Monday, October 20, 2008

#99: Dead of Night (aka Deathdream)


Dead of Night (aka Deathdream)
Directed by Bob Clark
Written by Alan Ormsby
Released August 30, 1974

"Okay," I thought, "this is my third movie tonight. This one had better not suck."

The elements were all in place for a good time: Deathdream was directed by Bob Clark, whose Black Christmas I enjoyed last week (and whose A Christmas Story is one of my all time favorite comedies), and the make-up was done by zombie expert and Horror legend Tom Savini.

Dead of Night is an especially edgy horror movie if you consider the time period in which it came out, the early 1970s, not long after the U.S. had pulled out of Vietnam (it was actually made in 1972 but unreleased until '74). It must have been especially strange for Savini, who claims to have learned more about Horror make-up as a war photographer than he did in his years of playing around with stage make-up prior to his time in Vietnam.

The movie opens with two soldiers surrounded by explosions in the jungle. Before we really even learn their names, they are shot and presumably killed. The credits roll and then we sit down to dinner with the Brooks family. There is a rapping at their door, and we learn that one of the soldiers killed was their son Andy (played by Richard Backus).

Mrs. Brooks does not take the news well, and her husband finds her awake at nights, denying her son's death and praying for his safe return. As a twist on the classic story The Monkey's Paw, soon Mrs. Brooks' wish comes true: her son returns home, seemingly alive but behaving much differently than she or her family remembers. Andy is a shell of his former self, barely speaking and almost unable to act human.

As a metaphor for the effects of the horrors war on an individual, their family, and even their community, Dead of Night couldn't be more apt. Andy spends his days rocking silently back and forth in a chair, observing his family from afar and scaring the family dog.

Speaking of the family dog, there's a confrontation between Andy and the adorable mutt -- executed in front of a group of neighborhood kids who idolize the Brooks boy -- that really sets the tone for how dark and dramatic of a movie we're dealing with. Dead of Night is fucking DARK. This isn't the kind of scary movie where you cheer the violent death of a bad guy or await the next morbid set piece.

The acting in the movie carries the whole picture, with especially good performances from Lynn Carlin as Andy's mother Christine, and of course Richard Backus as Andy, in what could have been an embarassing one-note performance.

By the end of the movie, you might just be blown away: Dead of Night winds up being a poignant, sad and ultimately thought-provoking movie, "horror" or not. While Clark wound up in his later years filming dreck like Baby Geniuses and Karate Dog (are you kidding me? Karate fuckin' Dog?!), you have to give the guy credit for making something as brave as this movie so soon after America was still tending to its post-Vietnam wounds.

I can't say I've ever really seen a Horror film like this one. It wound up being so much more than I expected, and more than made up for the two disappointments that preceded it.

For more on Deathdream:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Deathdream trailer:

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