If you’re a reader already lucky enough to be familiar with Bob Clark’s 1974 horror classic DEATHDREAM (aka DEAD OF NIGHT), you may be wondering why it’s even appearing on a column of undervalued or undercelebrated films, and it’s true that there’s been a critical re-evaluation of the film that has taken hold over the past decade. But, frankly, I still think there’s work to be done, even within the catalogue of the venerable Bob Clark, where it deserves to sit among his very best: including A CHRISTMAS STORY, BLACK CHRISTMAS and (former most profitable Canadian film of all time) PORKY’S.
I should also note that I (along with Cinepunx founder and man-about-town Liam O’Donnell) already gave a full-throated defense of DEATHDREAM on Julia Marchese and Teri Gamble’s Horror Movie Survival Guide podcast, and since that’s the medium in which I’m most comfortable (and where my banshee scream of a laugh can be heard most audibly), I would certainly direct you there first.
DEATHDREAM (which I shall always attest is a better title than DEAD OF NIGHT, which was already used by a neat-o 1945 British anthology horror film best known for a segment featuring an insane ventriloquist dummy) is about the return of Andy Brooks, a young solider who is – seemingly – killed in the Vietnam was in 1972, but surprisingly returns to his still-grieving family. Figuring that his death announcement was a clerical error, the family receives Andy warmly, but something about him has changed. He’s colder, more distant and shows a propensity towards wild acts of violence. Andy also seems to be going through some physical changes, which soon become impossible to cover up, and can only be reversed temporarily through killing. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s an absolute knockout and must have felt like the ultimate gut-punch for viewers in 1974.
There’s a lot that makes DEATHDREAM so unique and special, but what I find most overwhelming – which is, perhaps, the reason it’s taken so long for it to be properly celebrated – is the intense feeling of sadness that permeates throughout. The PTSD allegory on its own is already fascinating (especially considering that at this point there were few films brave enough to tangle with the complexities of the still-ongoing Vietnam conflict), and the performances are all top notch, particularly John Marley as Andy’s father, struggling to come to terms with how his beloved child has been twisted into someone unrecognizable., but it’s the reaction of Lynn Carlin (recognizable, like John Marley, from John Cassavetes’ FACES) to her son’s return that might be the most heart breaking. A mother’s undying love, whose grief was perhaps responsible for bringing him back, unable to cope with what ended up returning from the conflict, but also unable to let her son truly die.
Not everyone goes into a horror film wanting a crushing combination of dread and sorrow, but unlike contemporary horror films of the time – like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE – where the horrors of Vietnam were always lurking somewhere in the background (and in the minds of the audience), Bob Clark – along with screenwriter Alan Ormsby – meld the real-life horrors of war with a timeless “Monkey’s Paw”-inspired horror framework and come out with something unique and utterly chilling.