Movies: Deathdream (1974)

Bob Clark was in interesting filmmaker; though he was born in the United States, he did most of his iconic work in Canada, and his directorial resume is all over the map, comprising horror cult classics like Black Christmas and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, beloved 1980s comedies like Porky’s and A Christmas Story, and less-than-celebrated family fare like the two Baby Geniuses movies from the late 90s and early 2000s. Sadly, Clark’s fascinating career was cut short in 2007, when he and his son were killed by a drunk driver.

In his early days, Clark worked a great deal with actor, director, screenwriter, and makeup artist Alan Ormsby, who wrote and starred in the aforementioned Children Shouldn’t Play…, and also penned the screenplay for the underrated Ed-Gein-based horror film Deranged from 1974 (though Clark was the producer on that one and not the director).

After the cult success of 1972’s comedic zombie movie Children Shouldn’t Play… but a bit before the slightly more mainstream breakout of the stylish early slasher Black Christmas, Clark and Ormsby teamed up on a creepy little anti-Vietnam horror loosely inspired by W.W. Jacobs’s famous 1904 short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” The film, released in 1974, is today better known as Deathdream, though prints of it still bear its original title Dead of Night. I assume the title was changed to avoid confusion with the well-known British anthology movie from 1945, or the 1972 British TV series of the same name.

Deathdream is, in my opinion, a highly undervalued 1970s gem, an unsettling psychological (and supernatural) reflection on how the horrors of war can change a man, complete with a devastatingly heartbreaking ending. The film features one of only a handful of film appearances by Richard Backus, who would go on to garner several Emmy nominations for his television work in the 1980s, and also boasts some early special effects from horror master Tom Savini. Alan Ormsby’s wife Anya also stars, as does John Marley from Love Story and The Godfather, and Lynn Carlin, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in the 1968 John Cassavetes film Faces (which John Marley also appeared in, by the way). Deathdream was shot entirely in the small town of Brooksville, Florida, about 45 miles from Tampa.

At the beginning of the movie, we see a soldier in Vietnam named Andy Brooks get shot by a sniper after witnessing the death of his friend and fellow soldier. It appears that Andy is hit right through the heart, so it’s clear he was killed outright, but then we hear an eerie woman’s voice-over telling Andy that he has to come back, because he promised he would.

The story then cuts to the rest of the Brooks family at the dinner table: Mom Christine, Dad Charles, and sister Cathy. It’s established right away that Dad and Cathy are worried because they haven’t heard from Andy for a couple of months, and are starting to fear the worst. Mom, though, is prattling happily along about how everyone is asking about Andy, and how he’ll write soon, and how she can’t wait to see him when he gets home. Charles and Cathy are just glancing at each other with, “Uh oh, Mom’s delusional,” kind of expressions, but neither one of them have the heart to burst her bubble, so they desperately try to change the subject away from Andy, but nothing doing.

In the middle of dinner, there’s a knock at the door, and it turns out that the very thing that Charles and Cindy were dreading has come to pass: the visitor is from the Army, and hands the family a telegram telling them that Andy was killed in action. Both Charles and Cindy are immediately grief-stricken, but Christine is absolutely not having it, screaming that the whole thing is a lie. Later that night, Charles finds his wife sitting in the dark in Andy’s room, seemingly talking to Andy while staring at a candle, as though she’s doing some kind of low-key incantation.

Even later that same night, Cindy hears a noise downstairs and wakes her parents up. They don’t see anyone at first, but notice that the front door is wide open, and when they investigate further, they find Andy standing in the front room in full uniform, looking fit as a fiddle. Overjoyed, they embrace him, figuring that the Army must have made some clerical error in sending them that earlier telegram confirming his death.

The family all sit down at the table together, and from the jump it’s pretty evident that Andy ain’t the same. He doesn’t talk much, won’t eat or drink anything, and just looks generally kind of spacey and a bit menacing. The rest of the family is too happy to see him and too busy firing questions at him to really notice, however. When Charles tells his son with a laugh that the Army had actually told them that he’d died, Andy just gives a chilling smile and says, “I did.” There’s a long, pregnant pause, then everyone starts to laugh, but in a really awkward, disquieting type of way, and Clark’s direction makes this scene doubly skin-crawling, by focusing just a bit too closely on the characters’ open, laughing mouths, making their faces look more like rictuses of terror, and allowing the painful, forced laughter to go on for far longer than is entirely comfortable.

As the days go on, Charles in particular becomes convinced that something is seriously wrong with his son. Cindy suspects something as well, but still holds out hope that he’ll snap out of whatever this weird phase is. Christine, though, is in complete denial, insisting that Andy has been through a horrible ordeal in Vietnam, and they can’t expect him to just come back home and get back to normal right away; they’re going to have to give him some time. While as a general rule this is probably true, the way Andy is acting goes way beyond any minor readjustment. The guy barely speaks, spends his entire days sitting in a rocking chair staring straight ahead, and spends his nights wandering around in the nearby graveyard.

Not only that, but before he even arrived back home, he killed the truck driver who gave him a ride while he was hitchhiking. No one begins to suspect his involvement until later, but we as the audience saw it happen, so we know something is the matter with Andy before his family does, causing some effective suspense. The various family members’ reactions to Andy’s behavior cause a great deal of turmoil within the home, especially between Charles and Christine, who have blistering arguments that sometimes turn physical.

Later on, in easily the film’s most horrifying scene, Andy smacks around a neighbor kid and then strangles the Brooks family dog Butch with one hand while the horrified kids watch. Not gonna lie, this sequence was very, very upsetting, so if you don’t like to see even fake harm done to animals in movies, you might want to skip it.

At this point, Andy’s dad Charles is certain that his son isn’t really his son anymore, and starts to have a crisis over whether he should turn Andy in to the police after he finds out about the truck driver, and later after the town doctor also turns up dead in similar circumstances. Said crisis involves drinking, threatening to kick Andy out of the house, and getting into screaming matches with his wife, who is still adamant that Andy will snap out of it.

The long and short of the story is that Andy is some kind of vampire, zombie, or revenant; the exact mechanics of his return are thankfully left ambiguous, but it’s clear that some type of dark magic set in motion by his mother’s fervid hopes for his survival have manifested into reality. Like a zombie, Andy slowly begins to decay over the course of the story, but like a vampire, he seems to restore himself temporarily by drinking the blood of those he kills. The parameters of what Andy is aren’t really important, though; yes, this is technically a sort of “living dead monster” kind of movie, but Andy’s supernatural affliction is also a metaphorical device exploring how people who have witnessed the death and devastation of war may come back from the experience irreparably damaged.

If you’re into creepy, sort of slow-burn 1970s flicks like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or Alice, Sweet Alice, you’ll definitely want to give Deathdream a watch; it’s an underappreciated film with great acting, good special effects, a haunting ending, and some really fantastic, unnerving sequences. Also recommended, of course, to fans of Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby’s other work; check it out if you haven’t seen it.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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