In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
Today we return after a long hiatus with a look at an underseen weirdo gem of American Cult Cinema in Bob Clark’s gruesome ressurection tale, Deathdream
So hi it’s been a while.
The cult corner came out of a joie de vivre, it came out of a need to share the love for cinema I have with others, and a clarity of the ideas of what cinema should be that I’d developed. Well, things change. I still love people and movies and horror films but as you get older your horizons broaden and well, we all need our periods out in the wilderness. The boundaries of what you thought were true get all messed up and for a while it’s scary but part of getting older is pushing through the perimeters of what you thought you had and finding new ones. The arrogance of youth gives way to more patient and nuanced ways of seeing the world. I hope this doesn’t make my writing for you lovely people any less incisive or cutting or descriptive, maybe it’ll make it better and more personal, who knows. We all need to make our Mean Streets before we can make our Taxi Driver, not to flatter myself to the point of arrogance. Well, we all have a right to dream. The great thing about the wilderness though is that the DVD store is brilliant. They didn’t tell you about that temptation that the wilderness holds. There’s the lovely bread you can make of stone and the rest of it, which you pay for spiritually but then there’s Arrow Video’s Shawscope boxes that you pay for with holes in your wallet. As such I have seen many more brilliant cult movies that I can’t wait to share with you all.
So, Deathdream. What is it? What does it know? Does it know things? Let’s find out.
Bob Clark, among cult movie fans at least, is probably best known for his proto slasher Black Christmas, which, knowing me, will probably get its own column one day. Among wider audiences though, Bob Clark is probably best known as a comedy movie director with films like A Christmas Story, Porky’s, and Baby Geniuses. Bob Clark at a certain point said he wanted to stop making horror movies, and like several directors before him who made their break with stylish, cheap, commercially successful horror pictures, found out that transition away often leads to utter dross. Nevertheless, his early horror pictures that he made with a cabal of collaborators who would stay with him for the rest of his career, are something to behold. Carl Zittrer would go on to score Black Christmas, A Christmas Story, and Porky’s and lends something utterly, utterly eerie to Deathdream. He uses techniques with repurposed vocal sounds as the killer’s theme in the movie that would go on to rear its grotesque and gothic head as Jason’s theme in the original Friday The 13th. Indeed, many of Zittrer’s more classically orchestral choices are reminiscent of the chills and stabs that were so influential on 70s and 80s horror in Pino Donaggio’s score for Carrie two years later. Deathdream was also written by Alan Ormsby who the same year directed and did the makeup effects for Deranged. More on the make up effects later. Ormsby would maintain his professional relationship with Clark, going on to write Porky’s II for him.
The films they made together in Bob Clark’s early horror era are all noteworthy in their own ways. They were all shot and cut almost back to back across 1972 through 1974 and it is slightly like watching someone learn to make movies in real time. I am not a fan of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things but as a low budget filmmaking experiment, and the start of Bob Clark’s career, it’s a fascinating watch. The poorly executed blend of comedy and horror is well, not to my taste. The characters bumble around a makeshift and ramshackle horror plot designed to be shot on a low budget and instead of characters having a natural dynamic and sense of humor they crack awful jokes in a weird simulacrum of genuine human interaction. Unfortunately the kind of comedy films that Bob Clark would go onto inspire also seem to operate this way.
We then come to Deathdream. I am getting ahead of myself slightly, I’m telling you all of these wonderful things about Deathdream, a movie I truly love and recommend very highly, but I haven’t actually told you much about the film itself. Deathdream is a weird and eerie quasi adaptation of The Monkey’s Paw. It follows a vaguely middle class family whose son is at war. It opens with a grueling and grizzly scene from The Vietnam War where we don’t explicitly see their son, called Andy, die, but nevertheless the family receive notice of Andy’s death in the line or service. Later that evening, the father is woken up and finds his wife praying for Andy’s return, and well, he does return. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows though, Andy is not quite himself anymore. When he returns home the very next evening they tell him they thought he died, he merely blankly returns that he did. A truck driver turns up dead with his throat slit after having taken on some weirdo soldier as a hitchhiker the previous night who apparently remained mute the whole time. The coroner, as the family doctor, finds Andy’s strange new personality concerning. Things start to unravel.
Writer Ormsby has an amazingly prolific writing career with such fare as Paul Schrader’s Cat People and Disney’s Mulan. It’s clear to see here he already had thematic ambitions above your standard hack-and-slash picture. More than a simple proto slasher, this seems more indebted to the more weirdo end of Bava’s surrealistic streak, pictures like Lisa and The Devil and The Whip and the Body. The thematic ambitions are obvious but not heavy handed. The film is obviously trying to speak to the treatment of veterans, specifically of the Vietnam War, PTSD, and more subtly the evolution of the nuclear family. The boys who went off and came back ‘wrong’ and people who didn’t know how to deal with the specific PTSD that came with The Vietnam War.
There’s commentary in the film from certain characters about the difference between WWII veterans and Vietnam veterans, but there are so many differences. For a start, WWII veterans were heroes. There were people who were against the USA getting involved in fighting The Nazis but broadly, even though we were not then yet aware of the true horrors of the concentration camps, The Nazis were already such cartoonish villains who were trying to take over the world, and America got involved in the war so late, that it was easy to heroise the veterans as people who went in and saved the day from the German mustache twirling baddies. The Vietnam War was very different. For a start, it’s a war that lasted nearly two decades, the true horrors of which the government tried to cover up. Secondly, the USA lost. Thirdly, the warmongers from the USA vastly overestimated the people’s ability to see communists to be as cartoonishly calling to be stopped by a strong hand as The Nazis. This twenty year period also had within its boundaries, such famous military disasters as The Bay of Pigs Invasion and The Cuban Missile Crisis where America ended up looking not only like a bunch of blood hungry warmongers, but incompetent ones at that. Thusly, it was incredibly hard for the USA to spin such things as napalm and Agent Orange in any light that wasn’t horrifying, and the guerilla nature of the war meant it was a lot easier for war photographers to capture the true horror. There was no distance between the American public and the images of pure horror that were being pushed down the then newly ubiquitous cathode ray tubes in every home. As a result, Vietnam vets came home shell shocked, directionless, and villains to many. The boys didn’t have any better idea why they were going to fight than anyone else and when they came home people who otherwise probably meant very well indeed treated them like second class citizens. This is the backdrop to a film about a Vietnam vet coming back from death with his soul hollowed out, some supernatural entity that society can’t connect with or accommodate.
The PTSD allegory is captured potently when Andy goes off and murders a dog in the most brutal scene in the film. It’s strong and it’s harrowing but it’s great cinema. It is also worth noting that there was filmed an exised part of the opening scene where Andy comes across a biblical orgy of naked people rolling around in gore in the middle of Vietnam, setting up not only the direct allegory where he sees literal hellish horrors, but the biblical nature of such a scene reflects the unreality of the premise, highlighting the allegory. It’s asking you to engage with the film on the level of a war between the divine and the devilish. The film presents the mother’s prayers not as a direct line to God, but wishes and desires and needs put out into the spiritual ether to be answered by whoever is best equipped, thus the work of The Devil is invited.
The nuclear family aspect of this film is also worth highlighting. Key to the squeaky clean image of the WWII recruitment drive, the emergence of the middle class, suburban nuclear family was part of the image that was destroyed not only by the image of The Vietnam War, but also by all their men coming back fucked up. The key thing to remember is that this standard of living never existed. For a start, and I mean a start, black people and other people of color were almost entirely excluded from this way of life, intentionally and systematically. The White Flight in fact, was a direct cause of this suburban image, and was absolutely, stone cold racist. The other big reason that this image was never true, was, well, it assumes everyone is perfect and happy. It assumes everyone gets along. It builds its sense of community over silence, and not talking about things. For example, how can you have a nuclear family of a wife, husband, and two kids, a boy and a girl, without excluding queer people? The version that Deathdream directly engages with is death but also the father figure is emotionally neglectful and physically abusive, and in a patriarchal world, especially the one of the middle of the 20th Century, where men are encouraged to see wifes and other woman as essentially property, how can that not have been far more common than anyone talked about? Under this framework, the explosion of The Vietnam War, the explosion of student agitation around it and other civil rights issues, and second wave feminism more broadly, it less destroyed this image of suburban America, but exposed the fact that it never existed in the first place. In Ursula le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, she asks us to imagine a world which is Utopian but in order for this Utopia to exist, one child has to be, from birth, kept in a dark room with no light or toys, and routinely kicked. She asks us if we would walk away from that Utopia knowing what it’s built on. What the 70s did was show us all the children in dark rooms getting kicked.
There’s a line in Deathdream that unlocks the whole movie, after one particularly grizzly murder, Andy mutters “I died for you, Doc, why shouldn’t you return the favor?”, which not only captures the bitterness or the experience of a Vietnam vet, but fundamentally the ungrateful nature of being a soldier. It was and is not only understandable but essential to be against the Vietnam War, but in a world of conscription especially, the soldier is not the war, and even when it was done, people need places to go back to. In any war, reintegrating into civilian life is challenging, but if you’re actively resented for being drafted in the first place, it’s doubly so. The thing about a war machine is just that, it is a machine, and it chews up and spits out young men, but the nature of a machine is that it’s faceless. There’s Kafkaesque, Catch-22 bureaucracy around every turn. You can’t point the finger of guilt at anyone who you will ever meet, so it’s easier to kick the soldier than the system.
The piece has a clear Stephen King connection, strange as it came out the same year as King’s first novel. There’s clearly a commonality of influence between the two but considering King’s immaculate taste, it would be weird if he wasn’t influenced by this film at some point. The premise immediately provides a framework that fits very well indeed onto Pet Sematary, and the idea of a ‘getting what you wish for’ spin on The Monkey’s Paw, putting it into American suburbia is deeply reminiscent of Needful Things. Christ, Deathdream should have been set in Maine. This brings into question what exactly is going on. Like King, this film revels in not revealing its secrets. David Lynch said he’s always a little disappointed when a movie feels the need to explain its mysteries, (he would love classic noir Kiss Me Deadly then), but Deathdream almost never reveals what’s happening. It hints at some kind of zombification scenario, or some kind of spin on vampirism. Maybe this kind of situation is how the very first vampire came into being. There is some kind of need in Andy to consume, and there are shots and instances that will remind one of things you’ve seen in both vampirism and zombification. King’s vampires in Salem’s Lot chill you because he so cleverly employs the classic tropes of vampire fiction so that you, the reader, with the omnipotence of already knowing what vampires are, get scared for the characters who are clueless as to their peril, thus the book never needs to over explain itself. Deathdream has no such conventionality.
I have heard the idea mentioned that Andy is a tulpa; a fairly obscure cryptid type that pops up every now and then for people interested in that kind of thing. For example, I have heard it suggested that the men in black were tulpas, but we’re not here for conspiracy theories. What a tulpa is essentially is a being manifested by someone’s ideas or wishes. That you can think something into existence if you think it hard enough. What is probably the truth is that the writers intended to do something like that without actually thinking they were crafting a tulpa story. What it enables the film to do though is something that Stephen King does excellently, the creature being pure metaphor. Andy may not be the pure manifestation of his mother’s desperate need for him to come home, but may be influenced by his father, who obviously resents him and never wanted him home in the first place. There’s an aspect with which, with all the family members, they wanted him home purely so they could perform the nuclear family, so they could look like all was well, and nothing more, and obviously in this tulpa reading of Deathdream, all of these impulses go into the creation of Andy. The tulpa being a manifestation of everyone’s wishes, allows it to be perfectly metaphorical, it allows what the tulpa eventually becomes to be the summation of everything the film sets out to comment upon. Horror and especially fantastical horror excels at this. Oliver Stone is a perfectly good filmmaker and I’m sure his Born on the Fourth of July is a great movie, I haven’t seen it, but it takes conventional drama one hundred and fifty five minutes to say what takes fantastical horror ninety five minutes.
It is also worth saying that Deathdream is just genuinely creepy and scary. The violence is fairly bloodless but it doesn’t need to be otherwise, clever filmmaking allows it to be genuinely brutal. The cinematography is great. It’s not a film that looks particularly beautiful, but again, it doesn’t need to. What the film is trying to capture is anxiety, dread, and the dreariness of civilian life. This is achieved seamlessly. It’s not a perfect movie, it’s ragged around the edges but I love that about it, it feels like a pointed, agitated, dangerous statement against the war machine. It feels like a violent punk rock shout of sadness and rage. The nature of Andy’s degradation is shown in stark reality. The effects were done, in part, by a young Tom Savini, who would infamously use his experience as a Vietnam war photographer to bring a sense of reality to his effects. This was his first job after his tour in Vietnam. Savini brings his realism to Deathdream with stark effect, it does feel like you’re watching a reanimated dead corpse rot in real time, it’s grim, it’s fantastic. It is worth saying, there is a scene where Andy attempts to cover up his decay by donning a white racing jacket and sunglasses and it is one of the scariest looks for a villain I have ever seen, really makes you feel the change in Andy, as we never saw him before he changed into this tulpa. It makes you feel his lack of humanity, his coldness, his villainy. The score is beautiful and eerie, as mentioned. The performances are great for the most part, the person playing the father especially, who has a memorable turn in The Godfather, plays his character with a sense of realism and gravitas. Richard Backus, who plays Andy, didn’t have a long or really notable career in film but he is spectacular in this picture, and gives us a realistic picture of vampirism that would clearly go on to influence John Amplas’ turn in Martin.
As I said, Bob Clark’s early horror films are something to behold, and it is like watching someone learn to make movies in real time, and the next movie they made after this would solidify that in the classic that is Black Christmas. Black Christmas is the slick and sleek sister to Deathdream’s brutal jackhammer. Both films feel like they have something to say though, and they want to say it with soul, realism, and texture, and a sense of warmth for the people in them. I love both pictures, and of course I think Black Christmas is probably a better film than Deathdream, but I will always miss the filmmaker that Bob Clark could have been; this rebel, pointed voice.
The final line of this movie, from the mother character, captures perfectly both the sense of anger and mourning that pervades Deathdream, “Andy came home, not all of them get to come home”.
Coming back is good, by and large I think, whatever bitterness this film holds. It feels very good for me to be back. Long may it continue.