Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Off Script: Deathdream

Film: Deathdream (Dead of Night)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I claim to like horror movies, and I do like them. I don’t seem to watch them that often though because of the needs of this blog and my tendency to focus on Oscar films. “Oscar film” and “horror” aren’t words said in the same sentence that often. I’ve decided that I’ve been neglecting my horror movie lists too long, though, so I’m going to try to start putting up a horror movie review every couple of weeks. After all, this is supposed to be fun. And so I watched Deathdream, also known as Dead of Night today. Thank the Buddha for DVRs, right?

Deathdream has an interesting pedigree. First of all, it was directed by Bob Clark, who is better known as the guy who directed A Christmas Story. Less interesting but more relevant is that this is a take on the classic story of the Monkey’s Paw. We begin in Vietnam and Andy Brooks (Richard Backus). In fact, we watch Andy get shot, and as he dies, we hear the voice of his mother Christine (Lynn Carlin) saying that he can’t die; he promised he’d come back.

But, he’s dead, right? In fact, the Brooks family gets the unwanted telegram. However, that same night Andy shows up in the middle of the night. What he doesn’t tell his family is that the truck driver who gave him a lift is found the next morning with his throat slit. Initially, the family is happy to have Andy back, but it’s soon evident that something very real has changed in Andy. He is lethargic and uncommunicative all day and disappears at night. While Christine seems not to notice, Andy’s father Charles (John Marley) and sister Cathy (Anya Ormsby) notice that Andy is not all there.

In truth, Andy is all there. He’s just not alive. He’s something like a vampire and something like a zombie and something like neither. He’s been killing people, draining their blood, and then injecting it into himself to rejuvenate his dying tissue. He’s also been hanging out at the cemetery at night, evidently feeling more at home with other dead people. His family, particularly his father, starts to understand that what is wrong with Andy is far more than just PTSD or something similar. When the story gets out of the murdered truck driver, and that the same truck driver had picked up a hitchhiker wearing a uniform, Charles realizes that Andy is more than just a little not right, and does what he can to lead the police off of Andy’s trail. And then Andy is reunited with his girlfriend Joanne (Jane Daly) things get a bit more interesting.

Of course, since we’re the audience, we know a lot more than everybody else in the film; part of the joy of a horror movie is that we get to see the horror rather than trying to just figure it out. The film has a few scenes that build up to the conclusion that are notable. Andy gets visited by some local kids who pester him with questions and, when he gets overwhelmed, he kills the family dog, which had taken a dislike to him. It’s a brutal scene; he strangles the dog in front of a group of kids. It’s twisted in a pretty awesome way.

The makeup is interesting. The basic idea is that Andy uses the blood from his victims as a way to rejuvenate himself. His deterioration isn’t really consistent—he looks normal and starts to look like an animated corpse while he is injecting himself with blood. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense. On the other hand, by the end of the film when he’s gone for some time without any fresh blood, he gets pretty rotted looking, and it’s pretty great.

Deathdream is, well…it’s a horror movie, so a lot of it sort of defies logic. That’s okay. I tend to give a little more leeway to horror and fantasy movies for going places in the story that I’d laugh off from another genre. It’s not overly consistent throughout. Nothing is explained beyond the idea that Andy didn’t stay dead because of the power of his mother’s belief that he wouldn’t die. There’s no real indication of how he got home or reanimated or any of that, and that’s a weakness here. There are times you can get away without an explanation, but this doesn’t feel like one of those times.

I enjoyed this. It’s very much a product of its decade in that it hasn’t gone for the pure gore yet, but doesn’t shy away from showing some fairly upsetting stuff. This is not a great movie, but I was entertained by it. It feels like a low-budget film made to give a little scare for a grindhouse audience, and for its time, it’s pretty good at what it does. I’d love more scares in the middle, though. There are some great moments but there aren’t enough of them until the end when Andy really gets decrepit.

Why to watch Deathdream: An interesting take on either vampires or zombies.
Why not to watch: There should be more horror than just at the end.


  1. Bob Clark's career is one of the most mystifying in film history. You'd never guess from this film (nor the other horror films he made on either side of it) that he would eventually be responsible for the Baby Geniuses films, and yet there they are at the end of his resume... with the first two Porky's films somewhere in between. I know a lot of directors find themselves working in different genres rather than sticking to one, but there's something about that particular career arc which seems more than usually perplexing.

    1. He's also the guy who did A Christmas Story, which just makes things weirder.

      There are a few directors like that. George Miller, currently the toast of the town for Mad Max: Fury Road also directed Babe: Pig in the City and the two Hapy Feet movies. Robert Wise, who directed The Sound of Music also directed The Haunting and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

      One has to wonder how a career path like that happens, no?