Sunday, October 26, 2008

Deathdream (1974)

Classic. Yup, that's the first word that came to mind after viewing this picture. It's a fucking classic that, unfortunately, very few people have probably heard of. Bob Clark, killed last year in a car crash, directed two of the better horror movies from the 70s. This and the influential Black Christmas. Clark would eventually direct another, albeit wildly different, classic called A Christmas Story. Perhaps you've heard of it? Of course, he was also the genius behind such garbage as Porky's I-II, Rhinestone, and The Karate Dog (haven't seen it, but come on, really?). I still haven't seen Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things which sounds like it should be fantastic in every way based on the title alone.

Deathdream, based on "The Monkey's Paw" (haven't read it), is one of those pictures that went by many different names. Fuck, the title credits list it as Dead of Night (it's also known as Night Walk, The Night Andy Came Home, Uncle Sam 2: The Prequel, The Veteran, etc). It's a Vietnam war era story about the Brooks family whose son, Andy (Richard Backus), has been away in "the shit". The picture opens with Andy, apparently, being killed (it's a confusing scene, much like the war). His death is confirmed when a representative from the state department arrives at the Brooks home to deliver the news to his family. His mother, Christine (Lynn Carlin) goes immediately into denial and, later, is shown chanting "he's not dead" over a lit candle (hmmm...). His father, Charlie (John Marley, aka the guy that woke up next to a horse head in The Godfather) struggles to maintain his composure, himself a veteran of WWII. His sister, Cathy reacts as most sisters do, with blubbering hysterics. His a dog.

So, imagine their surprise when a few nights later Andy comes home. The family is startled by a noise and heads downstairs, together. Andy's appearence is a startlingly chiling reveal and the look on his face, well, it's fucking creepy as hell. How did he get home? Shouldn't he be dead? What the fuck? I guess it's not that much of a stretch to imagine the state department making such an egregious blunder. Probably happens all the time. Maybe his dog tags got switched? Perhaps what we witnessed in the picture's first five minutes wasn't exactly what we thought?

Andy, however, is clearly not the same. He is completely emotionless, zombie-like if you will. His answers to questions are short and curt. He doesn't eat. He doesn't sleep. He spends his time sitting in his room, in the dark, rocking back and forth in his chair. Ocassionaly, he disappears at night. On the night he arrived home, a truck driver was brutally murdered after having made the mistake of picking up a hitchhiker. There was a needle mark in his arm and his throat was jaggedly cut. Was this Andy's handiwork? What the fuck happened to him over there?

Fucking A man, they just don't make them like this anymore. Everything about this picture worked for me. The performances are terrific, natural. John Marley is great as the father, the only one willing to admit that perhaps Andy isn't quite the same. Lynn Carlin is, I guess, a typical mom if your mom was Martha Stewart. She blindly loves her son (as a parent should) and completely ignores his changing demeanor like when he strangled the family dog with one hand in front of some terrified neighborhood kids. It's a shocking scene. I expected him to release the dog just short of death but, no, Andy keeps going and then tosses the poor dog aside. If only the poor little guy knew karate. Anyway, this doesn't sit well with Pops ("That was the best dog I ever had"). This is most evident in an earlier scene where Pops, sitting alone and wondering what went wrong, calls the little dog up to his lap so he can pet him. It was one of those little yippy dogs (a schnauzer or a shnizit or something like that) so I wondered what the big deal was. The mother's last scene with Andy is actually pretty heartbreaking in its way. Even the minor characters, the mailman, the doc, Andy's girlfriend from before the war, the drunk guy in a diner, are completely believable (and in several cases funny).

Clark's never been one to make a pretty-to-look-at film (A Christmas Story is one of the more brilliantly ugly classics around) and that is certainly the case here. This is a portrait of middle america through the eyes of middle americans and middle americans and the towns they live in aren't always pretty. There are some gore effects in this picture and you might be pleased to learn that they were created by none other than Tom Savini. If that doesn't mean anything to you than we're finished. This was Savini's first film (he was billed as an assistant, but his stamp is all over it). It's not a splatterfest by any means. I'm trying not to spoil this one too much and to describe some of the effects would be to do just that. Here's a hint, probably too much of one, but fuck it. At one point, Andy sneaks out of the house and we see him scratching something on a gravestone in the local cemetary. We don't learn what he etched until the very last scene. No one leaves this picture happy, let's just say that.

Of course, this is all a metaphor for the problems facing soldiers returning from Vietnam. There are moments of power equal to anything in Coming Home and, astoundingly, set within the trappings of a genre film! The thing is, this picture might not have worked as well as it did had I seen it 10, 15, 20 years ago. Now, it's more relevant than ever with the situation in Iraq. It's like our own fucking Vietnam. Soldiers are returning now as fucked up as ever, families systematically being destroyed (I can't imagine anything worse though than what happened to the Brooks family). Anyway, this is a good fucking picture, way better than Uncle Sam, although I like that one too. War is hell if you die. Hell if you live. I guess it's no picnic if you're somewhere in between either. Also, there is a great scene at a drive-in where some poor schlub gets hit by a car and then driven over. War is no place for me I guess because I laughed and laughter has no place in war. Only the insane laugh at death or think a death that happens in a movie is real, for that matter. No idea where I'm going with this so I'll just end things here.


elmo said...

Oh man, I've seen "Children Shouldn't..." THAT is a fiasco.

brian said...

sounds like a ringing endorsement if I've ever heard one.

elmo said...

I think it was videod, rather than filmed. Then again, I did see it on vhs in high school.