While W.W. Jacobs may have never been much of a household name either before or after his death in 1943 at the age of 79, the late English author nevertheless left a lasting mark on the world of horror thanks to his 1902 horror story The Monkey's Paw. The quintessential tale carrying the classic "be careful what you wish for" analogy, Jacobs' "immortal" tale would go on to be transformed into a variety of many mediums over the years, beginning with a stage adaptation just one year after the story was first published. But it was the world of film where Jacobs' material would receive the most attention ‒ even if the original author himself was not always acknowledged.
Honestly, I can't even count how many different adaptations there have been of Jacobs' relatively minor work in film. But for many classic horror movie fans, the list begins with Bob Clark's Deathdream. Also released as Dead of Night throughout its irregular distribution history (the movie regularly re-appeared on cinematic circuits under different names; a common trait amongst low-budget films during the drive-in era), the creepy Canadian cult classic Deathdream was shot in Florida immediately after Clark's campy homage to Night of the Living Dead à la Charles Manson, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things in 1972 with frequent filmmaking partner, writer/actor/artist Alan Ormsby.
Coincidentally, at the same time Clark and Co. were shooting Deathdream in 1972, Jacobs' material fueled a chapter of Amicus anthology horror film, Tales from the Crypt on the other side of The Pond. (Not that anyone noticed, of course: Deathdream didn't debut for another two years.) But whereas Tales from the Crypt took a noticeably lighter approach to the subject (to say nothing of that hilariously hideous skull mask!), writer Alan Ormsby (who also went on to pen such classics as My Bodyguard, Cat People, and Popcorn) successfully introduced audiences to several frightening new territories. Namely, the horrors of war, the (as-yet, unrecognized) notion of PTSD, and the makeup of Tom Savini.
The film opens with our main character, young Andy Brooks (Richard Backus), being shot dead by a sniper in Vietnam; his mother's cries to come back home reverberating in the background. Meanwhile, at the Brooks home in a small US town, Andy's family is devastated to learn their brave son has given all. Before the first stage of grief fully passes, Andy mysteriously returns, bringing with him more than just a bad case of PTSD (which all of the old ex-WWII folk in the area shrug off since they seemed to turn out just fine). The reality of the situation, however, is that Andy has been enlisted within the ranks of the living dead ‒ a condition which will only grow worse as he grows hungry for fresh blood.
John Marley (and his amazing hair) ‒ the wonderful character actor best known to audiences as the guy who woke up feeling a little horse in The Godfather (his career also included memorable roles in John Cassavetes Faces and several episodes of The Twilight Zone, and ) ‒ plays the Brooks family patriarch, who slowly comes to grips with the unbelievable. Lynn Carlin (another distinguished performer who also appeared with Marley in Faces, and who can also be seen in ...tick… tick… tick…), plays Andy's very devoted and protective mother. Anya Ormsby (who previously appeared alongside then-hubby Alan in Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things) is the doomed clan's daughter.
Deathdream features plenty of creepy and disturbing moments within its allegorical shell, from an effectively executed two-man opening to its unforgettable final frames. Unlike Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, wherein Alan Ormsby also provided the monster makeup, Deathdream introduced us to the realer-than-life artistry of a former Vietnam combat photographer named Tom Savini (Effects), who later created the zombies of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Ultimately, though, Deathdream it is the story and commentary which fuels the hellfire here, effectively brought to life (and then some) by the future director of Porky's and A Christmas Story.
Thirteen years after Blue Underground debuted Deathdream on DVD, the film returns to haunt your subconscious again, this time in a newly improved MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer. Presented in the theatrical viewing AR of 1.85:1, the beautiful 2K High-Definition upgrade is accompanied by a DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack with optional English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles. Extras are plentiful, as BU has ported over most of the 2004 DVD bonus goodies and combined them with all new offerings. Among the older items are separate audio commentaries from Clark and Ormsby, interviews with Tom Savini and star Richard Backus, a trailer, and an alternate opening featuring the Dead of Night title.
Newer special features for this Blue Underground Blu-ray release are new interviews with surviving cast/crew. First is a sit-down with composer Carl Zitter. Next up is a fascinating chat with Alan Ormsby and Anya Liffey (Anya Ormsby), who have a heap of information to spare (including an amusing anecdote about how they didn't cast young Christopher Walken to play the part of Andy because they thought he was too weird!). Cult filmmaker John "Bud" Cardos also provides a new interview, who worked on the film as an explosives expert. Lastly, there's a vintage screentest of actor Gary Swanson (who also tried out for the part of Andy), an early Alan Ormsby student film, and a still gallery.
The release wraps up with a collectible booklet (featuring an essay by Travis Crawford) and a sleeve with reversible artwork. It's an impressive gathering of supplements for a movie which ‒ perhaps like W.W. Jacobs himself ‒ may not receive enough attention in this day and age. Fortunately for horror movie lovers, however, Blue Underground has ensured no one will forget the magnificently traumatic atmosphere of what very well could be Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby's best collaborations. Highly Recommended.