Deathdream: Vietnam Comes Home

[Essay written for the Deathdream screening at Nitehawk Cinema on February 12, 2013 that included an introduction by Adam Lowenstein, Film Professor and author of Shocking Representation: historical trauma, national cinema, and the modern horror film).

Bob Clark’s 1972 cult classic Deathdream (original title: Dead of Night) is part of a select group of films from the era that dealt with the trauma of the Vietnam War. These films positioned this trauma back onto the United States by expressing the horror of war returning back to a place in which it originated but wasn’t fought. Deathdream visualizes this return in the ghostly form of a young deceased soldier, finding his way back to his family and to establish his final resting ground on familial soil. However, unlike the visceral explosions played out in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Deathdream is a representation of hope in the faith of certain death; his family wants so much to believe he is alive, almost as much as he wants to come to terms with his death.

imagesThe family structure lays at the center of these post-Vietnam horror films, no matter how messed up in its depiction (re: the Virgin Spring-inspired parental revenge and/or the in-bred role-shifting dynamic). In Deathdream there is a powerful, near transcendent, relationship between mother and son. The mother (Christine Brooks played by Faces actress Lynn Carlin) refuses to believe that her son Andy could possibly be dead, even when military officers deliver its confirmation. So when Andy returns, she delights in this truth even though his father (Charles played by Faces and Godfather star John Marley) suspects something is wrong. And wrong it is. Andy has indeed died, as the audience sees in the opening sequence, and has somehow managed to find his way home. He’s not a zombie or a vampire as many descriptions surmise (although he does drink blood to retain “life”) but, rather, a restless ghost whose soul is adrift, conflicted about how and where he was killed, and who needs to find solace in his hometown, with the love of his mother.

dead-of-night--2Immediately after Andy’s arrival back to his home we (and everyone except his mother) get the sense that there is something terribly wrong. Despondent and angrily violent, his behavior mimics the dissociation experienced by Vietnam soldiers trying to acclimate when back on U.S. soil. However, it’s much more than that – Andy is deadly. He kills truck drivers, the family dog and family doctor (uttering the brilliant line – I died for you, the least you can do is die for me) along with his former girlfriend and nearly his sister. The family dynamic breaks down in these realizations over the truth about Andy, resulting in a despondent father fighting with the in-denial mother. It isn’t until the very end, when his mother’s love rescues his soul that we see what Andy needed all along; to come home to die.

deathdream01Made before Bob Clark’s nearly unwatchable debut Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1973) and his brilliant horror opus Black Christmas (1974), Deathdream is a pitch-perfect revelation of the horror of Vietnam in cinema. Perhaps it’s not so different from our current political climate as we can sympathize with the painful unknowing of why one is fighting and dying overseas and how families continue to cope with loss. Watching Deathdream now, it’s important to recognize the importance horror film has to mirror the unseen and discarded painful aspects of human existence. While we may be seeing a reference to Vietnam unfold on screen, we are really looking at a reflection of humanity: war, death, life, loss, and love. Equally full of pain and affection (with a bit of Bob Clark humor thrown in), Deathdream reveals the universal potency of horror cinema in its most beautifully basic form.

Night of the Living Dead: Annotated Palace Collection

I wrote about the impossibility of writing about Night of the Living Dead for the Annotated Palace Collection (project by Darren Banks):

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In 1968 two films were released that changed the landscape for cinema and ushered in the era of the post-modern horror film.

The first is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (an adaptation of Ira Levon’s novel) in which a young New York woman is betrayed by her husband and neighbors into having Satan’s child. With its colorful characters, saturated landscape, and lush style, Rosemary’s Baby is in stark contrast to the gritty black-and-white reality expressed in the wholly original second film of 1968 – George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. Like Rosemary’s Baby, Night fundamentally questions our ability to trust other people, particularly those closest to us but its expression of the utter collapse of society (because of an unexplained phenomena that causes the dead to walk and because of the inherently violent nature of the living) and its not-so-subtle socio-political representations, makes Night of the Living Dead a devastating experience still today.

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To write something new about Night of the Living Dead is nearly as unthinkable as watching the dead rise up from the grave. This isn’t because its relevancy is relegated to the past but rather frighteningly because the issues attacked in the film are still very much apart of America’s cultural fabric. The antagonistic familial relationship as expressed between brother and sister (Barbara and Johnny: first in dealing with their dead father’s grave and then in dealing with their separation in life/death) and the nuclear family (in Night the young girl kills and eats her parents) are still familiar. Of course, Night’s famously known for its shocking representation of racism through main character Ben whose blackness is unaddressed throughout the film until the end where he is shot, killed, and burned by the redneck authorities. They may have mistaken him for a zombie but the visceral reaction to the news-footage style sequence at the film’s end – where Ben’s dead body is brutally carried by meat hooks – is a very painful visualization of America’s racism in the 1960s. Whereas then it was a representation of that turbulent time, now it’s a challenge for our generation to process these past traumas.

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Pop-culturally, Night of the Living Dead marks the birth of the modern zombie. Only a slew of “zombie” (Haitian Voodoo zombies) films existed before and although interesting correlations can be drawn between the pre-and-post Romero zombie cinema (mainly in their cultural reflections), it’s undeniable that Romero constructed the near unbreakable collective notion of the zombie narrative. Now, it’s imperative to re-think the zombie in order to establish contemporary allegories however, at the same time, it’s crucial to revisit Night of the Living Dead (and the rest in Romero’s “Dead” series) as a reminder of not only what innovative filmmaking can produce but also as a reminder of cinema’s power to painfully confront life as we know it.

The Black Cat: Revenge. Murder. Incest. Satanism.

An essay I wrote on Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 classic The Black Cat in relation to a dual screening I programmed at Nitehawk Cinema (in conjunction with the On the Desperate Edge of Now exhibition I’m curating)…


The-Black-CatSupernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.

The displaced American in Europe; Henry James made a literary career out of it, so did Hemingway, and filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer made one of the most brilliant conflations of the new-and-old worlds in his explosive 1934 film The Black Cat. Himself an émigré from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire working in Hollywood, Ulmer was all too familiar with cultural outsider-ness and he uses it to great effect when he features the misfortune that befalls two naïve Americans traveling through central Europe on their honeymoon.

This Black Cat is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “immortal” classic but, aside from the fearful presence of a cat that is black, it bears little resemblance to the short story. Instead, there is a complexly interwoven story with much at play: revenge, love, treason, psychological disorders, incest, Satanism, and architecture. But at the core are the eruptions caused by historical trauma caused by World War I with the film asking: what does war make men do? What is surviving or even living? Do free men make their own prisons? Who are the “good” guys? Ulmer’s film places together the past and the present, America and Europe cultures, and the traumatized with the innocent.

blackcat6The story takes place in an imposing Bauhaus-inspired architectural structure that has been built upon the graves of a battlefield by Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff). The two Americans, Peter and Joan Allen, and a Hungarian psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Werdegast (played by Bela Lugosi) wind up at the modernist house after a deadly accident in their shared car. But whereas the couple is taken off-course and enters a world unfamiliar, Werdegast is exactly where he intended to be – at the former site of war that he fought alongside Poelzig. Home. He is there to kill Poelzig as retribution for abandoning their battalion and for stealing his wife while he, loyal until the end, was a prisoner of war for fifteen years.

Of course, the war being echoed here is World War I (the Great War) that, with no doubt, had a significant impact on European culture and on Ulmer himself. “The force of their struggle symbolizes the shattered and corrupted humanity left in the wake of World War I. Their personal desire for death, then, is a natural extension of wartime patriotism, and duty: a desire for destruction adopted and internalized.”1 This intensely rich back-story embodies the The Black Cat and forms the underlining profound sense of loss echoed throughout the film; everybody has lost something and has been the walking dead for all these years, coping in different ways with the effects of the war. As a result, both men are mad and self-destructive. As Poelzig says shiningly, “Even the phone is dead here…even the phone is dead.”

the+black+cat+1In the battle of Karloff and Lugosi (it was the first time the two huge stars of the time had been onscreen together), it’s Karloff’s Poelzig who becomes the void in which trauma has been funneled into. Deeply guilty about his treason and about surviving, Poelzig is never-the-less a calculating and evil monster. He abandoned his team, stole his friend’s wife, killed her (and other women) while she was still young to retain her beauty, married his step-daughter, and is a Satanic high priest capable of human sacrifice. Living in his Gothic mansion, albeit a modernist masterpiece, he has isolated the outside world and remained living in his own contamination. So it is with little surprise at the vehemence in which Werdegast attacks his nemesis; he destroyed his life, the world destroyed them both.

the-black-cat-boris-and-belaConsidered the original “King of the B’s”, the mysterious Edgar G. Ulmer notoriously made his films on the cheap side (mainly do to the fact that he was blacklisted in Hollywood after marrying the already married woman of a Universal Studio chief). Along with The Black Cat, his films Damage Lives (1933), Bluebeard (1944), and Detour (1945) are an incredible combination of horror, noir, and German Expressionism, near perfect in their expression of loneliness, pain, and failure. In fact Detour is rightly considered one of the best films in cinematic history. What makes Ulmer films so special is how seemingly anachronistic they are, utterly daring in narrative, cinematography, and acting they are. It’s difficult to come to grips that these films were made in the 1930s and 40s! The Black Cat is particularly bold in showing a satanic mass (something more 
culturally associated with the Anton Lavey 1960s) and Poelzig being tied up then flayed alive (who can come to terms with a shirtless Boris Karloff being skinned?!).

Brutal in its subject matter while inventive in its depiction, The Black Cat is, and should be rightly considered to be, one of the classic forefathers of horror cinema. The inclusion of two young Americans symbolizes the culture clash of the time and, as Paul A. Cantor writes in his essay The Fall of the House of Ulmer, “The Black Cat suggests that, unfortunately, Americans would not recognize a European horror story even if they wandered right into the middle of it.” But would we now? Through its self-reflexive (and explicitly meta-texual) combination of histories (personal and cultural) played out on the big screen, it is possible that as the horrors of past wars continuously haunt us through cinema, we are being forced to comes to terms and deal with these traumas still today. 

Book review: House of Psychotic Women

houseofpsychoticwomenPer the enthusiastic recommendation by Fangoria‘s Sam Zimmerman, I recently purchased and immediately devoured House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films Book by Kier-La Janisse (FAB Press). 

Despite its obvious subtitle, I expected a somewhat standard anthology of horror films featuring women in horror films. And while that actually may have been enough, what this book is instead is so much more; an unexpectedly raw narrative of a woman’s journey as related, and influenced, by horror films. House of Psychotic Women is perfectly whip smart, with just the right combination of academic philosophical references, personal narratives, and film analysis. That Janisse has the ability and bravery to discuss her life in these terms is beyond engrossing, it’s admirable. 

As with most female horror fans, people love to ask me what it is I get out of horror. I give them the stock answers: catharsis, empowerment, escapism and so on. Less easy to explain is the fact that I gravitate towards films that devastate and unravel me completely – a good horror film will more often make me cray than make me shudder. I remember someone describing their first time seeing Paulus Manker’s The Moor’s Head as so devastating they had to lie on the sidewalk when they exited the theatre. Now, that’s what I look for in a film.

For those of us who have an obsession with horror films (and we do for numerous and various reasons) there is a common denominator the Janisse underlines throughout the book: the ultimate reason why we watch these movies that we can’t stop watching is because something about them reflects ourselves. Not that we’re all murderous psychos, but the psychological breakdowns displayed before us in cinema tend to resonate with those who, quite frankly, aren’t like everyone else. And while my personal research of horror tends to purposefully sidestep the affect/cathartic aspect of horror, Janisse managed to get me to consider how these aspects of horror cinema actually do affect me. She is so dead on (see quote above, only from page 7) because it’s the power of cinema, the lure of the ugliness in life, the punched-in-the-heart feeling that horror films produce that also keep me coming back for more. 

One of my favorite films discussed in the book…

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Sing Me a Western Song on MOCAtv

It’s no secret that Marnie Weber is much loved on this blog so it’s with great excitement that her 2007 16mm film Sing Me a Western Song (featuring another afterlife tale by the Spirit Girls) is available to watch on MOCAtv as part of their West Coast Video series. Includes a personal introduction by Weber to boot!

Support Bruce LaBruce’s “Gerontophilia”

Toronto-based artist, filmmaker, writer, and photographer Bruce LaBruce is currently in production for his 8th feature film, Gerontophilia, and he needs/deserves your support. You can learn more about the project and donate funds here.

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT
While it might not in any conventional sense be considered science fiction, Gerontophilia is at its heart a time travel movie. It takes as its subject a love affair of sorts between an eighty year old man and an eighteen year old boy: two old souls who, had they met each other somewhere else along the space/time continuum, might have become the perfect couple. The old man, Mr. Peabody, lost the love of his life, Smitty, when they were both in their twenties in a swimming accident. Alone for most of his life, and finally abandoned in a nursing home, the old man succumbs to the cruelty of the institution where he is confined, overmedicated with psychotropic drugs and sometimes tied down with restraints. His only consolation is the memories he has of Smitty that come to him almost like hallucinations as he drifts in and out of consciousness, particularly one in which the couple spend a summer’s day on the beach at the Pacific Ocean. Here it’s almost as if he’s time traveling, too.

Bruce LaBruce was a contributor to the third volume of Incognitum Hactenus, Living On: Zombies. Click here to read the original script for his amazing genre film, Otto…Or Up With Dead People.

Fango Flashbacks

In November, the VHS Vault program I co-curate at Nitehawk Cinema co-presented a series of real “turkeys” with Fangoria in celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday season. In conjunction with this program, I wrote briefly on each of the films for Fangoria’s “Fango Flashback” which is their ongoing series that looks back at the “classics”. It was a bloody good time.

Fango Flashback: BLOOD FEAST (1963)
Horror cinema has many Godfathers. James Whale, Val Lewton, Mario Bava, and George A. Romero have all laid down the foundation of what we collectively consider to be the “horror film.” Mixed in with these founding forefathers of horror is the varied bunch of “B” geniuses: Edgar G. Ulmer, Roger Corman, and…Herschell Gordon Lewis. As the crowned “Godfather of Gore” and the near antithesis to Mr. Lewton, Lewis created the “splatter” subgenre in his over-the-top movies that would set the wheels in motion for future generations of American horror filmmakers. On the cusp of its fiftieth anniversary, Nitehawk Cinema and FANGORIA revisit Lewis’ first filmic foray into horror by presenting the VHS version of his cheap and charming 1963 flick, BLOOD FEAST. READ THE REST

Fango Flashback: BLOOD FREAK (1972)
Although many films in the 1970s dealt with the horror of the Vietnam War and the affected soldiers’ difficult return to “normal” life in the United States (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, DEATHDREAM, TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE), BLOOD FREAK certainly isn’t one of them.Vietnam vet / motorcycle rider Herschell certainly has some demons in his closet but this movie doesn’t really take us there with him. Providing a ludicrous quasi-morality tale on consumption (drugs, the bible, turkey, women), BLOOD FREAK is not exceptionally gory or gratuitous or even offensive. It is, however, horribly produced, horrendously acted, and has appalling dialogue. Yet still (still!), BLOOD FREAK is so damn entertaining that to revel in its kitsch should be a horror fan’s inalienable right. There is some indefinable quality here that makes this tale, one of a muscle-man-turned-drug-addicted-killer-turkey-man, one for the ages. READ THE REST

Fango Flashback: HOME SWEET HOME (1981)
Lovingly low-budget and certainly “inspired” by HALLOWEEN, HOME SWEET HOME occurs around what we can only gather is a Thanksgiving celebration at a failed music producer’s country home. It brings together all sorts of ambiguous relationships (who, exactly, is with whom?) that includes a small child named Angel (played by future EYES WIDE SHUT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES reboot star Vinessa Shaw), a wailing Latina, a mime/magician/guitarist, two over-sexed friends, a horny couple and the aforementioned producer. And all, save the two obligatory final girls, will perish in fairly comical ways by the ridiculously beefy unmasked version of “The Shape.” READ THE REST

Sinister walls: representation and repetition

In continuing the exploration of the slipages that occur between imitation and homage in contemporary creative forms, here is an interesting correlation of imagery from the new “home video discovery turns to haunting” film Sinister with Stan Shellabarger’s 2005 performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Paul McCarthy Face, Head, Shoulder Painting – Wall Black Line (1972). Shellabarger and McCarthy’s embodies these prolific similarities of reference between horror cinema and visual art as their work deals with repetition, endurance, and a relationship to the space that surrounds them.

Thanks to Scott Speh at Western Exhibitions.

Related in the series: Cabin in the Woods and Peter Doig’s 1990s cabin paintings.

Night of New Horror at Nitehawk

Last Tuesday was a night of celebrating new horror at Nitehawk Cinema and I was thrilled to be a part of it. First, Incognitum Hactenus held a part for the release Living On: Zombies (Vol. 3) with “undead soul” tunes by Dave Tompkins and Jim Shaw’s film The Hole. Then we screened three films I curated (based on video and found footage) by Darren Banks before the New York premiere of Magnolia Picture’s new horror anthology V/H/S. And lastly, we presented Banks’ amazing “tech gone wrong” montage for the after-party. To relive the event, check out the pics…

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