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Deathdream (1974)

Blue Underground
Blu-ray Disc Released: 11/28/2017

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 11/16/2017

Movies often tackle current events, but when a hot-button issue is too turbulent to touch, there may have to be a cooling-off period before we see it reflected in film. While 1978 saw the releases of The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, it wasn't until the 1980s that we began to see a regular stream of films which addressed the Vietnam War. These movies took an unflinching look at the effects of the War on both the veterans and society. However, Bob Clark's 1974 release Deathdream (AKA "Dead of Night") took an early look at Vietnam, using the prism of horror to represent the horrifying effects of war. Does Clark's gutsy movie still hold up today?

Deathdream opens in Vietnam, where we see American solider Andy (Richard Backus) caught in an ambush. The action then moves to Andy's small hometown, where we meet his parents, Charles (John Marley) and Christine (Lynn Carlin), and his sister, Cathy (Anya Ormsby). Christine is very worried about Andy, as his letters have stopped coming, and she prays for his safe return. That night, Andy suddenly arrives home with no warning. Everyone is overjoyed to see the boy, and they take his standoffishness as a side effect of having been in combat. But, Andy's strange behavior continues, as he says very little, eats even less, and prefers to spend his time sitting in his room, rocking in a rocking chair. For you see, Andy is hiding a dark secret, and it will take some tragedies for Charles to begin to suspect that something is wrong.

When you've been a student of film for decades, having seen and read about thousands of movies, sometimes you forget what you and haven't watched. I could have sworn that I'd seen Deathdream at some point in the past, but it only took a few minutes to realize that I had not. And yet, having perused many stories about the movie, I knew what it was about and even how it ended. So, when it came to the plot, there weren't many surprises for me.

What did surprise me was how a lot of the film didn't work. Deathdream comes from Bob Clark, a multi-faceted director who certainly didn't pull any punches in his career with movies like Black Christmas and Porky's (although, his most well-known film is probably A Christmas Story). Which is why I was surprised by how vanilla most of the movie feels. The film's attempts at portraying family life feel very wooden and fluctuate between corny and over-the-top. Andy's behavior should be far creepier, but it comes off as almost catatonic. For years, I'd read about how Andy would just sit in a rocking chair instead of interacting with others, and what I'd pictured was far creepier than what we get in the movie. (I was actually picturing the Geoffrey Lewis character from Salem's Lot and the scene in which he's in a rocking chair, staring out with this glowing eyes.) The one murder scene which is presented in its entirety is oddly-staged and feels more pervy than scary. The scene in which Cathy tells Andy's old girlfriend that he's back in town seems to go on forever.

But, like many a film, Deathdream is rescued by its finale. It's almost as if the movie wakes up during the last 15 or so minutes and remembers that it's supposed to be a horror film. This is not akin to how some movies don't show the monster until the end -- this is a seismic change. It suddenly becomes the kind of movie that we came to see and it understands that we are looking for something which wants to shock us. The violence presented here is still sort of lame, but there is a character death which is certainly shocking. The finale, in which Andy chooses his fate, finally delivers the creepiness that we've waited for and some of those final images show some real creativity on the part of Clark and Screenwriter Alan Ormsby. Also, kudos on the make-up designs by the legendary Tom Savini and Ormsby.

Now that I've finally seen Deathdream, I'm still not sure what to think of it. The first 70 minutes offers some interesting ideas, but it's as if the movie doesn't know what to do with them. It's not until the third act that things truly get interesting. I found myself constantly being distracted by just how much older Charles than anyone else in the movie. Again, having read so much about the movie, I had expected there to be more of a political slant, but unless you really dig for symbolism, the doesn't have much to say about Vietnam. I think that if you go into Deathdream with lowered expectations, you'll find something to like. The first half of the movie is too talky, but once things heat up, you'll get an idea of why some consider it a classic.

Deathdream made me super jealous of Andy's Scooby-Doo light switch cover on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Blue Underground. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 35 Mbps. This new 2K restoration transfer was taken from the 35mm negative. The image is sharp and clear, showing only mild grain and no distracting defects from the source materials. Obviously, the crew at Blue Underground was working with an old, low-budget movie, but they've done a good job here. The colors look good, and the image is only slightly dark in places. The level of detail is fairly good, but the picture does look flat at times. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Mono audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.2 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. We don't get any dynamic effects here, but the actors are always audible and the sound effects and music don't overpower them. There is no hissing or popping here.

The Deathdream Blu-ray Disc offers a variety of extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Bob Clark. This is followed by a second COMMENTARY from Writer Alan Ormsby. "A Recollection with Star Anya Liffey and Writer/Make-Up Artist Alan Ormsby" (30 minutes) allows the former couple an opportunity to talk about their work on the movie. This also includes a discussion of their early work and clips from these projects. "Notes for a Homecoming" (19 minutes) is a talk with Composer Carl Zittrer. We hear from Production Manager (and future director of Kingdom of the Spiders) John "Bud" Cardos in "Flying Down to Brooksville" (5 minutes). "Tom Savini: The Early Years" (10 minutes) is an interview, from an indeterminate time, in which the gore master talks about how he got his start. Andy himself gets to speak in "Deathdreaming" (12 minutes). The "Alternate Opening Titles" (3 minutes) show the film with the "Deathdream" title. The THEATRICAL TRAILER is included here, as is a STILL GALLERY. "Screen Test with Original Andy, Gary Swanson" (12 minutes) shows the actor trying out various scenes. The final extra is student film by Ormsby.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long