Having recently picked up 101 films fantastic bluray set of Bob Clarks Horror offerings, I literally had no idea what I was getting myself into when I checked out ‘Deathdream’, the film he made immediately before ‘Black Christmas’ and whats here is a definite jump in quality over ‘Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things’ in terms of scripting and vibe. but it’s a film that isnt without its faults.
The plot revolves around a family who’s son is fighting in Vietnam, when news reaches them that their sons been killed in action, their grief is immeasurable. However, shortly after news of his death reaches them. the son (Andy) miraculously turns up at his parents doorstep! But while physically he’s there, mentally he could not be further gone. And as the film progresses we begin to realise that whoever or whatever is occupying Andys old room, is most definitely NOT Andy.
The first thing that hit me with this movie is just how oppressive and bleak the tone and vibe is. everything is very heavily in ‘pressure cooker’ mode for most of the runtime, and that feeling of distinct discomfort and just…broad oddness is honestly fantastically captivating. In the same way Andrzej Żuławski’s ‘Possession’ or Matthew Holness’ ‘Possum’ deliberately create an environment within their films aimed at totally alienating the viewer on purpose to help better sell the unsettling narratives they’ve created. ‘Deathdream’ manages to be thoroughly unpleasent in it’s ambience but deeply captivating at the same time.
The Scripts really solidly crafted, with a clean and clear 3 act structure thats evenly paced and doesnt give up it’s hand too early in telling you exactly whats going on. Its a psychodrama with supernatural horror elements and, to my mind at least is a solid symbolic piece on PTSD and its effects on soldiers returning from Nam. it’s maybe a little heavy handed in it’s execution, but it paces out little crumbs of information at periodic intervals to create something altogether tonally and narratively interesting.
We have some fantastically written characters, and the scripts decision to introduce us to these people as the ‘all american’ nuclear family style trope, only to see them all slowly turn on each other, lose their minds and break apart over their processing of ‘loss’ (in every sense of the word) I thought was fantasitcally handled and was made all the more impressive by the scriptwriters decision to play things very nuanced in the first instance, before flipping the switch into full melodrama by the third act. it really is some wonderful character writing and the development we see across the runtime is a perfect example of how to develop characters in a modestly paced fashon.
My only criticism in fact is that this sometimes does get a little *too* slow for it’s own good. a well steeped atmospheric picture is one thing, but this does sag a little in the middle while the family are still trying to get a read on what exactly is going on with Andy. It never quite goes slow enough to make me lose interest. But it did get dangerously close in places.
The cine and direction are polished, refined and it’s clear Bob’s honed his skills since his last horror film. This looks and feels a lot tighter in terms of it’s execution. and in particular, the way he utilises lighting has seen an absolute improvement over his last offering which was at times a little overly murky. Here, it’s grainy, it’s dark, but it never quite gets to the point where you struggle to see whats going on. Theres a clear stylized vision on hand, and I found it fascinating to see the early signs of stylised shot compositions and colour usage that will really come into their own when ‘Black Christmas’ debuts later this same year.
In short; visually, it’s maybe a little too brown in colouring for my taste, but this is clearly an offering from a director whos now well underway as a creator and is beginning to work beyond standard functionality. it’s a great offering.
Performance wise, John Marley is ASTOUNDING as Andys dad Charles. Introduced as a loving family man, across the runtime we see the cracks in this familys foundations raise their heads and as Andys return begins to trawl up more and more questions and Charles begins to put together the pieces of this puzzle. we see him breakdown, and John really is utterly astounding in showing the level of devestation and grief that comes with the loss of a family member.
Inversely Lynn Carlin also astounds as Andy’s mum Christine. She shows the other side of grief. the side that basically puts a wall up and pretends it isnt happening. and again, its a master class of a performance because we see this woman slowly realise that their son is doing horrific things, but because of how protective she is of Andy, she cant bring herself to accept it, ultimately also leading to breakdown but in a totally contrasting way to John Marleys performance, and the pair play off each other phenominally.
That is of course not to play down Richard Backus as Andy, who gives a genuinely sinister and unpleasent performance that, while I wouldnt go as far as to say was ‘one of the greats’ almost certainly lent to that sense of unease. The fact that we never *quite* get a full clock on him as a character really helped only further push what performance he DID leave here further into fantastic terratory.
This also marks the start of one of Bob Clarks signature styles as a director, in the use of absence of sound or scoring to help punctuate sequences. There are tons of moments dotted across this where, in other films, they’d use scoring to try and win the audience over. But here, all we hear is the diagetic sounds. the wind outside, the creak of a rocking chair, the sound of cars driving outside. it’s subtle, but goes a long way to helping set that isolated uneasy tone. And while I think it gets used to it’s fullest potential in ‘Black Christmas’ it absolutely has some fantastic moments here.
All in all? I really enjoyed this one and could highly recommend it! It’s a touch on the slow side (even clocking in at 87 minutes) but it’s just a really well crafted and oppressive horror movie that I feel would pair up really well with something like Norman J Warrens ‘Prey’ or Matthew Holness’ “Possum” It’s not Clarks best, but its a DAMN good effort.