Deathdream (1972) aka Dead of Night aka The Night Andy Came Home aka the Veteran aka Whispers
Dir. Bob Clark
Written by Alan Ormsby
Starring Richard Backus, John Marley, Lynn Carlin
When young Vietnam vet (that's "veteran," not "veterinarian") Andy (Richard Backus, basically nothing) returns home to his family in spite of an earlier notice that he’d been killed, his parents (John Marley --recipient of the famous “horse’s head” in THE GODFATHER-- and Lynn Carlin, TAKING OFF)* and sister (Anya Ormsby, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS) are thrilled to have him back. Sure, he seems a little bit “off,” but who could blame him after what he’s been through? Dad tries to council his son by relating his own war experiences, Sis tries to help Andy get his social life back, and Mom is happy just to fawn over him as much as possible. But it becomes clear pretty quickly that Andy is a little beyond their help. For example, he kills a dog. In a movie, we might forgive him for murdering the occasional trucker, but a dog-killing tells us he’s an irredeemable villain. Also, he wears a turtleneck, a clear signal of evil on any white man who is not named Steve McQueen. And as if that weren’t enough, he spends all day and night sitting in a rocking chair in his room, maniacally ratcheting back and forth in the dark. All worrisome warning signs that Andy may be some sort of undead blood-fiend who drains corpses of their lifegiving bodily fluids (well, the blood, anyway) to prolong his own unholy existence. .
|Will Smith was right. Parents just don't understand.|
I gotta admit, I was pretty unimpressed by the last Bob Clark foray into horror, 1972’s overrated and irritating CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS. But this one, which came out the same year from the same writer and director, is undeniably great, a splendid, surreal nightmare packed with tension, gore, and a light dusting of social commentary. It begins at a confidently slow pace while the tension is allowed to gradually mount, but it’s never dull, and there’s always a sense of creepy strangeness hovering over the proceedings, even before it gets outright violent. Everyone is so overjoyed by Andy’s unexpected return that they’re overwhelmingly reluctant to admit that something is not right here, hell, not even sure if they ought to say anything. I mean, jeez, are you gonna be the guy to tell this guy’s poor mom that he’s a dangerous psychopath? But the longer things go, the more it becomes impossible to ignore that the Andy that has returned is most definitely not the same one who left. Eventually, everyone knows it, they can’t say it aloud but speak volumes in worried glances and awkward pauses in conversation. But they have no idea what to do about it. There’s something wonderfully upsetting about a scenario like this, where everyone has to know, on some level, that something is terribly wrong, but no one seems willing or able to outwardly acknowledge it. And how can they? It would seem shamefully judgemental, even hypocritical, to condemn this kid who suffered so much, who, in fact, was willingly sent into danger by the very people now thankfully welcoming him home. Who wants to be the first one to accuse a combat veteran, who miraculously made it home alive against all odds, of having turned into a monster? So they all try to talk around it, to pretend, until there’s no possible way of pretending anymore.
It’s a great scenario and full of wonderfully executed sequences. But the thing that truly pushes it into the sublime is its star. Richard Backus is nothing short of amazing as the mysterious, coyly sinister returned soldier. His smile alone is enough to make you shiver -- the eyes never smile, but the mouth does. So when he starts to get more openly aggressive, it’s even more disconcerting. As an actor he did almost nothing else --a few roles on daytime soaps in the 80’s and a handful of now-forgotten TV movies-- but fuck it, this is the role of a lifetime. He’s so blandly handsome and soft-spoken and yet utterly, skin-crawlingly alien. He’s perfectly able to talk and interact with others, and eerily even does so quite charmingly when it suits him. But most of the time he barely even needs to bother, he’s predatory and reptilian, secure in the knowledge that his family is so desperately glad to have him back that they’ll convince themselves he’s fine regardless of what he does. He’s clearly able to think and plan and move with his own motivations, but what precisely is on his mind is as unknowable as the circumstances which brought him to this state.
|Ol' blue eyes.|
Andy is intentionally a cypher, and it suits the movie marvelously. I do wish the parents were a little better defined as characters, since it sometimes makes it a little difficult to know why they’re acting the way they are. There are implications that Dad may have been abusive or neglectful (perhaps even as a result of his own combat experience?) but we the audience never see him being anything other than reasonable and supportive. Meanwhile, Mom seems to go straight fucking bananas, to the extent that she becomes actively hostile to the rest of the family. I get that mom may have the most trouble coming to terms with the idea that her son’s miraculous return is actually even worse than having him dead, but in my opinion she still goes a little overboard here. Neither parent seems to necessarily behave in what I’d consider a natural or realistic manner, so you get the feeling the movie is trying to tell us something about who they are and how they got this way, but damned if I know what it is.
The same problem kinda applies on a larger scale, too: this was one of the first movies which dealt with the Vietnam war and the cultural trauma it produced, and essentially came nearly at the height of American involvement. I mean, the war was everywhere in '72, and it had been going on long enough that the ugly truths of our involvement there were well established even in the mainstream. In fact, at least one person on this production had actually spent time in Vietnam: makeup artist Tom Savini (in his first movie!) had served as a combat photographer. So there's clearly no way of avoiding talking about the war here. But while it seems like the idea of a returned soldier becoming a blood-drinking psychopathic ghoul must be intended as some kind of metaphor, it’s a little too vague to parse out exactly what it’s trying to tell us. Is it a metaphor for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Andy coming back a shell of his former self? Is Andy actually a metaphor for America as a whole, the country that thought it could just have a morale-boosting little proxy war half a world away and chalk it up as a win for truth justice and the American way, only to become a monster in the process? Or is it more along the lines of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT -- less explicitly a metaphor than an angry lashing out, a harsh reminder of how ugly death and violence are?
|Apparently this is the actual cover they went with for the Gorgon video betamax release.|
I don’t really know the answers there, but in the end, DEATHDREAM doesn’t need a explicit moral to be good. The shots of Backus maniacally rocking back in forth in the dark, just by themselves, are such a wonderful little moment that it’s kinda a miracle they haven’t been ripped off a million times by now. But then again, I don’t know another movie with a character even remotely like this. Whatever it means, DEATHDREAM is an intense, blackly comic little nightmare, and a fascinating snapshot into a world nearing a half-century in the past.** It’s elusive, evocative, and still manages to be an enormously entertaining horror film that delivers some genuinely scary images and even some respectable bloodletting. Clark would go on to make one more horror movie --the excellent BLACK CHRISTMAS-- but honestly, this thing is one-of-a-kind. There’s really nothing else like it. That seems like kinda a shame since it’s such a good one, but then again, maybe it’s just as well. As we discover herein, sometimes you just can’t go home again even if you go through the motions well enough.
*Marley and Carlin also played a married couple in John Cassavetes’ FACES, for which Carlin was nominated for Best Actress. While we're down here, I should also mention that a bunch of actors from CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS have cameos.
**For contrast: consider that the amount of time between DEATHDREAM and today is the same amount between DEATHDREAM and the Great Depression! Feel old yet?
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2014 CHECKLIST!
The Hunt For Dread October