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.


‘Melancholia’ or: how I try to give a shit in spite of my nihilism

April 25, 2014 § 3 Comments

How frustrating it was to read and listen to the largely unvaried readings of Lars von Trier’s 2011 film ‘Melancholia’. It was either a symbolic expression of the filmmaker’s own experiences with clinical depression or simply another somewhat bonkers melodrama with otherworldly undertones from the Danish enfant terrible. This is not to say that either of those approaches is invalid, certainly not, but the majority of the discussion didn’t seem to deviate much further than depression or general arthouse mayhem. Maybe the conversation was usurped by the hoopla surrounding von Trier’s admittedly clumsy statements about Hitler and Nazism which too fell victim to surface level responses i.e. condemnation and knee-jerk shock rather than being utilised as an entry point to a potentially insightful discussion about the extents to which one can empathise with those who are apparently undeserving of it. But that is an essay for another day.

So. ‘Melancholia’.

A bride in a peri-matrimonial depressive relapse stays with her sister, her sister’s wealthy rationalist husband and their young son after a disastrous wedding reception whose failure is largely to blame on her – the bride’s – poor mental state. Justine, the depressive in question, is deep in it and her sister Claire is trying her very best to be supportive while her husband John’s polite impatience is clear from the get-go. Midway through the film it is made known that a planet once thought to be bypassing earth is in fact on an unstoppable collision course for it. This rapidly approaching doom lays waste to the mental and emotional states of at least two of the film’s four lead characters, Claire and John. The effect of this news on young Leo is somewhat muted if memory serves me well, which – in my mind – seemed in keeping with someone his age.

Now, people have stated that the planet ‘Melancholia’ is a metaphor for the destructive effects of depression on the lives of people struggling with the condition and those within their social orbit. It’s a cute but obvious reading, which is not to say that it isn’t an actual and valid subtext within the film. Another school of thought is that the film explores the psychology of depression and the idea that individuals riding the black steed may be susceptible to extreme pessimism to the point of anticipating a doom that they cannot quite explain or qualify. Apparently, this particular concept was the seed from which the narrative grew in von Trier’s head. So, as per the above, Justine’s utter pessimism – nay – nihilism, epitomised by such acts as her having sex (in dove-white gown and on a golf course green) with a waiter on the night of her wedding reception, ensured that in the face of imminent demise she was by far the most resigned (having always expected the worst) and thus much calmer than most. She could of course simply be depressed, too depressed to care or register much of a response, as opposed to her having “rationalised” and come to terms with her own death and the destruction of all that she has ever known long before said death and destruction actually come to pass. It should be noted that Justine’s brother-in-law John, the rationalist, commits suicide towards the end of the film while his wife Claire takes on the nature of someone in a profound depressive rut, a reverse of the sisters’ roles in the latter half of the picture.

Now, it’s not too much of a stretch to posit that John and Claire represent, respectively, those who place their confidence in the rational and the tangible (knowledge, wealth) and those who place theirs in the sentimental (relationships, love, devotion.) If we choose to accept this idea then the eventual unravelling of these two characters in the face of planet Melancholia suggests that that which many or most people consider meaningful and valuable in this mortal life cannot ultimately withstand the pure spitefulness (query indifference?) of a futile end, whether that end is due to a ravaging cancer or being vapourised by so mindless an event as a planetary collision.

So does that make ‘Melancholia’ a nihilist’s declaration? An “I told you so” fantasy in which all those human with their fickle values and ideals are forced to face the fury of a meaningless, godless universe? That may very well be the take-away, if one chooses to forget the very final moments of the film during which Justine transcends her own severe state of detachment in order to provide a brief moment of solace for her hysterical sister and shell-shocked nephew. As Melancholia’s effect on earth approaches the cataclysmic and everything seems to melt away around them, Justine leads Claire and Leo out into a field. She sits them down and tearfully takes their hands in hers as if suggesting that they spend their last moments cherishing and appreciating that which means most to them, rather than mourning its impending loss. For someone who has spent the previous two hours totally indifferent to everything and all things, this act strikes me as one requiring great strength and selflessness. Sure, the very last seconds could be read in many ways. They could be bracing themselves for unimaginable physical torment. They could be comforting each other and reassuring their loved ones that they are loved for whatever that’s worth. But my impression while viewing the film was that the final seconds were spent in silent, terrified appreciation for the simple fact that they are currently still living and in the presence of those that they love. The key point is that Justine instigates this approach. She slaps some perspective into Claire when all signs seem to suggest that she should be sitting back, laughing cynically to herself while thinking “I told you. Didn’t I tell you?”

So what exactly is my point? What do I think ‘Melancholia’ is about? I’m not at all suggesting that Lars von Trier made the film in order to explore that which I am about to discuss, but these are ideas which the film kick-started my brain into entertaining. The depression analogies, while valid and very likely applicable, were not interesting enough for a film that struck me as having a great deal more on its mind than might appear at face value. Let me continue by asking this: what if you found out that – for a fact – the universe was utterly meaningless and that, while order still coexisted alongside chaos, nothing was of any more significance than that which you personal bestowed on it? What if life was – for a fact – only sacred because humans considered it to be, when necessary? What if the only entity who bore witness to your deeds were people in whose memories you would live on long after they and their memories had…ceased to exist; in whose non-existent memories your refusal or inability to choose right from wrong and love over hate would forever persist? What if you were a nihilist and couldn’t see why anything should matter in and to a universe that seemed indifferent?

It seems that nihilists can express their nihilism in several ways. There are those who wish to take advantage of the fact that this earthly life is like Vegas: what goes on here stays here. There is no external judgement and whatever forms of it one may be subjected to in this life is but a terrier’s bark in the scope of things. The logical approach then is to enjoy life, to exhaust all the sensory pleasures it has to offer. You could chose to take the hedonistic route wherein your quest for pleasure theoretically need not impact anybody but yourself though, seeing as nobody exists in a social vacuum, this would be mildly impossible. One could also take the satanic approach and consider carnal humanity as the true natural state of being with its elements of what might be termed ‘selfishness’, ‘aggression’ and a healthy dose of hedonism, that is to say, unbridled, unsanctified human nature with all its ‘flaws’ (if Satanists would even call them flaws.) One could also consider themselves at the service of cosmic chaos and actively partake in it: where values and ideas are unnecessarily applied, such individuals function as a reminder that nothing is sacred, nothing is hallowed, nothing deserves to be upheld and nothing deserves to be repressed, everything is the same and equally insignificant if the indifference of eternity has anything to say about it. Here we have the true punks of each age, existing until they cease to exist, defiling that which is considered holy; butchering sacred cows and holding aloft the offal. In many ways this approach may be adopted by those in existential despair, acting out against a universe that doesn’t have enough cognizance to give a shit.

But I think there is another philosophy that sits somewhere within the nihilistic spectrum but somewhere on the fringes of it. It is nihilism in that nothing objectively matters, but it isn’t in that ultimate futility need not lead to total disregard for those things which seem to matter to most people. Just as Justine, in those final moments, chooses to indulge those human needs that she has over time allow to deaden within her, so the individual who I’ll call…let’s say…a neo-Sisyphean chooses to live a life based on values and ideals despite their inherent (and ultimately depressing) belief that none of it may mean a thing to anyone or anything one hundred billion years down the track, or even now at this very moment. This, I think, is a tough stance, but a somewhat admirable one. This is what ‘Melancholia’ compelled me to consider.

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