This week on TCM Underground: Deathdream (1972)

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We’re re-running DEATHDREAM (aka DEAD OF NIGHT, 1972) on TCM Underground on Saturday night. It’s a good movie to watch anyway, one for which you are encouraged to gather the family around you and enjoy and to look over at your children as they see it for the first time to appreciate their reactions and horrified, open-mouthed gasps… but it also offers us, in the countdown to Mother’s Day next month, a prime example of the use of mother/monster relationships in horror movies. 

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Conceived and written by Alan Ormsby and directed by Bob Clark following their collaboration on the original zom-rom-com CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972), DEATHDREAM belongs to a surprisingly long-legged genre motif about monsters and the mothers who bore them: the mind goes immediately to Norman Bates and “Mother” in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) of course but there are other, and even more interesting, progenators. Think Karswell and his mother in NIGHT OF THE DEMON (aka CURSE OF THE DEMON, 1958) — like an old married couple, really, which makes the terrible things Karswell does even worse to consider, springing as they do out of a cozy, privileged domesticity — think the Castle Rock Killer in THE DEAD ZONE (1984) and his old lady and her horrible, horrible protectiveness, her fury (and who better to be the vehicle of this fury than Colleen Dewhurst?); think Margaret White, mother of CARRIE (1976), and her Fundamentalist fervor; think Pamela Voorhees, who killed again and again and again in her dead child’s name in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and whose undying love seems to have resurrected in subsequent sequels same from his watery grave; or, ye gods, think cannibal killer Dorothy Yates from FRIGHTMARE (1974) — perhaps the most monstrous of monstrous movie moms. (If you haven’t seen it, you are strongly urged to do so, though you may want to eat vegan that night). Maybe more to the point, though, in a side-by-side by DEATHDREAM, are those horror stories in which mothers, or parents in general, stand by, aghast, as their progeny cause great harm… THE WOLF MAN (1941), THE BAD SEED (1956), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), THE EXORCIST (1973), IT’S ALIVE (1974) … making in their predations a mockery of the love they were shown (or should have been) as babies.

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We tend to be drawn to DEATHDREAM, and to return for repeat viewings, because of this guy but really…

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… it’s Lynn Carlin, as the monster’s mother, the one who wished him back from his undeserved grave, and the one who keeps the faith when the news coming in about her boy is very, very bad, who is the movie’s real heart and soul. Watch DEATHDREAM on Saturday, or watch it again, as I will, and see what you think. The movie’s final image — and I won’t spoil it for you here — is so perfectly heartbreaking, so obscenely on-the-nose in the way it exploits to its freakishly logical extreme the bottomless capacity for unconditional love that a parent can have for her child, even at its most undeserving. Let us never forget that though Victor Frankenstein took the brand, it was Mary Shelley, for what she brought forth into the world, who was the true modern Prometheus.

2 Responses This week on TCM Underground: Deathdream (1972)
Posted By swac44 : April 22, 2015 1:41 pm

Watched this years ago on VHS, and again the last time TCM ran it, it’s long overdue for wider recognition, with some terrific performances. Everybody punches above their weight with this one.

Posted By John S : April 22, 2015 4:16 pm

Good sub- sub-genre. Can’t help but be immediately reminded of the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen on TV, the “Home” episode of “The X-Files.” … Guuuuhhh.

I accidentally rented “Deathdream” in the ’80s looking for the (then-unavailable) 1945 “Dead of Night.” I was so disappointed I didn’t watch it, and still have never seen it! Looking forward to Saturday.

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