FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 19, 2007

Day 18- "Why is he so different?"

In 1972, director Bob Clark and writer Alan Ormsby teamed up to make a largely goofy (but still scared the bejesus out of little Final Girl) zombie flick with one of the best titles ever: Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. No one could have guessed that two years later they'd join forces again to create a subtle, spooky film with a distinct and serious message: Deathdream (aka Dead of Night). Both men went on to have wildly varied careers; before his untimely death earlier this year, Clark directed such disparate films as the groundbreaking slasher film Black Christmas, another holiday-themed classic (A Christmas Story), and seminal teen sex comedy Porky's. Ormsby, meanwhile, has continued to write horror films (Popcorn, Cat People), but he's also taken a shot at the Porky's saga (Porky's II: The Next Day) as well as the cult classic coming of age film My Bodyguard.

After a brief but harrowing opening sequence in which we watch a soldier die due to gunshot wounds, the scene moves from the battlefield to the dinner table as the Brooks family receives the late-night telegram no soldier's family wants: the one informing them that their son, Andy, has died. Andy's father Charles (John Marley) and sister Cathy (Anya Ormsby) are grief-stricken, but Andy's mother Christine (Lynn Carlin) simply refuses to believe the terrible news. She sits up night after night, praying and whispering "You'll come home, Andy..."

And she's right- Andy does come home, appearing unannounced in the Brooks home in the middle of the night. The family is overjoyed and assumes that the telegram must have been a mistake. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Andy is very, very different than he was before he enlisted in the Army. He doesn't want anyone to know he's home; he doesn't eat, he doesn't sleep; he sits in a rocking chair all day long staring off into space...oh, and he seems to have developed a bit of a temper- so much so that he single-handedly strangles the family dog in front of a gaggle of neighborhood kids.

Though Christine is gentle with Andy and thinks he simply needs some time to readjust to civilian life, Charles's patience wears thin quickly; he served in World War II, after all, but you don't see him acting like a homicidal weirdo. Family relations are strained as Andy grows increasingly cuckoo nutso, and eventually we learn his terrible secret- I'm not going to give it all away here, but I will say that it's safe to assume that it's not good.

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is horror film as metaphor. It's often said that the horror films with a "message"- Dawn of the Dead ('78), for example- are among the best. They're not just about slicing up horny teens, you see; rather, there's a little more substance to these films that make audiences feel all smart and decidedly not guilty about enjoying a horror film. Deathdream is no exception to that rule- it's an effectively creepy...well, zombie movie wrapped in an atmosphere of dread, but it's also an indictment of war, showing us how war changes everything- not just the lives of the soldiers, but also those of their loved ones as well. Veterans coming home are indeed different than they were before battle, and the readjustment to civilian life can be incredibly difficult, to put it mildly. Deathdream is every bit as heartbreaking as it is horrifying.

Trivia time! Dazzle your friends with knowledge!

Deathdream marks Tom Savini's first big-screen foray into the mysterious world of FX!


M said...

Even in the more so-called brainless or light horror movies there is always a subtext to decipher, and I like figuring it out because it ads to my enjoyment of the movie. A movie like this may be more "serious" but because its subtext is so obviously about post traumatic stress it actually makes one feel less smart for figuring it out.

Stacie Ponder said...

I agree with you, Mariana, and I love finding hidden meanings in horror films, even if I'm basically...well, pulling it out of my ass! :D

However, I feel super smart no matter what.


Anonymous said...

I just saw this last year, and it was so relevant it blew my mind. Plus it works like all hell as a horror movie in its own right.

Hey, you wanna see a horror movie sacrifice visceral impact in pursuit of Something to Say? Check out Sublime, the one set in a hospital with the guy who played Ed.

Better yet, just imagine someone in Deathdream introducing another character as "Richard, Nick's son." That's what Sublime's like.

Arbogast said...

I got to see DEATHDREAM pre-DVD release at New York's Walter Reade Theater a couple of years ago. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid and catching up with the flick was fun but better yet was, when I was walking out of the theater, there was Old Andy standing at the back of the house, the sickest grin on his face I've ever seen on a... living man.

Anonymous said...

Aw, not "The Best Years of Our Death"?

Will Errickson said...

Cool, little-known flick. Great review! I found the scene at the end, with Andy and his mother in the graveyard, to be truly chilling and heartbreaking at once. And John Marley is also an awesome dad in Love Story.

jkp said...

I definitely agree about the opening and closing scenes; the 'Andy, you promised you'd come home' sequence is murky and strange seeming, and it establishes an ominous mood. And the last scene when he's digging his own grave has stayed with me. It's weirdly shocking, but there's also something sad and human about it. I think it's one of my favorite horror movie endings.

It's too bad this movie is not more well known. I appreciate it more every time Romero (et al) swings and misses on the latest variation of the zombies-are-victims-of-oppression metaphor.

(I hate knocking Romero... I do group it together favourably in my head with Romero's 'Martin' because both get pretty serious about how mental illness seems to shape its characters...)