The relationship between art and audience has always been in a state of flux, a constantly morphing organism impossible to navigate with a standard moral compass; who among us hasn’t cast a glance at a filmmaker and wondered if their fantasies bleed into reality? Well, us horror fans usually don’t; we know our creators tend to be the more stable examples of the species, a topic that the fascinating and contemplative Deadline (1984) decides to turn on its head by pointing a few fingers back at us.
The “us” being the horror community that is - the fans who easily separate the light on the screen from the sun soaked shadows of the real world. Is this a generalization? Oh, without a doubt. Like any hive mind, horror fandom has a few bees that wander off the path of common sensibility and commit atrocities in the name of their darkened idols. But these are outliers in a landscape of friendly make believe where heinous choices are confined to the projected image. Deadline has some decidedly different views.
Filmed for under a million dollars in 1979 but not released in Canada until February of ’84, Deadline came and went with nary a peep, certainly with horror fans; this would not be what one would call at the forefront of Canadian horror at the time. (The answer we were looking for is Cronenberg.) Ostensibly a drama of familial discord splattered about with horror movie scenarios, it aims for mirrored social commentary, a way for us aficionados to bear witness the damage done; it’s a pity then (for him, not us)that director Mario Azzopardi (Bone Daddy) fills the screen with gnarly and glorious gore that undercuts his message at every turn. For an ostensibly anti-horror film, there sure are sloppy buckets of it sloshing around.
Steve Lessey (Stephen Young – Soylent Green) is a busy man; a horror novelist and screenwriter, his wild concoctions are hot on book shelves and at the box office, but he’s come to a crossroads in his life: he wants to create “the ultimate horror”. His producer Burt (The Last Polka), on the other hand, wants Steve to keep churning out the schlock before he commits to his magnum opus. But that’s not all Stevie has on his mind; his marriage is in ruins, due to years of neglect on his part, and his kids desperately yearn for affection he’s forgotten how to give.
You see, it’s all about the work for Steve; the unquenchable thirst to create horrifying images has started to capsize his grip on reality and set him adrift on a course for insanity. With every wall closing in, a family tragedy fast tracks Steve towards an inevitable outcome for the horror film that is his life…
Deadline offers an intriguing look at the genre itself, but don’t expect it to kow-tow to the horror base; far from it, in fact – Azzopardi seems to fall into the Life Reflects Art camp quite comfortably. This isn’t a condemnation by any means; in fact, it’s refreshing to think upon how seemingly grotesque imagery can imprint upon a mind, be it developing or unraveling. (See also: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.) This has always been the righteous thorn in horror’s side, the belief that the content itself is responsible for the lambs of the world rising up and turning violent towards their fellow lambs; with nary a mention that perhaps said lambs had some real heavy duty life issues to deal with in Lambland.
It all comes down to responsibility; those critical of Steve want him to be accountable for the so-called dreck he makes accosting children’s minds, and his wife Elizabeth (Sharon Masters – Bonnie’s Kids) wants him to be accountable for the dissolution of his family. The former happens when he goes to his alma mater to receive an award, and is confronted by film students who question his morality based on his work (I can only assume they have multiple outlets to display their craft), and the latter with several scathing marital and parental discussions between the couple. And when the film takes a decidedly dark turn near the end, Elizabeth is quick to blame the art (and the artist) for her imploding world, not the man she married.
Which is easier to do, right? The knee-jerk reaction to tragedy is usually outward looking, something to grasp and lay blame to instead of a dive into our own psyches; Elizabeth blames Steve’s work for a horrible death instead of the collateral damage caused by their marital fallout. This is most definitely Steve’s fault, but not his work.
I’m sure making this sound like a Friday night blast with friends, aren’t I? The truth is, the film as presented would be nothing more than a dour polemic against horror; but Azzopardi and co-writer Richard Oleksiak (Night Trackers) decide to show Steve’s visions to us, and they are spectacular.
Peppered throughout Deadline are scenes involving bloody showers, a man being splayed by an industrial snow blower controlled by an evil, telepathic goat (take that, The Witch!), cannibalistic nuns literally eating the flesh of the local vicar, a Nazi using sub-aural signals from a demented punk band to have hobos’ stomachs explode, and much more. They are terrific, and most of these scenarios act as trailers for films you wish existed.
Did the filmmakers put in these scenes to lure us horror folk to sit through their tract on the toxicity of violence on screen? Perhaps. The irony is these scenes – these ultimately harmless displays of terror – act as a cathartic response and release of our everyday pressures: our preoccupations with finances, relationships, and our existential daily dread can be shattered ever so briefly through the beauty of the arcane. No matter how hard it tries otherwise, Deadline shows us the sanctity of horror, and the vital sanctuary we need to deal with the Steves of the world.
Deadline is currently unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray. I guess Steve’s horrors are too much for anyone to take.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE CARRIER (1988)