In recent years the 1970s have been hailed as a golden age of moviemaking, and that is indisputably trueif you're talking about horror movies. The horror films of the 1970s, especially those made on the down-low for drive-ins, Deuce grindhouses and other disreputable venues, remain among the strongest ever made. It wasn't just permissive new standards of gore or violence that made movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead so potent. It was the sense that these genre films could voice the nation's darkest fears with a freedom missing from conventional Hollywood fare.
As evidence, there's the 1972 chiller Deathdream, a reworking of the Halloween staple "The Monkey's Paw" updated with eerie relevance to the Vietnam War. A long-time favorite of late-night TV viewers and cult-movie nuts, the movie was hard to see for many years except in lousy pan-and-scan video editions. Last year, though, it was embraced as one of the highlights of a '70s horror retrospective at New York's Walter Reade Theatre. Now Blue Underground's just-released DVD special edition makes it look better than it ever has on the small screen, where it awaits rediscovery.
Deathdream's set-up was agonizingly familiar to 1972 audiences: a small-town family sits around the dinner table, awaiting news about their son overseas. Then comes the dreaded knock at the door. That night, despite news of her boy's death, his mother prays for his return. Her prayers are answered when the son, Andy, shows up in his dress uniform, hollow-eyed, distant and vaguely angry.
The movie's effective simply as a zombie shocker, as Andy reacts with increasing hostility to his family and old friends, even to the family dog. (The spare but scary gore effects launched the career of makeup master Tom Savini, himself a Vietnam combat photographer.) But it's unusually poignant as an allegory of the disconnection shell-shocked vets felt coming home, returning to lives rendered shockingly unfamiliar. It's just as harrowing a portrait of parents' grief at getting the thing they want mosta reuniononly to find the child is no longer there. There weren't many mainstream films in 1972 approaching the war's effect from these angles.
The acting is uniformly fineno surprise, since the film reunites John Marley and Lynn Carlin, the stars of John Cassavetes' Faces, to play the parents. As Andy, the New York stage actor Richard Backus brings a chilling vacancy and inchoate rage to the role. If the filmmakers had gone with their other choiceChristopher Walken!Deathdream might not have taken so long to claim its place in movie history. But it would lose the impact of Backus' achingly sad stare.
Little about Deathdream suggests the odd trajectory of director Bob Clark's career. After a string of interesting early horror movies, including the sorority-slasher prototype Black Christmas, he made the blockbuster sex comedy Porky's and the holiday perennial A Christmas Story. But his unfussy direction creates a mood of mounting unease and some genuine jolts, especially during the drive-in climax. His commentary track, though reticent and rather dry, offers some amusing tidbits about his early background in exploitation films. (A gender-bending whatsit called The She-Man diversifies his filmography even more.) Screenwriter Alan Ormsby is more forthcoming in his alternate commentary, even wryly noting the "sinister" presence of the woman playing Andy's sisterhis ex.
Other features include interviews with Backus and Savini, the trailer, and an alternate title sequence (the movie also played theaters as Dead of Night, among other titles). All are fine but inessential. The movie, on the other hand, is a must-see for horror fansand perhaps an inspiration for the largely dormant horror genre to awake to the horrors around us.
♦ Five women are stuck on a Saturday doing inventory for Acme Lingerie in downtown Los Angeles. It is unrewarding work, but it spirals from stressful to lethal when a box containing the soul of deceased mass murderer Hockstetter is accidentally delivered to them. Death comes in many forms in a nightie-clad ballet of violence called Hard to Die, but that's not the only reason why this 1990 Roger Corman epic (made initially on a bet by director Jim Wynorski, of Chopping Mall, Traci Lords is Not of This Earth and The Bare Wench Project infamy) has deservedly become a cult classic. For several floors above the Acme warehouse is a weapons storage facility, one that would give Andy Sidaris ammo envy.
For those keeping score: we have gossamer lingerie, high-caliber firepower, buxom stars, Chinese takeout, and an insane killer. There are some who would call the script's insistence on having each of its five stars take a shower exploitative. But in the T&A slasher genre, this qualifies as utter brilliance. Add indestructible janitor Orville Ketchum, and you have one of the great trash epics of the period. New Concorde's DVD releases tend to be hit-or-miss, but any effort to get this feast of breasts, bullets, and blood back in print is to be readily applauded.
♦ Director Alan Rudolph has never equalled his 1984 picaresque Songwriter, one of the best films ever made about the music industry and one of the few films to adequately showcase the many brilliant facets of Willie Nelson. Few sights are as haunting as his heartfelt "Who'll Buy My Memories," sung to ex-wife Melinda Dillon, and his breezy charm is the anchor for this humanist masterpiece. Factor in Kris Kristofferson at the top of his game, Lesley Anne Warren as every country starlet rolled into one, and national treasure Rip Torn as a corrupt concert promoter, and you have one of the great ensemble casts of the early 1980s.
Rudolph's touch with Bud Shrake's script is deft and light, and there are dozens of great moments that build into a film that feels more alive than most. Nelson and Kristofferson together have unmatchable comic timing, and the scene in which Nelson lays out his plan to start making money again as a songwriter is such a delicious feast of wordplay that Samuel Beckett would be jealous. Columbia TriStar's DVD marks the first time Songwriter has been made available in its correct aspect ratio, and the near-eternity that this film has spent out of print has allowed the viewer to appreciate how beautifully the film has aged. Music-industry folk and movie lovers should rejoice.