Monday, February 24, 2014


Bob Clark, 1972
Starring: Richard Backus, John Marley, Lynn Carlin

Young Andy Brooks is a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War. He is killed by a sniper and, while dying, hears his mother remind him that he promised to return home. His family receives notice of his death, but his mother refuses to believe it. She insists that Andy is not dead and the notice is incorrect. He suddenly returns that night and his family is overwhelmed with joy, but they soon learn that it’s not the same Andy that they remember. He acts strangely, sits for hours without speaking, and begins hanging out in a local graveyard. He is sullen and joyless. Meanwhile, dead bodies drained of blood begin to turn up in the neighborhood. Is Andy responsible?

Deathdream is essentially a re-telling of W.W. Jacobs’ seminal horror tale, “The Monkey’s Paw” and its overarching theme is “be careful what you wish for.” In this case, a mother’s desperate wish that her son will return home from war becomes a thing of horror for the family, her son, and their small town community. Andy’s plight is representative of a number of things effecting youth in the ‘70s, including the Vietnam War and drug addiction. Without giving too much away, Andy is injecting himself with blood in order to stay alive, or rather maintain his state of un-death. Director Bob Clark was one of the first to depict the problems of the Vietnam War on screen and it is a rich, compelling backdrop to Andy’s more supernatural problems.

Deathdream is not just merely a war-haunted re-working of The Monkey’s Paw set in small town America. It is also a bitter family drama that documents the dramatic decay of one family. Talented actors John Marley and Lynn Carlin are excellent as Andy’s parents. His mother retreats further and further into a fantasy world where her son and family are intact; his father reacts by succumbing to alcoholism and violence. Interestingly, Marley and Carlin already played a warring married couple in John Cassavetes’ devastating Faces. It might seem like a strange recommendation, but Faces and Deathdream would make a very interesting, if grim double feature about the pitfalls of marriage and family life.

This is director Bob Clark’s (Black Christmas, A Christmas Story) second collaboration with writer Alan Ormsby – they previously worked on Children’s Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things – and this is far superior to their overrated first film. Clark actually brought a number of his previous (and future) collaborators onto the project. Jeff Gillen, an actor in Children also appears here. He would later go on to work with Ormsby and Clark on Deranged, which Gillen directed. Ormsby’s wife Anya has a co-starring role as Andy’s sister.

Jack McGowan (cinematographer on Deranged) is responsible for the excellent cinematography and Carl Zittrer, Clark’s future collaborator on Black Christmas, wrote the creepy, effective score. Deathdream is also notable for horror fanatics, because it marks the debut of effects wizard Tom Savini. The subject matter is oddly fitting, as Savini served in the Vietnam War as a photographer. He would, of course, go on to make some of the best effects in late ‘70s and ‘80s horror.

Deathdream’s only major flaw is that parts of the plot are slow moving; for example, it takes the film a while to reveal that Andy is dead. This development is never explained, though that doesn’t really seem necessary, particularly for anyone who’s read The Monkey’s Paw. The powerful performance of Richard Backus (Lovers and Friends) as Andy is enough to overcome most of the issues. He is commanding as Andy and carries the film, despite that several of his scenes involve him sitting in a rocking chair, looking dead and empty. When his rage and frustration begin to spill over, his performance intensifies. He is truly one of the most sympathetic monsters in ‘70s cinema. Keep a box of tissues handy for the ending.

Chilling, suspenseful, and heart wrenching, Deathdream is one of the unsung classics of ‘70s horror. Considered a Canadian film, it was actually co-financed by Canada and the U.K, but was filmed in Florida. Also known as Dead of Night, but it shouldn’t be confused with the 1945 horror anthology of the same name. Deathdream is available on DVD and comes with the highest possible recommendation.

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