Saturday, November 10, 2007
#25: Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1974)
After the ridiculousness of the last four films on this list, I'm glad to see an honest-to-god good film represented. Without denying the goofy-assed entertainment value of Dead of Night, The Dead Pit, Dead Waters, and Death Machine, I prefer the well-acted, visually distinctive, intelligent, and creepily unsettling Deathdream. I saw a television news report a few weeks ago purporting to analyze the recent spate of mainstream Iraq war movies and concluding that it is just too soon for audiences to deal with films critical of our involvement in the War on Terror (or George W. Bush's War of Terror, if, like me, you prefer Borat's name for it). Like any other mainstream news report about film, it assumed that star-studded Hollywood extravaganzas were the only game in town, and ignored the numerous documentaries, foreign films, and TV movies like Joe Dante's Homecoming, released before Paul Haggis noticed there was a war going on. Maybe audiences are staying away from In the Valley of Elah because it's a toothless mediocrity, not because it's "too soon." Too soon, too soon. Should we wait until it's no longer a problem? That's what the networks support. Most filmmakers waited until the late 1970s and 1980s to make any films about the failure of Vietnam. Bob Clark filmed his independent horror movie, Deathdream, while U.S. troops were still in Vietnam, and its release date and subject matter coincided with the troops' return home and their difficulties re-assimilating to an American culture with which they felt disconnected.
Deathdream is about a family of four (mother, father, daughter, son) struggling with the son's tour of duty in Vietnam. One night, they get the news that the son has been killed. The mother refuses to believe it and says the son has been protected by her prayers and is still alive. One early morning a few weeks later, the son hitchhikes into town and shows up on the doorstep, very much alive. Or is he? The family's joy quickly turns to fear, mistrust, and internal squabbling when their son's behavior grows increasingly bizarre. He exhibits only three emotional states: zombie-like listlessness, cold and biting sarcasm, and violent intensity. He's also developed the unfortunate habit of murdering people, withdrawing their blood with a syringe, and shooting up with the blood. Granted, if he doesn't do this, his skin rots and his eyes turn yellow, but his father is understandably dismayed, while his mother lives in a fantasy world of denial and his sister is caught in the middle.
The excellent performances and non-flashy cinematic style keep this film grounded in reality, making it even creepier. It's bizarre how plausible this film seems. John Marley and Lynn Carlin play the father and mother, reprising their roles as a troubled married couple from John Cassavetes' Faces (I probably haven't mentioned this anywhere, but I love John Cassavetes' films). Newcomer Richard Backus plays the son, Andy. He ended up working on a bunch of forgettable television movies and series and hasn't acted since 1992, which is a shame. He now writes soap operas. He's just right in this role, beating out a young Christopher Walken for the part, and perfectly captures a character who is intelligent, sympathetic, frightening, intense, subtle, monstrous, mysterious, confused, and tortured all at once. It's a tall order playing a combination zombie/vampire/existentially tortured, thinking, feeling human being, but Backus pulls it off without a shred of overkill. He's got a wicked smile and a way of using his eyebrows and the corners of his eyes as punctuation marks for his character's blackly sarcastic responses to questions that make his performance so memorable. The late Bob Clark, director of Black Christmas, Porky's, A Christmas Story, and, um, Karate Dog, directs with a focus on human beings and their environment, not flashy stylistics or repetitive stalk-and-slash killings (though there is some gore, with early makeup effects by Tom Savini, who had just returned from Vietnam).
The film sets up a generation gap between the father, a WWII vet, and his son. He can't understand why his son is so different. I saw this generational conflict in my hometown as a child. My grandfather's WWII experience was traumatic for him, but he returned with his identity intact, and the knowledge that he was on the winning side of a war that seemed inevitable and clearly defined. The Vietnam vets seemed more fucked-up, confused, defeated, and self-destructive. My grandfather and his fellow WWII vets were hardly free from war-related psychological disturbance (specifically, my grandfather's drinking too much and his almost frighteningly angry response to depictions of violence on TV and in the movies) , but the Vietnam vets seemed more depressed, self-loathing, and behaviorally confused.
I have been spending most of this post discussing Deathdream's depiction of Vietnam vets, but the film fits many situations, including the disconnect between anyone who has been away from home for a while and his or her family, the college student visiting for the holidays in a home that no longer feels like home, a drug addict unable to connect with his old life, and the change in family dynamics after a death. Like the great poets DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince once said, "Parents just don't understand." Ain't it the truth?