It’s been a fairly commonplace activity over the last few years to compare our current troubled era with that of the late-sixties/early-seventies, with special attention paid to discussion of parallels (and to what degree they are or are not justified) between the Iraq and Vietnam wars. In that context, it is interesting to consider the way popular culture has dealt with those conflicts, with particular reference to genre offerings.
This is by way of making a bit of a case study of Deathdream (AKA The Night Walk, The Night Andy Came Home,Dead of Night and The Veteran), a 1972 horror film directed by the late, lamented Bob Clark. The film was a bit of a first in a couple of respects. From a genre perspective, it marks the beginning of Tom Savini’s make-up career. But it was also, it seems, the first film to directly deal with the domestic cost of the Vietnam war. It tells the story of a young solider killed overseas, but who nevertheless comes home, thanks to his mother’s intense desire for him to do so. She refuses to recognize anything is wrong with her son, and at first, things seem relatively okay. But decay gradually sets in, as do murderous impulses. You see, he must drink blood in order to avoid disintegration. His father realizes what’s up, but is too weak to do anything about it, and his mother is in total denial. Much has been written about the film’s critique of the patriarchal nuclear family, but of more interest here is the movie’s depiction of the costs of untenable beliefs, and of the damage war does to the home front. 1972 was pretty early for such subject matter. The mainstream of Hollywood wouldn’t really deal with these issues until some years after the war, and so here is another prime example (among so many) of a low-budget horror picture blazing the controversial trail.
Flash forward to today. On the one hand, as has been point out ad infinitum, everything moves so quickly that popular culture’s reactions to everything from 9/11 on hasn’t been long in coming, and this includes mainstream projects. So it would be difficult for a genre picture to be out of the starting gate first in this environment. But is horror dealing with contemporary issues? To a degree, yes, but I say this with some hesitation, at least as far as the more widely available efforts are concerned. There are definitely some very political films appearing, such as The Host, which I’ve discussed previously. But one of the big differences between horror now and horror in the 70s is, paradoxically, a similarity. Horror then had, proportionately, a greater degree of ferocious originality. Today, we’re seeing an overabundance of THE SAME MOVIES: neutered, glossy remakes of those raw, feral efforts. The case has been made that Eli Roth’s Hostel movies are parables of the current American nightmare, and that may be – but my jury is still out, pending further viewings. The remake of The Hills Have Eyes makes some gestures toward relevance, but its critique is further disguised by its explicit referencing of decades past. For all its myriad flaws, The Chronicles of Riddick had a sharper allegory than that. Horror often thrives in periods of social insecurity, and we are seeing something along those lines happening, but I guess I’m still looking for a bit more punch. The material is there (such as Joe Dante’s Masters of Horror episode), but I would have thought there might be more. Video games are jumping in feet-first with the likes of Raze’s Hell, Crackdown, Army of Two and Blacksite: Area 51. So let’s see horror show more of the teeth we know it has.
Incidentally, Blue Underground’s release of Deathdream is superb, with a nice print and plenty of commentary and extras.