Sunday, November 8, 2009

Deathdream of a Vietnam Veteran

When Andy Brooks (Richard Backus in an Oscar-worthy performance) inexplicably comes home from Vietnam, his parents explain to him that they were told he was dead.

"I was," he replies, not skipping a beat, then smiles.

This exchange sets the tone for an extraordinary film from director Bob Clark and writer Earl Ormsby (Deranged).

Made in '74, when Vietnam still lingered heavily in the public psyche, it is the best example I have seen of a film dealing with what is essentially PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder); Combat Shock also tackled the issue with sensitivity and intelligence.

It is also a prime example of how the horror genre can address serious issues in a fascinating way.

You see, Andy IS dead, but he's not yet buried or completely retired. He lingers in a sad, desperate, pain-ridden deathdream, and he survives by drinking blood.

His parents and sister embrace him immediately, but it soon becomes obvious that the Andy who left to go to war is a very different Andy now.

Some of the film's most effective scenes are of Andy immersed in replays of horrific memories mixed with the pain of a limbo-like existence.

Much of Andy's frustration is triggered by the inability of others to comprehend the hellish experiences he still carries with him.

When the local mailman greets Andy and begins callously discussing who died in Vietnam and who should have died ("...and there are some we should have lost...", Andy can barely stop himself from ripping the man's throat out.

As the returned soldier's psychological condition becomes more brittle, a fissure develops between father (John Marley) and son.

The fissure represents a classic generational clash, and Clark handles it like a conventional father-son conflict. Although there is a supernatural element underpinning Andy's actions, this aspect is allowed to simmer beneath the surface. As a result, it is much more effective as horror.

It is tragic to see Marley ordering Andy from his house ("Get out of my house!") only days after he was tearfully embracing his lost son.

Andy's mother (Christine Brooks) quickly falls out with Andy's father and focuses her protective nature on the disintegrating returnee. She gains greater strength after lapsing into emphatic denial of Andy's true nature.

Easily one of the saddest horror films ever made, Deathdream features a number of powerful sequences in which the torturous side of living death is explored. The short story on which it is based, 'The Monkey's Paw', gives the drama a deep foundation.

Andy enters a cemetery at night and begins inscribing his own name on an old tombstone. His wish to die and rest in peace is palpable. That he cannot do so, that he is being driven by a force beyond his command, makes for a devastating viewing experience.

It's understandable that Deathdream (also known as Dead of Night) has always been marketed as a horror film -- and it certainly is that.

Unfortunately, its deeper virtues have not been universally recognized.

"Something unspeakable has come home", the DVD cover art trumpets, but it's really the other way around.

SOMEONE HAS COME HOME TO SOMETHING UNSPEAKABLE is more accurate, for the film is about a veteran (like many) who comes home to a world in which his experiences can never be truly understood, appreciated, or acknowledged. As a result, he is totally alienated, and death seems preferable.

When Andy is visited by a group of local kids...

... he becomes frustrated and angered by their banter and trivializing of his wartime service.

Naively, they question him about weapons and ask him if he's ever killed anybody. His ultimate response to this is to shoot to his feet and wring the neck of his father's barking dog.

The denouement of this sequence is shocking, and it underlines Andy's displacement in a living, post-war world.

Unable to share his pain and confusion with anybody living or dead, Andy appears defiant.

With Andy's decline almost absolute, he is rushed to the grave by his caring mother, and she is forced to bury him in order to rid him of a life that begs for closure.

Andy's last minutes are a superb marriage of the macabre and humanistic, and director Clark achieves a watershed in the genre.

RIP Andy Brooks... and RIP Bob Clark, who died in a grisly auto wreck in 2007.


  1. Great, understated film.

    As far as bad things happening after Vietnam movies go, I'd list My Friends Need Killing among my favorites.

  2. I keep planning on revisiting this but it's such an emotional gut-wrencher that I always find a reason to put it off. It's been many, many years since I gave it a look (and in fact, my copy of DD is the same VHS clamshell that you have a pic of at the top of the blog). From your write-up, it sounds like DD is every bit as powerful as I remember it.

  3. This is a fantastic movie. I first saw it when I was very young, on local late night television before cable was available in my area. It made a huge impression that has stayed with me ever since. I need to see it again.

  4. d -- one of the most understated and effective pieces of horror going.

    I must hunt down MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING.

    Jeff -- yes, I always find it powerful, and appreciate different aspects more every year. I re-watched it again to write about it, and was struck by the powerful family dynamics and its sadness.


    Bryan -- Unfortunately, I didn't see it until I was in my early twenties, so I can only imagine its impact on a child. Not surprised it made an impression. It made an impression on me similar to FREAKS, THE HILLS HAVE EYES (Craven version), and DAWN OF THE DEAD.

    I'm humbled that a top horror bloke like you is visiting this quaint blog, and it's good timing considering I'll be posting a DEPRAVED review over the next ten days.

  5. After searching my memory some more, I recall that this local channel always aired these sort of edgy (for the time) movies at midnight on Sunday nights, and I would always stay up to watch them despite knowing how sleepy I'd be at school the next day. Again, this was a local channel and before we had cable in our area. This was back in the late 70's or very early 80's, and I've always wondered what was going on at that station that made it possible for them to air that stuff. Keep in mind this is Tennessee, very much a part of the conservative bible belt. And this weekly late night horror thing they had always had envelope-pushing things, like the gore of Deathdream and other movies, and glimpses of nudity in other movies. I've never quite understood how they were able to get away with that. I've done Google searches using terms like "Nashville late night horror 70's 80's" and have come up empty every time. I fear it's one of those obscure bits of television history that's basically undocumented and lost forever.

    One image from one of those movies that has stayed with me through the decades is a scene from, I think, some 70's erotic vampire movie. It's a scene at night that I vaguely recall as happening on the roof of a stone castle or something like that. We see this sexy woman's bare back. Another beautiful woman leans into her and bites her neck, causing a thin stream of blood to run down her back. All these years I've occasionally wondered what that movie was.

  6. Bryan -- you stayed up Sundays, I stayed up Fridays. Sundays were a no-no for staying up late at my house. Lucky you! Interesting that you haven't been able to unearth information on this No-Holds-Barred horror show. Was it hosted by anybody? If so, that could be your key to finding information. Perhaps old program guides from the period? Surely they're on microfiche somewhere. Or in a museum library.

    I'm racking my brain trying to identify the scene and film you mentioned. It sounds very Hammer-ish to me. If you saw it on TV, I can't imagine it was a Rollin film. 'Scars of Dracula', 'Vampire Lovers', 'Lust for a Vampire', 'Brides of Dracula'?