The horror…: “Dead of Night”

July 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Ealing Studios film Dead of Night is no more a horror movie than is an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is not at all meant as a slight against either but more as an expression of the fact that the general aim of both the television series and this 1945 portmanteau picture seems to be to evoke that viscerally ticklish, goosefleshy sensation one gets when pleasantly terrified in bite-sized doses, like sitting around a campfire and being told a ghost story which would not be particularly terrifying if not for the fact that it is cold, dark, you guys are in the woods and that failing to be scared or at least to appear scared would be kind of a spoil-sport thing to do, or not do. It would be surprising if a viewer departs this film significantly more conscious of the possibility of malevolent forces being present all around them. For those who seek out horror cinema for jump scares and screams, there are few if any to be found here; but for those who prefer to be mildly unsettled but constantly so, then Dead of Night may very well hit the spot, at times.

Architect Walter Craig (played by Toby Jones lookalike Mervyn Johns) is summoned by acquaintance/client Eliot Foley to a house in the country where a small group of guests is already casually gathered, talking and sharing a drink. Within the first few minutes it is established that Walter is plagued by what seems to be a particularly nagging spell of déjà vu and is convinced that not only has he been in this exact location with this exact set of characters (or at the very least dreamt it), but that the night does not end well, least of all for the individual he believes he will end up murdering. Of course, his assertions are subjected to a range of responses from teasing curiosity by most, to overly huffy skepticism by the resident rationalist Dr Van Straaten whose explanation for everything seems to be that ‘it is not uncommon.’ In support of Walter, four of the characters take turns narrating their own experiences – firsthand and otherwise – with the vaguely paranormal. The doctor eventually succumbs to the mood and narrates his own experience of being boggled. What follows are five Twilight Zone-y episodes (culminating in a somewhat bravura freak-out climax), the most famous of which features Sir Michael Redgrave from The Lady Vanishes as a ventriloquist who finds himself caught between a fellow voice-thrower and the man’s puppet, Hugo, which may or may not have a consciousness of its own, and a malicious one at that. This particular episode’s renown is probably justified, but more so for what it promises to be, whether or not you feel that it delivers on this. There is a tantalising quality to these tales. They dare the viewer to wonder whether or not these ‘paranormal’ experiences will eventually prove to be some silly dream, an illusion of sorts or perhaps the result of a moment of madness. You could commend the filmmakers for their restraint and their investment in the viewers’ sense of imagination, or you could accuse them of falling shot, copping out, or displaying a poverty of creativity if you dare go that far.

Dead of Night, enjoyable as it is, raises the question of how effective horror and comedy can be in partnership. This is not to say that the film is a capital ‘C’ comedy, but that there is a distinctly light touch to it, as though the creators are making a conscious effort to acknowledge that these are nothing more than interesting sketches, pieces of whimsy that really have no bearing on reality, which can’t always be the case, at least with regards to some of the strange experiences the movie dramatises. Horror-comedy combinations have always seemed like a somewhat parasitic relationship in that laughter can result from broken tension, or perhaps in response to morbidly unbroken tension. But does the converse occur? Maybe so. Perhaps comedy stretched to certain extremes can end up exposing the horrors inherent in whatever subject is being made light of, but in the case of Dead of Night, neither is the case. The elements of dread and humour seem to exist despite each other and sometimes the result is that what is on screen is neither funny nor frightening, for example the golfing episode which is quite possibly the weakest, a title it shares with the second tale, that of the boy ghost. In all honesty, are anthology films ever intended to be particularly hearty single courses as opposed to tasting menus designed to entertain the tastebuds fleetingly?

If there is one terrifying aspect of the human experience that is repeatedly touched upon by all of the episodes in Dead of Night it would have to be isolation. Whether it is the newly married man tortured by the possibility that he is being driven mad by the mirror his wife purchased for him as an engagement gift, or the ventriloquist who can’t seem to convince anyone that his puppet is alive and kind of an ass, the fear of being completely alone in experiencing something is a constant theme throughout the film. We all know, on some level, that the commonalities all humans apparently share may actually be subject to more variation than expected. What hunger is to one may not be what hunger is to another, but at least both can agree than hunger isn’t exactly pleasant and that it tends to be eradicated by food. But the idea of seeing something that no one else can clearly see…or hear or feel or touch or taste or know, this can be truly unsettling, and Dead of Night captures this well. If only directors Cavalcanti, Hamer, Crichton and Dearden didn’t choose to erase the aftertaste of this by ultimately highlighting how much of a constructed, matinee romp the film actually is. On this note, it would be appropriate to mention this film’s status as a classic not only of the horror genre but of British cinema overall. Cited as something of a landmark and highly regarded by everyone from Time Out London to Martin Scorsese, Dead of Night is the kind of film one would hope to find exciting and instructive yet which, for reasons not exactly easy to articulate, feels a touch wanting and somewhat undeserving of its high praise. It seems that being alone in one’s indifference towards Dead of Night may be even more unsettling than the picture itself.

The horror…: “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night”

May 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

1974 belonged to Bob Clark, the same way it did Francis Ford Coppola who unleashed his cross-hook combo of “The Godfather II” and “The Conversation” that very same year. Of course, no one can and should ever discount the fact that milestone works from Fassbinder, Polanksi, Casavettes and a whole host of greats also hit the cinematic landscape at this time, but 1974 really did belong to American writer-director Bob Clark (in his own independent way) who released two bona fide gems of the horror genre within the same twelve month period: the most notable precursor to Carpenter’s “Halloween” – Black Christmas” – and “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night.” To cut directly to the chase and save the preamble for later, these two independently made horror films are striking for their attention to character and performance, quite possibly made clearer when one considers that horror films as a whole have a tendency towards the archetypal if not the stereotypic, and a greater focus on mechanics and raw function than on nuance. Watching “Black Christmas” years back, the generosity afforded both the characters on the page and the actors on the set strongly emanated from the screen. While the spine-tingling threat of a killer is painted with low-budget virtuosity from the get-go (utilising the kind of POV shot that would later achieve greater fame in Carpenter’s “Halloween” for the smoothness and assurance of its glide), on equally clear display is Bob Clark’s interest in the social and emotional dynamics of the sorority house on which the unseen killer has set his sights. Now, while he – Clark, that is – may have invested so much time in creating brief but telling portraits of the film’s main characters in order to establish a degree of human cost to the massacre that is about to occur, films as great as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have been able to effectively inflict very affecting violence on characters that are largely spare, daresay ‘functional,’ in the way that they are drawn. But the thing that writer-director Clark does with his characters in “Black Christmas,” with his actors specifically, is inject a certain loose-limbed freedom into the performances which may or may not heighten the intensity of the kills, but which would most certainly be joyous for a viewer who craves but doesn’t expect to see such character nuance in an American independent horror film. Well, it turns out that what Clark achieves in “Black Christmas” he also achieves in “Deathdream,” his Vietnam era – quite possibly anti-war – ‘zompire’ (or ‘vambie’) movie.

In the opening sequence of “Deathdream” private Andy Brooks (played very curiously but somewhat perfectly by Richard Backus) is shown being gunned to death while on duty in Vietnam, only to turn up on the doorstep of his family’s home in suburban Brooksville, Florida (where the movie was shot) to the ecstatic relief of a delusional-from-fear mother, the mildly sceptical surprise of a collectedly impatient father, the stunned acceptance of his sister, and the varied responses of everyone else that he once knew in his seemingly close-knit hometown. Mentioning that he is somewhat changed would be a superfluous downplaying of the events that unfold in this barebones picture, but it would also be unnecessarily evasive not to acknowledge that “Deathdream” is a (perhaps knowingly) obvious exploration of the effect that war has on the social fabric of a family, a community, a nation. But it may also raise the question: ‘is there – [was there] – something about the Vietnam War in particular that makes it – [made it] – especially toxic on a social level?’ Lynn Carlin as Christine Brooks is probably the most archetypal character in the film, the kind of movie mother who seems to love her son more than she does her daughter in a weirdly doting way that hints at Freudian-via-Greek Mythology sexuality. If one were inclined to add an extra layer of supernaturalism to the film, they could claim that Christine’s pathological belief that Andy is alive somehow contributes to the juju or what-have-you that ends up zombifying him. In sharp contrast to her is John Marley as Andy’s father, Charles, himself a WWII veteran who seems to have been already prepared for the loss of a son, only to be ironically thrown by the fact that his son is not only returned, but changed. One of the film’s sharpest lines comes when Charles’s frustration at Andy’s zombie-like taciturnity and newfound ability to murder a small animal he once loved dearly as a pet comes to a head. When he returned from his blood-soaked military service, Charles states, he might’ve changed a touch but not even close to Andy’s level of dysfunction and sociopathy! It’s interesting to consider the slew of post-Vietnam films released in the seventies and early eighties, pictures predicated on the idea that Vietnam ruined servicemen and servicewomen somewhat irreparably, and to then compare these to the post-war American film landscape of the 1940s and 1950s. It might be fair to assert that post-WWII American cinema was more focused on new threats (those of possible future nuclear warfare, communism and the Cold War) than it was on decrying the horrors of WWII. While noir filmmakers found ways to express the fatalism and nihilism that the war’s dance with depravity/death-by-millions may have injected into the American psyche as a whole, there isn’t an overwhelming sense in those pictures that WWII destroyed a generation so much as aged them prematurely, by decades. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that that war had a degree of moral justification, at least in a way that Vietnam couldn’t take a torch to. Consider, then, films as mainstream as “Taxi Driver” and “The Deer Hunter” which directly draw causative links between Vietnam service and the psychoemtional decay of their central characters. Perhaps there was a sense that the war waged in French Indochina, due to the ambiguity of its aims and its questionable justifications, killed everyone who served in it (at least from an American perspective) be it physically or psychologically; either way, whether you returned home in a casket or multi-medalled in the backseat of a car, you were dead, dead to your old self and those you once knew and who once knew you. This may all sound overly hyperbolic, but this is exactly the source of drama from which Clark and his collaborators appear to have drawn while making “Deathdream” and making it work like a well-restored old engine.

The hints of knowing villainy underlying Andy is at first a little disconcerting, as though Buack’s performance is misguided, and for a while it might feel this way. Andy almost appears to take perverse pleasure in quietly disturbing those that are trying so hard (to varying degrees) to accommodate his return, whether by attempting to surreptitiously rehabilitate him or by openly accepting that he is broken but at no fault of his own. The speech he makes to the family doctor, Dr Allman, suggests that Andy is somehow punishing if not simply spiting the society that forcefully sent him off to die. It’s only when this scene is contrasted with the film’s closing moments that the true anguish at the core of the film’s ‘protagonist’ comes to the fore, hauntingly expressed on a remarkably well made-up face that must surely stand as one of the most effective instances of creature cosmetics in the independent horror canon if not further afield. Andy, like the best film fiends, is as much a victim of himself as are the people from whom he drains blood, a victim of his newfound bloodthirst, of the guilt he might feel for playing a part in a potentially unjust war and the concurrent rage he feels towards the nation that would think to place him in such a position. Like Travis Bickle and company, Andy is painfully confused and conflicted, and the fact that he – like them – reconciles these emotions by developing a destructive and misanthropic worldview, rife with contradictions, is precisely what makes him so unpredictably dangerous, and unexpectedly, sympathetically sad.

From a monster mythology standpoint, “Deathdream” is wholly unique, hence the neologisms (zompire and vambie) used earlier. Like the titular character in George A. Romero’s downright vampire masterpiece “Martin,” Andy is not the elegantly invincible ghoul of the Dracula lineage but a surprisingly wretched and decidedly human species of undead, one who obtains his sanguine sustenance by messily killing people and injecting himself with blood like a junkie, which may mean that “Deathdream” is some sort of a precursor to Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,” if not a direct influence. Is Andy a vampire, or is he a zombie? Like most vampires he is a blood parasite who seems to hunt at night. But, like Martin, he is not particularly affected by sunlight, and the lifeless, automatoid way he behaves and moves (often swinging menacingly back and forth in a rocking chair in a way that resembles Sam Neill’s character in Zulawski’s “Possession”) imply that he is a walking dead man. While overall evidence might skew more towards him being a vampire than a zombie seeing as zombies tend to lack any appreciable level of sentience, the fact that Andy’s ghoul-lineage is not as plainly clear as the vast majority of creature-feature horror films is part of what makes “Deathdream” so damn distinctive. Maybe Bob Clark decided to focus on a different kind of entity driven by pain, alienation and a sense of being wronged by the society for which they were willing to sacrifice everything: the Vietnam Vet.

 

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