't have a chance to praise it until 1977.
Most of us caught up with this creepshow on television where its quality shone through grainy green prints. Its excellent dramatics more than compensated for a low budget and commercial compromises. Some film critics had opined that films like The Wild Bunch and Night of the Living Dead were symptomatic of the Vietnam experience but this bizarre chiller was one of the few movies of the time to have an overt connection.
Bob Clark is a truly eclectic moviemaker. Now a holiday staple, his A Christmas Story shows no trace of being by the same man who filmed the sleazebucket Porky's or the pre-Halloween slasher film Black Christmas. In this early picture written by the maker of the previous year's Children Wouldn't Play With Dead Things, Clark used his theatrical background and a classy cast to create a dysfunctional family crumbling under the stress of The War Back Home. Beloved son Andy might be the kid from A Christmas Story grown up and sent off to a war - where just getting one's eye shot out might be a blessing.
Ormsby's script grew out of macabre ideas from The Monkey's Paw and cautionary tales about war that involve dead soldiers returning to warn the living. Usually they're pacifist in spirit; Abel Gance made two versions of J'accuse in which French graveyards yield forth Romero-like armies. Rotting and disfigured corpses confront the living with their sins, demanding to know why they had to die in a war that didn't end all wars the way it was supposed to. It's heavy-handed but very spooky.
The attractive thing about Deathdream is that it doesn't spell out the problem in words. Andy mysteriously says things about making his victims "pay the way he paid" but he doesn't have any definite agenda that we can decipher. Also there's no direct telegraphing that Andy-Zombie is the answer to his family's wish that he return, a la The Monkey's Paw. We have to work at it.
The reason Deathdream works is its superior dramatic staging. The actors are excellent, especially John Marley and Lynn Carlin, both honored for their roles in John Cassavetes' Faces. Clark stages the domestic scenes with a fine simplicity and what we remember the most is the looks of bewilderment on nicely-framed faces. Andy causes Dad to retreat into drinking and morbid self-doubt. Mom goes into heavy denial. The family ceases to function. Andy's curse is like a poetic backwash from the war. Without being literal about it, the film shows senseless carnage returning to its source. The conventions of the horror film are toying with a vague and unspoken sense of guilt. There's really nothing else in movies quite like it, a sustained mood that overrides various minor flaws along the way. The picture isn't particularly distinguished in its visuals and some of the gore effects are on the obvious side. Andy's character has the inconsistency of a dream phantom.
The superior dramatics are just that, better than what we're used to in genre pictures. Clark's experience from the stage shows, and Deathdream is that rare horror film (like Larry Cohen's Q: The Winged Serpent) that leads with its performances.(spoiler)
The movie seems an early expression of the today-common concept of closure. Andy is a ghost not ready to be laid to rest, but he prepares his own grave and uses his mother's help in entering it. The violent ending with the flaming car racing to the graveyard is nicely understated, and whereas sobbing Mom was before incapable of facing the idea of her son being killed, when the bitter end comes she's instinctually capable of helping him do what he has to do. The finale is like a reverse birth that only a mother could understand. For a picture composed mainly of "unmotivated" cruelty and mayhem, Deathdream is unusually compassionate with its characters.
Blue Underground's DVD of Deathdream is a fine presentation. The show is grainy but sharp and the subdued colors are probably an accurate approximation of the original cinematography. Unlike Children Shouldn't..., it appears to be 35mm in origin.
The lovingly assembled extras put the efforts of major studio DVD supplements to shame. Director Bob Clark and writer Alan Ormsby both offer commentaries that will be of interest. Clark drifts somewhat (and his voice is recorded boomy and somewhat unclear) but he definitely has the straight dope on his show. He is quick to say that he doesn't think John Carpenter stole the concept for Halloween from his Black Christmas. Ormsby has a better memory for details and has lot of praise for his director partner's casting acumen. Even though Andy's sister is played by Ormsby's then-wife, all the supporting roles are interestingly cast, and Anya Ormsby and Jane Daly give especially expressive performances. Director Clark shows up in a major supporting role, and Ormsby's cameo is picked out for us - he looks like a young Ned Flanders with bushier hair. 2
There's an interesting little short subject on the makeup star Tom Savini: The Early Years, and a good single interview with veteran Zombie Richard Backus called Deathdreaming. Both are thoughtful and don't overstate the significance of the movie, which remains an obscure secret pleasure.
There's an alternate title sequence that simply substitutes the Deathdream main title - the title on the feature is Dead of Night. That original theatrical name can't help but conflict with the classic English Dead of Night movie. An alternate ending is also almost identical, with one or two shots extended by a few seconds.
The gallery of ad art shows the movie's fatal flaw. They never found a title with the correct hook and kept changing it (see the long list of alternate names above [on the Savant main review, that is]). They also didn't luck onto a good image for the ads. Andy's toothy death's head grimace is eerily disturbing in the film but looks bland on a poster. That's the problem with a truly original movie that doesn't follow the strict contours of a genre: how do you sell the darn thing to a public that wants something different, but the same? Deathdream is a morbid and uncompromising original, a feel-bad psychodrama that has the uncomfortable ring of truth. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Savant likes to imagine
"smart" or "upscale" titles to replace the exploitation names given Val Lewton by RKO - they'd
saddle him with a monniker like I Walked With a Zombie, and he'd turn it into a minor classic.
How would you choose a title for Curse of the Cat People that conveyed the horror, fantasy
and child psychology angles in the movie?
2. Ormsby mentions that their editor was the experienced Ronald
Sinclair, the AIP veteran who cut many 50s cult films like The She Creature as
well as several Corman Poe pix. Back when editing was a mysterious art form (I'm assuming many
Savant readers edit their own work on laptops now) a 'pro' from Hollywood might be summoned to
cut a regional production like Deathdream. Ronald Sinclair started as a child actor imported
from England, sort of a Freddy Bartholomew type; he played opposite the somewhat overweight Judy
Garland in Thoroughbreds Don't Cry. Hard to think of the kid who sang On the Bumpy Road
to Love with Garland, in the dark somewhere cutting Zombie attack scenes.