Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things / Dead of Night Review
Bob Clark’s filmography must rank as one of the strangest among high profile directors. Between 1966 and his death in 2007, Clark’s name was attached to all manner of projects, from family entertainment to all out horror. He effectively invented the slasher genre with Black Christmas in 1974 and re-invented the teen sex comedy with Porky’s in 1982. The following year’s A Christmas Story is now a firm seasonal favourite, whilst his two Baby Geniuses films are universally reviled and mainstays on the IMDb’s Bottom 100 list. Speaking of bad movies, Clark also directed the Sylvester Stallone country and western comedy Rhinestone. To these we can also add the underrated: his Sherlock Holmes verses Jack the Ripper tale Murder by Decree; and the low-key Jack Lemmon vehicle Tribute, which earned the actor an Oscar nomination. Clark would never get the nod from the Academy, but there were more than enough gems and oddities in his cv to make up for the fact.
This new double-bill from Nucleus Films takes us back to the early stages of Clark’s career. Having made his debut with the little-seen John Carradine pic The Emperor’s New Clothes, the twenty-something director moved onto She-Man, a gender-bending piece of exploitation that’s since been rescued from obscurity by Something Weird Video in the US. The two films on this disc came next, both made in 1972 though taking a little while to reach a general audience. They were made in collaboration with Alan Ormsby (later to pen the fondly remembered My Bodyguard and the 1982 remake of Cat People) and, whilst both could be termed as horror pics, are really quite different. The earlier of the two, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, is a goofy comedy which reverts to thrills and scares only in the final quarter. Dead of Night (aka Deathdream), on the other hand, is a Vietnam veteran psychodrama albeit with a twist.
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, much like the two earlier features, was shot on a minimal budget in Florida. Clark credited himself as ‘Benjamin Clark’ on the opening credits so as to avoid connections with his other exploitation flicks and therefore any insinuations that he was nothing more than an exploitation director. Yet this is a film which doesn’t sit too comfortably with such a tag or indeed the ‘grindhouse’ one ascribed this particular DVD. It is almost a home movie inasmuch as many of those in front of and behind the camera were pals, with a number - much like the onscreen characters - being part of a hippy-ish theatrical troupe. As a result there’s a certain amount of quirk and kook to Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, more so than in your usual low-budget horror-comedy.
The set-up is a simple one: a group of goofy kids (most of whom look to be approaching their thirties) head to a graveyard for some practical jokes. The dead bodies aren’t real, of course, but all part of the prank… or are they? For the first hour this means plenty of dialogue - almost ten minutes of which were cut from the previous UK edition - much of which is a little too in-jokey and self-indulgent for my taste. Only during the final act does the horror kick in properly and it’s generally well-handled, particularly the suitably off-kilter score from Carl Zittrer. Ultimately, it doesn’t all cohere into a satisfying whole, but it is different enough to warrant a look. With that said, much better was to come…
Dead of Night ditched the comedy in favour of a straighter kind of horror. The opening scene takes place in Vietnam where we witness the death - or is it? - of Andy (Richard Backus), a young soldier. His folks (played by two of the leads from John Cassavetes’ Faces, John Marley and Lynn Carlin) are given the bad news, but soon enough their son is back home. Only he’s different - barely speaking, barely talking - and the bodies are beginning to pile up in their small town, all with puncture marks in their arms. Thirty minutes in and Andy is strangling the pet pooch in front of the neighbourhood kids, confirming what we already know: the two series of events may just be connected.
Except for a few goofy asides - such as Robert R. Cannon’s truck-stop drunk - Dead of Night focuses almost solely on the building horror. Zittrer provides an effective score once more, whilst actors of the calibre of Marley and Carlin cannot help but ground things. As with his subsequent Black Christmas, Clark also indulges in plenty of POV camera movements and is highly effective in creating a sense of unease. For all the diversity in his filmography - sex comedies, family flicks, a courtroom drama, a torn-from-the-headlines thriller, and so forth - he always seemed to feel most at home with the horror movies. Murder by Decree, to my mind, remains his finest effort with Black Christmas and Dead of Night not far behind. Its low budget makes itself known at times, yet the set pieces and the dramatic underpinnings are persuasive enough and the ending sufficiently balances the potent with the low-key.
Nucleus Films are bringing Dead of Night to UK DVD for the first time, whilst Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is finally available in uncut form. Both share the space of a dual-layered disc (their combined running time is approximately 170 minutes) and are presented in a ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced. Given the budgets neither is a particularly spectacular state. There is some moderate damage in each, whilst Children was only able to restore its missing dialogue footage thanks to the use of a cinema print. Needless to say, there are shifts in both image and sound quality during these moments, though the advantages (uncut for the first time) far outweigh the disadvantages. Both films remain watchable and make the most of their limited sources - you can’t really improve too much on the presentations here, especially Dead of Night’s which is easily the more impressive of the two. Optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing have also been provided.
Extras include trailers and galleries (video sleeves, etc.) for both plus there are promos for other Nucleus releases. The main attraction is the commentary for Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things which brings together Alan Ormsby, his ex-wife Anya and their fellow actor Jane Daly. David Gregory is on hand to moderate proceedings, but in all honesty he isn’t really needed. The three former co-stars chat readily amongst themselves, recalling all manner of anecdotes whilst being brutally honest about the end results. An engaging listen.