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DEAD OF NIGHT (1972)

[aka Deathdream aka The Night Walk aka The Veteran aka Whispers aka The Night Andy Came Home]

I died for you, Doc – why shouldn’t you return the favour?




  Director:
 
Bob Clark

  Starring: 
Richard Backus, John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Anya Ormsby, Henderson Forsythe, Jane Daly, Bob Clark, David Gawlikowski, Michael Mazes

  Screenplay: 
Alan Ormsby

Synopsis:  Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is shot while on patrol in Vietnam. As he falls he hears his mother’s voice, reminding him over and over that he promised he wouldn’t die, that he promised to come home... In Brooksville, Charlie (John Marley), Christine (Lynn Carlin) and Cathy Brooks (Anya Ormsby) are having dinner when there is a knock on the door. Their caller is a high-ranking military official; he has brought them a telegram... Charlie and Catherine are grief-stricken by the news of Andy’s death. Christine, in contrast, becomes furiously angry, insisting that the report is a mistake; a lie. Late that night, a restless Charlie finds Christine sitting in the rocking-chair in Andy’s room, repeating over and over that she knows he is all right, that she can feel that he is alive... A truck-driver stops to pick up a hitchhiker, a soldier making his way home. The driver tries to be friendly, even buying his passenger a coffee, but he remains completely unresponsive... Cathy Brooks is awakened by what she is sure is noises in the house. She wakes her father, who collects a gun from his drawer and heads quietly downstairs, followed by Cathy and Christine. The three are startled when their dog, Butch, barks – then begin to wonder how he got inside. Charlie finds an open door – and upon closing it is confronted by the overwhelming sight of his son, Andy, in full uniform and apparently in perfect health. There is an emotional family reunion, though Andy remains quiet and remote. When Christine tells him disbelievingly that there was a telegram telling them he was dead, Andy replies simply that he was. Then he smiles; it’s just a joke... Out on the highway, a truck-driver is found dead, his throat slashed and a needle-mark in his arm. Inquiries at a diner elicit a story of a hitchhiking soldier. Meanwhile, though the Brooks family tries to hold onto its happiness over Andy’s return, it becomes increasingly obvious that there is something wrong: Andy remains withdrawn and unresponsive, and given to outbursts of anger; increasingly, he refuses to join the family, remaining instead alone in his room, sitting silently in his rocking-chair. Tensions develop among the rest of the family, with Charlie and Christine quarrelling and raking up old arguments over Andy’s upbringing and behaviour. Christine accuses Charlie of not really wanting Andy to come home... One night, Andy goes for a solitary walk. He spends some time staring at the house of his former girlfriend, Joanne (Jane Daly), before heading for the cemetery, where he scratches something on a blank headstone... Lying silently on a folding lounge on the lawn the next day, Andy is besieged by a group of neighbourhood children, to whom he is something of a hero. Their welter of talk stops suddenly when Andy takes one of them by the wrist, painfully forcing him to the ground. The dog, Butch, who has displayed antagonism towards Andy ever since his return, rushes up, barking. Andy releases the boy and turns on Butch, seizing the dog by the throat with one hand and strangling it to death...

Comments:  Though by 1972 various cinematic protests against the situation in Vietnam had begun to emerge, most of them resorted either to allusion or to displacement to get their point across. Directed by Bob Clark and written by Alan Ormsby, Dead Of Night is one of the earliest, possibly even the first, to simply take the bull by the horns. Its opening leaves no doubt whatsoever as to where its conflict is set, and it follows this up with a confronting sequence in which a soldier screams and sobs in agony after being shot. This is a remarkable little film; not only an imaginative piece of low-budget film-making, but a wonderful example of what you can get away with when you’re “just” making a horror movie. The allegorical aspects of the story are clear without being strident, and only seem truer with the passage of time.

When we think of the independent Florida film scene of the sixties and seventies, it tends to be people like Herschell Gordon Lewis, William Grefé and Doris Wishman, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby met while students at the University of Miami, and that their first two collaborations, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and Dead Of Night, were shot on location in the Sunshine State, the latter being set as well as filmed in the real town of Brooksville.

Of the former film, probably the less said the better, although some of my colleagues have found a few positives in it – and if nothing else, it’s the film that convinced Alan Ormsby that acting wasn’t for him. The step up in quality in Dead Of Night is almost jolting: the combined effect of a director who quite correctly spent his first couple of films learning what not to do, some committed acting, and a thoughtful script. While there are a number of obvious influences at work in Alan Ormsby’s screenplay, it perhaps plays best as a re-working of W. W. Jacobs’ seminal horror tale, The Monkey’s Paw; a version of the story in which the father isn’t quite quick enough with that third wish.

It’s a shame this film isn’t better known. Possibly its subject matter did work against it; though I’m sure a spotty release history didn’t help either, and nor did the fact that it is one of those films that went through regular changes of title, without ever settling on one that was really appropriate. Though it was released as Dead Of Night, Deathdream seems to be the title by which it is now best known; to the extent that it is impossible to find any decent advertising art with the original title on it.

(Even the DVD is confused on that point: the cover says Deathdream, while the print says Dead Of Night. This is, by the way, yet another perverse Blue Underground release wherein an excellent DVD is concealed within dreadful cover art.)

I called Dead Of Night a remarkable little film, and so it is. It’s a typical low-budget production with the usual attendant issues: various technical shortcomings, particularly with respect to the lighting; a few clunky supporting performances; and some dubious humour, although this is thankfully brief and intermittent. On the other hand, the need to shoot on location – in a real house, a real diner, a real police station – works in the production’s favour, giving it a gritty sense of reality that adds markedly to its credibility; as indeed does the determined ordinariness of the characters at the story’s centre.

We learn an uncomfortable amount about the unhappy Brooks family over the course of this film. Later there will be violence – between Charlie and Andy, Charlie and Christine, Charlie and Cathy, even Christine and Cathy; violence that strikes the viewer as an old pattern of behaviour resurfacing. When the film opens what we find, ironically, is a family being held together by the absence of its son and brother. There is never more unity amongst the Brookses than during this first appearance at the dinner-table, when with a certain brittle cheerfulness they exchange light conversation and anecdotes that are, perhaps inevitably, somewhat Andy-heavy, particularly on Christine’s part. But this brief togetherness is swiftly shattered by an unexpected knock on the door: a sound that, with a son on active service, means only one thing...

As Charlie and Cathy weep over the telegram, Christine’s reaction is angry denial. Much later that night, Charlie finds her in Andy’s room, saying numbly, over and over, that Andy is alive, she can tell, she can feel it...

Meanwhile, out on Route 9 (a frequent site of disaster in Alan Ormsby’s films, according to the man himself), a truckdriver stops to pick up a hitchhiking soldier, who proves a silent and unresponsive passenger...

Cathy wakes suddenly one night to noises in the house. She rouses her father, who takes his handgun from a drawer and hurries downstairs, his wife and daughter in his wake. There is a startled moment that recedes with the realisation that the “intruder” is just Butch, the family dog (hey! a spring-loaded dog!); but this in turn raises the question of how he got in. There must be a door open... Charlie puts Butch out again. As he shuts the door he recoils with a gasp of fear and disbelief: for there in the shadows stands Andy...

The reunion is a strange mixture of joy, relief and unease. Questions and comments tumble over one another; Andy answers are brief and deflective. When Charlie comments incredulously about the telegram, that they were told that he was dead, Andy replies simply, “I was.” There is an uncomfortable silence, until Andy smiles. The silence is then broken by laughter which has more than a touch of hysteria about it... Later we see Andy in his darkened room, sitting as his mother recently did, in his rocking-chair, staring and rocking, staring and rocking...

Dead Of Night was Richard Backus’s first film, and it’s a good bit of casting. Evidently Clark and Ormsby were first drawn by his bone structure, which facilitated the progressive makeup job over the course of the film, but beyond this physical aptness there is a curious quality about Backus that allows him to look like the boy next door one moment, a repository of rage and deadly violence the next – and in either case, creepy – via only a shift of expression. His deadpan downplaying as Andy results in a strange combination of discomfort and sick humour that keeps the viewer on edge.

Speaking of Bob Clark – and of sick humour – we then cut back to Route 9 where a truckdriver has been found dead with his throat torn open and a needlemark in his arm. Director Clark gave himself a small but significant supporting role as the first cop on the scene, offering up bits of business here that I’m sure were meant to get a reaction even in 1972, but which in these days of heightened forensic awareness are almost agonising: in rapid succession, Officer Ted gets some of the victim’s blood on his fingers, wipes them on the victim’s sleeve, rubs his nose, and then picks up a discarded coffee cup with his gloveless hand. His subsequent investigation, thankfully, is at least competent enough to locate the diner which the truckdriver frequented, and to pick up word of a hitchhiking soldier.

There are some bloody scenes in Dead Of Night, though it is by no means a gore film: for the most part they are like this, the aftermath of violence. They are worth noting, however, because while Alan Ormsby was in charge of much of the makeup work, his assistant was none other than a very young Tom Savini, himself not long home from Vietnam. I don’t think that anyone would necessarily pick this as a “Tom Savini film”; however, from here he and Ormsby went on to the excesses of Deranged, a far more indicative work.

Back at the Brooks house, the surface civility is already cracking, and tensions beginning to rise. The back-story of the family starts to fill in here: we see that Andy was always “his mother’s son”, and Cathy “her father’s daughter”. We judge, too, that Andy has always been something of a disappointment to his father – too sensitive, too quiet, too much of a “mama’s boy” – and that it was only by enlisting that he won Charlie’s full approval. (We suspect, however, that needing to get away had quite as much to do with it as a desire to please his father.) Now back home, disappointment is starting to predominate again: Andy won’t let his parents so much as tell anyone that he’s back, let alone celebrate the way they want to; he stays silently in his home for hours; he refuses to join his family for meals. Only two days after his return, an angry Charlie is demanding to know what’s wrong with him, a defensive Christine bringing up his “terrible experiences”: an argument that WWII veteran Charlie has little patience with.

It is fascinating with hindsight to note how early it was recognised that there was something “different” about Vietnam, whether it be the nature of the conflict, the moral greyness of the situation, or the fact that for the first time, news images were being broadcast back home; and with it the sense that this war’s veterans were “different”, too. Dead Of Night draws an explicit contrast between Andy and the previous military generation, his silent withdrawal the immovable object to the irresistible force of his father’s angry assertion that he had terrible experiences, too, but never behaved like that. The question of whether someone ought to be unchanged by such experiences is implicit throughout. Charlie’s lack of sympathy with his son is further underscored by the verbal blunderings of Ben the postman, whose own memories of WWII have receded far enough to be chiefly a source of off-colour anecdotes, and fodder for rumination over who did die, and who should have died.

Andy interrupts one of the increasing frequent and heated spats between Charlie and Christine by wandering out into the night for a walk; he stops to smile back lovingly at Christine before his goes, ignoring his father. His first stop is the street outside the house of his girlfriend, Joanne, of whose deep anxiety on his behalf we have heard from Christine. Despite this, Andy has not allowed anyone to let Joanne know he is home. From there Andy’s steps lead him to the cemetery, where he finds and sets to work on an as-yet uncarved headstone...

Charlie’s own state of denial, however different from Christine’s, leads him to bring into Andy’s presence a group of neighbourhood boys all agog to hear of his experiences – they think. Andy remains unresponsive through their bragging about how much they’ve grown in his absence, their tales of their fathers’ military exploits, and even their demands to know how many people he killed – but when one of the boys tries to impress him by showing off his karate skills, it provokes sudden violence, with Andy seizing the boy’s wrist and forcing him to the ground as he cries out in pain.

Since Andy’s return home, Butch the dog has displayed a strange antagonism towards him, snarling and cringing in his presence, though usually the most good-natured of small mutts. Butch come rushing into the present scene, barking furiously at Andy, and prompting him to let the boy go. Instead, Andy turns on Butch and, taking him one-handed by the throat, strangles him to death, as the watching children sob and wail in horror...

At this point, you might be expecting an authorial explosion. Well---no. Not this time. For one thing, the killing of Butch is not at all explicit. For another – and more importantly – it is not gratuitous. It’s not a cheap shock, or a piece of directorial cruelty, but an illustration of just how profoundly, how fundamentally, Andy has changed.

(And besides, it’s clear from the way it’s filmed that the dog wasn’t hurt. Just in case you were wondering. One of the children weeping over Butch’s fate, the smallest one, is Alan Ormsby’s own son, who found even the fake violence quite upsetting enough; and indeed, Ormsby admits that he would never write a scene like that these days.)

This tragic incident has terrible implications for the Brooks family even beyond the obvious. Although Butch was a family pet, it is clear that he was predominantly Charlie’s dog, and his death gives all of Charlie’s swirling anger and doubt and fear about his son a terrible new focus.

Charlie goes out and gets stinking drunk. He is encountered at the bar by Dr Allman, who we saw earlier as medical examiner in the case of the truckdriver. The doctor listens sympathetically to Charlie’s ramblings (and wins my heart by treating his deep grief over Butch’s death as reasonable and natural), and then with mounting disbelief as he hears how Butch died. He suggests that he call upon Andy and have a talk with him.

Meanwhile, in a moment that always makes me flinch, Cathy is dishing out dog food while she burbles about her plans for a blind double-date, herself and her boyfriend, Bob, and Andy and Joanne; this will be Joanne’s first intimation that Andy is home. Cathy calling for the dog penetrates even Christine’s blanket of denial, although she cannot bring herself to say more than that the dog is “gone”.

Her strange behaviour prompts Cathy to ask whether she and Charlie quarrelled, to which Christine responds by insisting that her daughter not believe anything her father says. This moment is capped when Charlie stumbles in with Dr Allman, riding rough-shod over Christine’s objections to his seeing Andy and telling the doctor not to pay any attention to her: “This is my house.”

I bet for a while there, Vietnam seemed to Andy like a real pleasant change.

Dr Allman finds Andy sitting in his room, rocking, rocking... Andy’s immediate response, his immediate antagonism, suggests that he realises that the doctor is the person most likely to discover exactly what is wrong with him. Andy sneers at the notion that he came in “with friends”, but admits he got a ride. As soon as the word “hitchhiking” enters the conversation, the doctor and Andy share a look of terrible understanding...

With a joviality that rings false even in his own ears, Dr Allman welcomes Andy home, and invites him to stop by his rooms for a check-up, if he feels he needs one, or just to chat... Outside, the doctor tells Charlie firmly that it is his duty to report to the police what he hopes very much is merely a coincidence, but allows himself to be persuaded to wait until the next day, until Charlie has had a chance to talk to his son. But of course, by the time Charlie bolts back up to Andy’s room, the boy has gone...

Needless to say, Dr Allman gets a visit from Andy rather sooner than he was expecting. We’ve already noticed that Andy is looking a little the worse for wear, but by the time he reaches – and forces his way into – the doctor’s rooms, his face is a mass of wrinkles, in addition to the pallor that has been evident all along. Andy begins by insisting satirically that he is in perfect health, before admitting there is one slight problem: he has the doctor feel his pulse...and then listen to his heartbeat...

So there we have it. Andy is---no, not undead; he is quite firm on that point; he is dead. It just so happens that he is also up and around and walking and talking – and that he needs regular fixes of human blood in order to keep together, well, body, if not exactly body and soul. I’m not sure whether that makes him a vampire or a zombie, or both. Or neither.

As Dr Allman stares up in disbelief, Andy smiles. “I died for you, doc,” he comments. “Why shouldn’t you return the favour?”

The bloody struggle that follows ends with Andy slumped on the floor, tying off his arm with a rubber hose to get a vein, and injecting himself with his victim’s blood, in a scene whose implications could hardly be clearer.

The following morning, Andy, looking much better and feeling invigorated, learns of Cathy’s plans for the double-date, and after long hesitation agrees to go. This leads to an awkward confrontation when Cathy and Bob try to convince Joanne to agree to a blind date, but finally have to spoil their own surprise by telling her that Andy is back.

Meanwhile, Charlie has what he tries to convince himself is a reassuring conversation with Andy about his whereabouts at the time of the truckdriver’s death. He then goes to see Dr Allman, only to arrive in time to witness the removal of his sheeted body from his rooms.

(Alan Ormsby has a brief cameo as one of the inevitable gawkers; his acting isn’t getting any better.)

Back at the Brooks house, Andy is getting ready for his date with Joanne: a matter complicated by the fact that not only is his face degenerating again already, but he has maggots spilling from an open wound on his hand.

His solution is almost as unnerving as his problem: he comes downstairs wearing a high-necked sweater, dark glasses and black gloves, and looking for all the world like the psycho-killer in any giallo you might care to name (and reminding some of us that in the future, Alan Ormsby would be involved in another remarkable little film, the wonderfully creepy Shockwaves). He barely greets the disappointed and bewildered Joanne, and remains unresponsive as she tries to make small-talk. Above all, he will not let her touch him.

Dead Of Night is a film full of scenes of people pretending that nothing is wrong, but even so, the following sequence is just excruciating. The double-date starts at a fast-food joint and ends up at the drive-in (the double bill of Death In Space and The Spacenauts is a fake, but a subsequent poster for Deathmaster is the genuine article), and becomes an endurance test for all involved, with Cathy and Bob chatting brightly at Andy, and poor Joanne growing increasingly desperate for some sort of acknowledgement from him. Cathy and Bob are finally guilty of fatal tactfulness, deciding that Andy and Joanne need some time alone together and slipping out to the concession stand.

When they get back---well, perhaps they can’t entirely be blamed for mistaking the struggle in the back seat for the kind of struggle that usually goes on in the back seat at the drive-in, and averting their eyes accordingly...at least until a bloody-mouthed figure with pin-point pupils in its eyes rears up, baring its teeth at them...

Andy attacks Cathy first. Bob succeeds in freeing her, but at the cost of his own life. As Cathy runs screaming, she slips (of course). One brave young man runs in to try and help her, but ends up getting struck by the car instead. Andy pulls up – backs over his victim deliberately – more than once – and then flees the scene.

By the time he reaches home he is disintegrating, something his mother takes in her stride. She is more concerned about Charlie, who has been hunting his son gun in hand, and now corners him and Christine in his room. Immediately, Christine puts herself between Andy and the gun. Charlie pushes her to the ground, demanding that his son stand up and face him – but when he does...

Charlie can only back away, overwhelmed. Andy staggers from the room. A sobbing Christine rushes out to help him. As they make their way downstairs, there is the sound of a single shot...

Christine and Andy make the front door just as the police arrive. It’s Officer Ted and his back-up, a young man who starts shooting before the warning has barely passed his superior’s lips.

(Really? This is the way you behave when your suspect has what is, for all you know, a hostage? Really?)

The bullet hits Andy square in the body – missing Christine by about a foot – but barely slows him down. The two scramble into their own car, and as Christine starts to pull out, the trigger-happy young cop rushes up and fires a second bullet into Andy at point-blank range, but only ends up being dragged along by the car.

This prompts Officer Ted to start shooting too, first with his handgun, then with a shotgun. The latter shatters the back windscreen of the car and also ruptures the fuel tank, setting the vehicle on fire.

Andy finally succeeds in detaching the young cop from the car and tosses him aside. Its rear section on fire, the car careens off down the highway, the terrified Christine following Andy’s instructions as best she can while trying to outrun the cops chasing them. Andy is not trying to escape, however, or at least, not trying to escape the police; he has a destination in mind...

One of the most interesting things about Dead Of Night is its choice to play its cards close to its chest for so long, with respect to what we might call Andy’s “condition”. Though this is eventually revealed, the screenplay never touches on the question of exactly how it came about, but leaves that for the viewer to decide; as it does the issue of how Andy got to the point where the truckdriver picked him up. Indeed, the second half of this film is almost entirely an exercise in – well, shall we call it? – the logical illogic that is a hallmark of the best horror movies, wherein things that are simply impossible nevertheless have the stamp of deep emotional truth.

This is nowhere better illustrated than in the climactic scene of Dead Of Night, which manages to be unexpected, genuinely clever, and sincerely moving all at once. It is Christine whose desperate love for her son brought him home, in defiance of all natural laws; in defiance of reason and sanity; and it is Christine likewise who must find a way to let him go...

 
----revised and reformatted 28/02/2014