Drive-In Dust Offs: DEATHDREAM

2015/09/12 15:59:44 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


Perhaps best remembered for the huge success of teen comedy Porky’s (1981) and perennial yuletide fave A Christmas Story (1983), Bob Clark will forever be known to horror fans as the director of Black Christmas (1974) ,  the taut, flat out scary as hell blueprint for John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) . However, the same year he made BC, came the potent anti Vietnam parable Deathdream, aka Dead of Night, a chilling indictment on the ravages of war mixed with a spooky EC Comics vibe. Rarely talked about, it still packs a wallop today.

Made right after Clark’s rather boring zombie debut Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), but not released until August of ’74, Deathdream didn’t make much of a ripple at the box office but did see some solid notices. At the time, there weren’t a lot of films tackling the Vietnam War (most notable was 1968’s execrable John Wayne opus The Green Berets) let alone a pulpy horror film made for a paltry $235,000 US. But it is this workingman approach to the film that underlines the tragedy of loss at hand, while highlighting the visceral thrills. Definitely on the nose but not too pushy, Deathdream says its piece and shuffles off after 90 tension filled minutes.

Here’s a little story: Andy Brooks (Richard Backus – The First Deadly Sin), a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, is shot down by a sniper and falls to the ground. As he lies dying, he hears his mom tell him, “You’ve got to come back, you promised.” Back in the States, the family receives word from the military that their son has died. The family, father Charles (John Marley – The Godfather) , mom Christine (Lyn Carlin – Battle Beyond the Stars), and sister Cathy (Anya Ormsby – CSPWDT), are understandably grief stricken with Christine especially being in total denial. Of course, we’re watching a horror movie, so who do we see catching a ride from a truck driver but our dear old dead friend Andy, whose manners have gone out the window (along with his pulse), as he does not utter a word to the driver. We then cut back to the Brooks residence, where after hearing noises in the middle of the night, discover the return of their Andy, waiting behind the front door (that’s right, behind – the first of many new, um, tics that Andy has developed) . Naturally, the family is overjoyed at his return (more so than Andy, who barely musters a smile for his kin) , and plan a big coming home party. Andy asks his mom to postpone the festivities as he needs time to rest. As the dead do. Over the next few days, joy turns to worry, and then trepidation, as Andy’s behavior shows little sign of the young man they once knew - culminating in bloodlust, murder, and finally, a showdown at the holiest of holies, the Drive-In.

Deathdream works very well on several levels. First, there’s the hoariest of horror clichés – be careful what you wish for. Essentially an update of the short story The Monkey’s Paw, the film has a raw attack harking back to the glory days of Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and other assorted cartoonish comics that infiltrated the nightmares of the young and impressionable back in the day. Mom wishes her son back, but things don’t quite turn out the way she hoped. Simple and direct, this story should always work, and it does here, as Clark’s unobtrusive direction lets the tale breathe and naturally unfold. Second, the Vietnam take slots in perfectly with the horror – the parents feel rejected by the son, as the war seems to have changed him, and the son feels different and disconnected from reality. Really, this is PTSD before it had a name, and Clark equates it (and sympathizes) with zombism, a bold and apt move before the war had even ended.

Of course, if not handled correctly, this could easily go horribly wrong, from laughable at best to insensitive at worst. However, the screenplay by Alan Ormsby (Deranged, Cat People) does not go for overdramatic flourishes, but rather flows easily through the realistic dialogue, sympathetic portrayals, and Clark’s canny knack for tension and plausibility.

There is nothing showy about Clark’s direction here, and there never was – for him, it was all about getting out of the way, and letting the story speak for itself. Having said that, with this and BC, he displays a knack for creating suspense, reeling the viewer in methodically and then releasing whatever monsters he has up his sleeve. A real shame he moved over to comedy, as I always felt he had a supple touch with horror – and with his tragic passing in a car accident in 2007, he never had a chance to scare us again.

The cast as well has a daunting task – too broad, and the film would be drenched in bathos, too small and their intent wouldn’t register. Luckily, Clark picked the right talent for the job. Marley shines as Charles, making you feel a father’s loss (he knows almost immediately something is wrong, and fights against every fiber of his being to be proven otherwise) and helplessness. Carlin has the harder role of displaying a mother’s grief and denial, a belief in unconditional love that turns delusional. It would all fall apart without the right choice for Andy however – and Backus is a revelation. He plays Andy disconnected, almost mute at first, with a slight bemused smile that belies a bubbling terror, ready to strike, coiled and hissing. When he does start to express himself more verbally, you can hear the frustration in his voice – trapped, cornered, stuck in a place he didn’t ask to be. It’s a great performance, enhanced by Tom Savini’s subtle makeup (his first work on film).

No one goes looking for subtext or allegory when they view a horror film. We look to be scared, to be thrilled by the sights before us. Deathdream is proof that when done organically, enhancing the material rather than distracting us from it, the results can be as rewarding as coming home. And sometimes just as deadly.

Deathdream is available on DVD from Blue Underground.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: STRANGE BEHAVIOR aka DEAD KIDS
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.