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Deadtime Stories

Shout Factory // R // February 28, 2017
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 21, 2017 | E-mail the Author
"Uncle Miiiiiiiiike...!"

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Look, kid, your Uncle Mike (Michael Mesmer) ain't so much the babysitting type. It's late, and the guy just wants to kick back with a cold one and gawk at some titties on premium cable. Oh, you want him to tell you a story? Okay, uh...Little Red Riding Hood: a nubile teenager (Nicole Picard) strips down to her skivvies and feels herself up, gets her cherry popped by her asshole boyfriend in the deliberately least sexy way this side of Fast Times, and squares off against a werewolf (Matt Mitler). See, Willie usually dopes himself into a stupor when he's about to wolf out, but his pills got switched with Rachel's grandma's prescription, so he tries to track her down an''s a whole thing. What, you're still scared of a monster in your room and are crying for another story? Fine, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, only these BearsBaers are a family of psychotic bank robbers on the lam (including Melissa Leo in her first film role!), Goldi Lox (Cathryn de Prume) is a foxy blonde serial murderess squatting in their old house, and -- why not? -- she's got Carrie-style telekinetic powers. Oh, you want Uncle Mike to make up a story of his very own? Sure, this one has a couple of witchy old hags, the fisherman's kindly son (Scott Valentine) they've enslaved, a sacrificial virgin (Kathy Fleig) torn straight off a St. Pauli Girl label, and a lecherous vicar (Casper Roos) whose left hand violently tears itself from his forearm. So, yeah, uncle or no, I don't know why his parents left little Billy (Brian DePersia) alone with this nutjob either.

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For better or worse, Deadtime Stories is hardly just another horror anthology. Picture a kid with a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales on his nightstand, atop a stack of whatever the latest issues of Fangoria, Cracked, and Playboy were in the summer of '85 or whenever, and you're somewhere in the ballpark. Co-writer/director Jeffrey Delman doesn't set out to craft some grueling descent into horror. Blood, boobs, a fair amount of gruesome effects work, a playful and unapologetically goofy sense of humor -- I mean, this was my first time giving Deadtime Stories a spin, but I can absolutely imagine picking this up off the shelf at the video store down the road when I was twelve and loving the hell out of it. Even though I'm a long way from a twelve year old these days, I acknowledge this anthology's flaws but find it irresistibly fun and charming just the same.

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...but, yeah, let's talk about those flaws. Deadtime Stories' biggest missteps lay with pacing and payoffs -- that there's so much setup for each story, and just when you think all hell is about to break loose, it's abruptly over. Its three segments (plus the obligatory wraparound story with Uncle Mike and wee little Brian) are somehow too short and too long at the same time. The driving story of "Peter and the Witches" is the resurrection of a long-dead witch. It builds and builds and builds and builds, she's revived for something like twenty seconds with seemingly no magical abilities to speak of, and then...wham! Over. Even Billy complains about what a total misfire of an ending that is, setting up an awesomely meta sight gag, but that payoff isn't commensurate with the long journey to get there. "Little Red Runninghood" is the most satisfying of the segments from a storytelling standpoint, but I would've cheerfully traded the interminable, not-the-least-bit-alluring sexual fantasy that opens the segment for some more werewolf havoc. "Goldi Lox and the Three Baers", meanwhile, careens deliriously over the top. I can't get enough of its manic energy and Mad Magazine sense of humor, although I can certainly picture someone picking up Deadtime Stories based on its spectacular cover art and wondering how this segment fits into a horror anthology at all. The most puzzling thing to me is the near-total lack of conflict. Goldi Lox's psychokinetic powers don't meaningfully impact anything that happens. She and the Baers are immediately thick as thieves. The Keystone Kops hunting down the escaped lunatics are never presented as any sort of credible threat. A gaggle of psychopaths wind up together, like each other a whole bunch (attempted rape and all!), get exactly what they want, and everything accidentally goes even better than they ever could've hoped with no hiccups whatsoever! Yay! Beyond the somewhat sloppy storytelling, there's some decent-to-solid effects work throughout Deadtime Stories, but it's more sparse than you might expect, and some of the action -- a swipe of a werewolf claw, a witch konking someone on the noggin -- is cut together clumsily.

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There's always a risk with grown-up versions of fairy tales that they'll be too adult for kids yet too kiddie for adults. We're talking about a horror anthology, after all, so it kinda goes without saying that Deadtime Stories' grotesque makeup effects and nudity aren't so much for the junior set. At the same time, it goes more for thrills and Cracked magazine-style laughs than white knuckle horror. Between that and some significant pacing issues, I'm not exactly optimistic how well Deadtime Stories will play for your average twenty or thirtysomething. Warts and all, though, I genuinely dug it. I'm a sucker for genre anthologies in general, but I appreciate the fact that Deadtime Stories sets out to have fun, is very much its own thing, and bucks convention to the point that it can't help but be unpredictable (well, mostly). Your mileage probably will vary, but this is my review, so I'm rolling with Recommended right here in bold and italics anyway.

Beautiful, isn't it?

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Yeah, yeah, I'm clearly talking about Scream Factory's shiny, new remaster of Deadtime Stories and not that nightmarish hag. Its oldest shots date back to 1982 and cut together perfectly with the remainder of the footage from '85. There are so many moments that could pass for a film many years more recent than that, even. This strong, filmic presentation is superhumanly detailed and boasts colors that are often a total knockout. While not every last frame is pristine:

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...somewhere in the neighborhood of 99.9% of them sure are. Reactions to Deadtime Stories as a movie may skew negative from most folks out there, but what Scream Factory has delivered...? Top shelf all the way.

Deadtime Stories and its extras unspool across a BD-50 disc. This presentation is lightly letterboxed to preserve the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, which I believe is this anthology's first time in widescreen on home video.

I can't imagine Deadtime Stories' 24-bit, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio sounding any cleaner or clearer than this either. There's no background noise, clipping, dropouts, or flaws of any sort to gripe about. It's packing a low-frequency heft that I wasn't quite expecting, and the ridiculous original songs come through well enough. For a fiercely independent horror anthology that rang in its thirtieth anniversary last year, this lossless soundtrack delivers everything I could ever hope to hear.

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Also included are English (SDH) subtitles and an audio commentary.

  • I Like the Grotesque (16 min.; HD): The first of Deadtime Stories' extras is an interview with co-writer/director Jeffrey Delman, whose name you'll see popping up a whole bunch throughout this stretch of the review. Delman runs through what inspired this horrific take on fairy tales, how many members of its cast worked around severe injuries for their performances, what a hard sell anthologies were at the time, how much of Deadtime Stories was filmed in and around his house, writing new songs when it turns out they didn't have it in the budget for music licensing, and pulling back the curtain on makeup effects magic.

  • A Band of Gypsies: The Making of Deadtime Stories (16 min.; HD): Cathryn de Prume, Melissa Leo, and Scott Valentine reflect back on Deadtime Stories in this retrospective. The three of them speak about how they broke into acting, Valentine working around the injuries suffered when getting hit by a truck (!), what sets Jeff Delman apart as a director, the improv and playing around the material on-set, and a story about a production truck winding up with its brake line severed over a makeshift bridge,!
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  • The Black Forest (30 min.; mostly SD): As Jeffrey Delman notes in his introduction, Deadtime Stories' first proper segment bobbed back and forth between being part of an anthology and a mini-feature in its own right. Production originally began in 1982, an incomplete version was assembled to help raise further financing, and some of that footage was repurposed after cameras rolled again in 1985. I figured that "The Black Forest" would just be an extended version of what ultimately made it into the film, but it's startlingly different. This version runs a half-hour and isn't all there, skipping the earliest setup to Peter walking the drunken vicar to the witches' shack, and it ends after the resurrection. Peter's enslavement is more deeply felt in this version, as are the consequences if he fails to secure a sacrifice for his captors. This Peter isn't in a position to express the way he feels about murder. He's not forced to scrub himself clean to seduce Miranda, who in this version knows all too well who he is and who he serves. There's more banter about eyes, Peter doesn't try to manipulate one of the hags into handing over a knife, and Miranda has some sort of glyph carved into her chest as part of the blood ritual. It's very much worth setting aside a half hour to give this alternate version a look. I can see why it was so heavily changed; I think this version works better on its own, but what ultimately made it into Deadtime Stories plays more like a fairy tale.

  • Deleted Scenes (3 min.; mostly SD): Again with some high-def intros by Jeffrey Delman, there are two deleted scenes. First up is Rachel's original introduction in "Little Red Runninghood" before the distributor insisted on sexing it up. "Goldi Lox and the Three Baers" was supposed to include a slideshow of the Baers knocking over a bank, but the slides were lost during post-production. A rough version is served up here, though. As with "The Black Forest", these two scenes are presented in 1.33:1 and are sourced from low-res video.
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  • Audio Commentary: Deadtime Stories' co-writer, director, lyricist, and bit actor sit down for this newly-recorded audio commentary. I'm actually just talking about Jeffrey Delman! Among the many topics of conversation are "Little Red Runninghood" being partially filmed in a porn studio in Queens (which he says is just as gross as it sounds), why the distributor in Japan opted for the tagline "See the werewolf that drinks medicine for diarrhea", recycling one of Dick Smith's hands leftover from Starman, the dead punk kid in "Goldi Lox..." growing up to drum for White Zombie, the final monster being designed by an actual kid who went onto work at Marvel Comics, and all the stuff that had to be trimmed down to score an R rating. As you could probably tell from those highlights, yeah, this is a really terrific listen.

  • Photo Gallery (4 min.; HD): Video art and posters the world over -- including the overseas Freaky Fairy Tales title -- lead this gallery, along with storyboards, production stills, and some behind the scenes photos.
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  • Trailers (3 min.; SD): A couple of VHS-or-so quality trailers round out the extras.

There's no slipcover or newly-commissioned artwork this time around, but Deadtime Stories does get the combo pack treatment.

The Final Word
I found myself completely charmed by Deadtime Stories, a horror-ish anthology favoring giggles over trembling fear as it skewers childhood fairy tales. It's so fun that I could easily shrug off its many, many issues with pacing and lackluster payoffs. Poking around some of my favorite horror message boards and re-reading Kurt Dahlke's review here at DVD Talk, I seem to be in the minority there. While Deadtime Stories as a movie may be too divisive to recommend all that enthusiastically as a purchase sight-unseen, there's no denying that Scream Factory has assembled a hell of a Blu-ray release, from a beautiful new master to its two and a half hours of extras. If you see those "however..."s and "except..."s and are still onboard, I'd go with a Recommended here, although anyone who's on the fence should really consider renting or streaming Deadtime Stories first.
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