When you mention Bob Clark, most folks will mention A Christmas Story. And rightly so—it’s a great movie. Some folks will mention Black Christmas. And rightly so—it too is a great movie in a completely different way. A few folks will mention Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. And rightly so—it is as well a great movie in its own different way. (Those people who realize that he also directed Porky’s will generally walk away stunned.)
Very few folks will mention 1972’s Deathdream (aka Dead of Night, Night Walk, The Night Andy Came Home, and several other alternate titles). And that’s not right—it’s at least as great a movie as those listed above. In its own different way.
(Sidenote: one of the many things I love about Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters is the completely random shout-out this film gets.)
Based loosely on “The Monkey’s Paw,” the film concerns Andy, who is downed by sniper fire in Vietnam. Back at home, his family receives the telegram they’ve been dreading, notifying them of Andy’s death. His mother, who clearly views him as her favorite in the family, is devastated and retreats to Andy’s room. There she sits up, rocking in his chair in the dark, repeating into a candle almost as a mantra or prayer that Andy can’t die—that he promised he’d come home.
That night, a trucker picks up a hitchhiking soldier, and is killed and drained of his blood.
A few hours later, Andy has come home.
But Andy has been changed. He can’t express emotion, other than rage when provoked. He doesn’t eat. He goes out late at night. He’s distant with everyone who used to know him.
…And he also kills people and drinks their blood to slow the steady decaying of his flesh.
It sounds campy. And in light of the comedies listed above (and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things certainly qualifies as one), it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to assume that this is the case. But it’s not.
To be fair, Bob Clark hadn’t really hit the peak of his potential yet as a director, so it’s not as technically polished and tightly wound as Black Christmas, but it’s a definite step ahead of his work just prior to this on …Dead Things. While the film moves somewhat slowly compared to other movies in the genre, it unspools its sense of dread at a steady pace, building throughout until it reaches its ultimate conclusion. The character work is all fantastic, with Oscar nominees John Marley (Love Story, The Godfather and John Cassavetes’ Faces) and Lynn Carlin (who co-starred with Marley in Faces) turning in emotionally rich and complex performances as Andy’s parents, and Richard Backus as Andy delivering a subtle and engagingly creepy turn. Tom Savini (assisted by writer Alan Ormsby, also the writer/star of …Dead Things) makes his special effects debut, and provides a wide range of makeup effects ranging from the early subtle wrinkling of Andy’s skin to full-on decomposing body work.
It’s Ormsby’s script, though, that really works like gangbusters here. It’s not as cartoonish as …Dead Things or as ghoulishly funny as 1974’s Deranged (which Bob Clark produced, but wound up removing his name from because of how grisly the film turned out to be), but there are enough splashes of wit throughout to provide some needed levity while the movie is overall a very serious affair, and for reasons that should make it seen as a much more timely (and more widely recognized) film than it is right now.
See, Deathdream is—as well as being a tale of horror involving a vampire/zombie hybrid and a story about wish fulfillment gone horribly awry—about the aftermath of war; how it affects those who come home, how it affects those soldiers’ families, and how it affects us as a nation.
It’s clear in the movie, even before Andy’s death is reported, that the family and their community are being strained by the war in Vietnam. Andy’s mother recounts how she has lied to a neighbor about when they last received a letter from him. The whole family seems to be trying to be blissfully in denial about the perils Andy is facing. Trying. But not succeeding. The mother is already half crazed and delusional as a result of the stress (and the excessively codependent relationship implied between her and Andy). But when Andy arrives, it’s even worse. She forces herself to cease caring about any other family member and excuse any horrific behavior that Andy displays. The father retreats into alcoholic abuse. Meanwhile, Andy’s sister tries in vain to maintain a semblance of normalcy: trying to set up double dates with Andy and his old girlfriend, etc.
The catalyst for all of this occurring is Andy’s return. Contemporary with the film, soldiers were coming back from Vietnam and finding it hard to fit back into society. Injured, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or worse, facing a populace which had by and large stopped supporting the war, some of these souls never really “came back.” Andy never really came back, either. And his presence throws the formerly idyllic community (and, by extension, the nation) into a state of confusion. Nobody really knows how to relate to Andy any more. Casual talk of WWII and soldiers getting shot in “wacky” ways (discussed without thought prior to this) throws Andy into a rage. The children he knew from the neighborhood don’t know how to talk to him, and a half-joking karate chop leads Andy to almost break a kid’s arm. The dog doesn’t even recognize him anymore. If this close-knit community can’t get it together to deal with one returning veteran, how were we as a country dealing with those returning? The film postulates: not very well.
Meanwhile, his family’s reactions (described above) are almost as if Andy had been dead all along, just accelerated by his dead body being present and walking around and whatnot. To view what the family is going through, and what they’re doing to each other and themselves in the process, outside of the horror movie trappings is heartbreaking. Andy’s death (and his return) rip the family apart. Not even at the seams. Seams, you can sew back together. This is irreparable.
And, like I said above, the film is timely. For the better part of the past decade, we have placed incredibly undue strains on our fighting men and women, asking for our nation’s total protection from a tiny fraction of the populace (would our country have been so apathetic and accepting of Iraq and Afghanistan if a draft were in place and the burden of fighting these wars more evenly distributed?), and glossing over the two wars that have occupied these years as if they never existed. And today, suicide among active duty soldiers and veterans is an epidemic. An average of 18 vets per day commits suicide. We have yet to find good, solid, workable ways to deal with the traumas inflicted by war, much less the traumas inflicted by simply returning from war. And this film not only comments on our nation’s inability to deal with re-integrating those in service back into the civilian world (which, sadly, remains as potent a message today as it did in 1972), but also shows the toll this takes on the micro, personal level.