Let’s Talk About Deathdream (1974):
April 2016 Blog Tour
By: Thomas S. Flowers
There is something very intimate going on in Deathdream. Something very personal is going on, and maybe it has to do with the film’s low quality, the early 70s B-movie vibe and dang near grainy steady-cam picture, or perhaps the intimacy has to do with the atmosphere, the utterly believable world, as it is likewise chilling and raw, where a part of you doesn’t want to exist, but it does. Most of the realism is thanks in part to the incredible cast of actors and actresses, taking on the role of characters that are mirror images of people walking the streets in a small town that could possibly exist, because it probably does, somewhere out there. And this is the vibe, the feeling we get. This movie is real. This is real life. And when the supernatural takes hold, turning our blood to ice, we’re caught off guard. These things cannot happen. The dead stay dead, those are the rules. But for Andy Brooks, the protagonist (or is he the antagonist?) in this story, those rules no longer apply. Andy has come home. And I think this is the root of the intimacy. Andy, by all accounts of the rules of reality, should not have come home.
The most second most important scene in the movie, we’re brought into the kitchen of the Brooks family. Mother. Father. Sister. Everyone is merry, or as much as they can be with a loved one deployed to Vietnam. They make small talk. They laugh. Everything will be okay, this scene tells us, so long as they remain strong, for Andy’s sake. And then someone knocks on the door. Who is it? They don’t know. It’s awfully late for a neighbor to stop by. The mood drops temperature. Two uniformed soldiers are standing at the door. It’s a telegram, the worst kind, the one no one at home wants to receive. “I’m sorry to inform you,” the Class-A dressed solider announces, “but your son is dead. Killed in action.” Shock. Cold pricking goosebumps. “My son? Dead?” Its laughable, how could their son, brother be dead? These things don’t happen to them, they happen to other people, people on the news, people far away from the safety of the dinner table. No, not Andy. Not their Andy.
The grief here at the dinner table is very raw and heartfelt. The mother weeping. The sister in shock. The father…doesn’t want to accept the news. I’m not sure how you are taking this scene, for me, this moment in the movie is very real. After serving for 6.5 years in the Army, and having deployed three times to Iraq, watching the Brooks family is how I might imagine my own family reacting to the news of my death. Hence the name, Deathdream. Yes. It’s a horror movie. A 70s horror movie at that. But it is more. It’s real. And director Bob Clark wanted you believe as much.
Now, what happens next is where things get a little odd. There’s a knock at the door. The family, just getting to bed after hearing the terrible news, tread the stairs thinking, “What now?” The father answers. There’s a buildup of suspense, as if something really horrifying is going to be at the door. It’s Andy. “It’s Andy!” they all shout. Everyone is overcome with joy. There must have been a mistake. “Can you believe, they actually told me my son was dead?” the father says. Everyone is happy, and rightly so, but there’s something…wrong with Andy. Something he’s not saying. He’s pale and stoic. He doesn’t want to be around crowds, not even friends or family. Again, they recall the evening’s event, nearly hysterical, “They sent a telegram telling us you were dead.” And Andy answers with, “I was.” And here we get a glimpse of the horror to come, the Brooks family doesn’t know how to react. Andy is different…
Now, as stated before, the above is the second most important scene in the movie. The strange homecoming. As the film progresses, we’re given other little snippets of post-war life. Andy, though we’re not too sure (we weren’t privy to his life before the war), but we’re given the impression had been at some point a very happy go-lucky sort of chap. All the neighborhood is abuzz with the news of Andy’s return, even the local kids want to stop by and say hello. But Andy isn’t the Andy they remember. He doesn’t want to play. He doesn’t want to interact. And everyone is taken aback. They don’t know what to make of this new Andy, in fact, they don’t even want to see Andy as being different. The father gets mad, retires to the local bar, and gets drunk. The mother, keeps vigil, maybe Andy will get better, she promises herself. The sister hides amongst her friends. And the neighborhood kids? Well, they all run away screaming.
I won’t get into all the detail, you really ought to watch this film for yourself, but speaking personally, this scene, among others, also resonates with me. Am I the same Thomas Flowers that existed before the war? Not at all. I’m different, and through the years have come to learn how my experiences have changed me, and I’m still learning, every day. Andy doesn’t have that luxury. Andy isn’t your typical veteran. He’s a ghost. A memory of a shadow, made of stolen blood that somehow keeps him whole, walking amongst the living. His character isn’t going to learn anything or develop or change. There is only one progression for Andy, the ultimate progression you might say. And so, you might be asking, “What’s the point of the story?” Well, being careful not to take the movie out of context, this is a 1972 (74 maybe?) story. Being drafted into the Vietnam War is a huge fear in the minds of most American families, especially for those with sons, brothers, uncles, and husbands already deployed in combat. But, there is also an ambiguous question clawing its way out the grave. What is it, you ask? What is the question?
Let’s talk about another important scene, though certainly not the most important one. When Andy’s father seeks outside help to discover what is amiss with his son, Andy ends up following Dr. Allman, the gentleman who had been working with Andy’s father, trying to solve the proverbial mystery of what was “wrong with him.” Andy confronts the good Doc in his office, stating, before draining him of his blood, “I died for you, Doc. Why shouldn’t you return the favor…? You owe me…” And then, in a scene mimicking the escalation of drug abuse common among combat veterans, Andy “shoots up” the drained blood with a hypodermic needle. This scene, for obvious reasons, is full of dark ambiguous questions. But it’s not the most ambiguous scene. This scene simply lays on another series of questions.
Here we are. The most important scene. Before we move on, I need to mention the ending. I know, spoilers and all, but I need to talk about what happened. Throughout the movie, Andy is slowly decaying. He’s becoming what he already is, dead. After a few murders, the truck driver and Doc Allman, and I think perhaps one more (I can’t quite remember), the cops are now on to him. Delirious, Andy’s mother agrees to take Andy away, but during the chase, Andy directs her to the town cemetery. Cemetery? Why there? The sirens are wailing. Tires screeching. Guns drawn. Will there be a final showdown, man verses monster? No. We are denied such luxuries of simplicity. In the final moments of screen time, Andy, nearly dissolved of energy and flesh, crawls to a grave he had prepared for himself sometime previously. He lowers himself, clawing the dark rich earth, covering his body. His mother watches, in tears, protesting, “Why? Why?” And Andy, unable to speak, gestures to his impromptu tombstone. “Andy Brooks, born 1952. Died 1972.” Slowly she realizes that her son is in fact dead, and helps cover his body. The cops arrive on scene shortly before the final act, pistols in hand, ready to slay the creature. But the creature is already dead. They’ve been robbed this battle of archaic man, of Stone Age man, but their faces are not disappointed, their faces are full of question. And this is why the final scene is the most important scene in the movie. Why? Because it deals with a mother and her son. It deals with our children, the future generations and the things we’ll ask them to do. No. Deathdream doesn’t answer any of these questions. The answers to all these ambiguous questions are up to the viewer. As witnesses, we will have to answer for ourselves.