In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Nothing is so positive, benign, or uplifting that a horror movie can’t use it to give an audience the creeps. The archetypal example of this phenomenon is the circus clown, a figure that’s been so thoroughly co-opted by fright flicks over the years that anyone wearing chalk-white makeup and a red nose is assumed to be an alien, a serial killer, or an alien serial killer. But the trick can be done with something as simple as a smile. On one hand, the smile is a universal symbol of happiness and contentment, recognized in every part of the world; on the other, it’s thought to have evolved from a threat display, modified so that the teeth are only partly visible, thereby signaling that the recipient has nothing to fear. (“See, these aren’t so scary!”) All it really takes to revert to the original hackle-raising version is a bit of exaggeration. Throw in some inappropriate laughter as well, and it pretty much guarantees folks will back away slowly.
Bob Clark’s Deathdream (originally released as Dead Of Night, but that title also refers to a well-known omnibus horror film from the ’40s, so let’s stick to the re-issue title) makes particularly expert use of the creepy-ass smile. Made in 1972, when American disillusionment with the Vietnam War was at its peak, this pointed variation on “The Monkey’s Paw” sees a soldier (Richard Backus) who was killed in action return to life and his home, apparently at the mystical bequest of his grieving mother (Lynn Carlin, from John Cassavetes’ Faces). Everyone, including Dad (John Marley, also from Faces) and Sis (Anya Ormsby) is naturally overjoyed to see him, especially as they’d already received the terrible telegram announcing his demise. But not only is there something definitely off about Backus, there’s also something less than wholesome about the entire reunion sequence, including those family members who didn’t have their fragile illusions about the sanctity of human life forever shattered in Southeast Asia.
Bob Clark occupies a strange place in cinema history. His two biggest hits, Porky’s and A Christmas Story, have virtually nothing in common, and the rest of his filmography consists largely of obscurities and outright disasters. (He was responsible for both Baby Geniuses pictures, for example.) But his early horror films, which also include the original Black Christmas and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, are a bracing amalgam of low-budget clumsiness and conceptual intelligence. There’s a good sense of the former in a scene where the family descends the stairs, investigating a noise—there’s no way a gifted visual stylist would shoot it like this, with the angle randomly shifting from high to low and the direction of movement abruptly reversing (even if that’s the actual layout of the house, as it appears to be, the cut just doesn’t scan). At the same time, though, that very lack of professionalism, along with the unexplained hissing on the soundtrack, is part of what lends the descent its frisson of Something Awry. You can get away with (heh) murder in a horror film, because amateur = uncontrolled, and that’s inherently scarier. It’s the reason The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is, for my money, the most disturbing movie ever made.
But I digress. We then get the traditional fake scare—a small dog, for once, rather than a cat—and the big reveal of Backus standing motionless in the doorway, accompanied by a dramatic zoom that was clearly achieved in post-production rather than using a lens. (I originally called this an “optical zoom,” but that apparently now has a distinct meaning in digital photography, which would only confuse matters.) Even seen in long shot and deep shadow, Backus already wears a smile that’s anything but comforting—more of a death’s head rictus, presumably by design. But what actually starts making my flesh crawl in this scene are the reactions of Mom and Sis when they realize who it is. Ormsby, as the sister, appears to have been cast expressly because her mouth is enormous; when she moves toward the camera on her way to hug her brother, it looks as if she’s about to swallow it whole. There’s a Stepford-wife vibe, even in these very quick shots, that I initially thought (not having seen Deathdream for a decade) was a weird miscalculation.
Clark is savvier than I realized, however. When the action moves into the dining room, he shoots it at first from another room, at a considerable distance. This isn’t random, as I first thought, but deliberate counterpoint—he knows the rest of the scene will be a series of grotesque close-ups, so it makes sense to juxtapose them with remoteness. Carlin and Marley tell Backus about the “mix-up” in which he’d been declared dead, and Backus calmly replies that he was in fact dead, which we know to be true. A shocked pause. Backus looks robotically at each of his relatives in turn. Then he forms a hint of a smile, albeit one of those so-called “Pan Am” smiles that involve the mouth but not the eyes. (We really need a name for this that doesn't refer to a long-defunct company. There are insincere service industries galore out there.) When that doesn’t achieve anything of note, he finally opens his mouth, producing a smile that’s probably the exact one our apelike ancestors used when they were transitioning this expression from a threat. You definitely get the sense of an alien trying out muscular movements he’s carefully studied; no frown or scowl could possibly convey so much unease. Normal people would call a shrink, pronto.
Instead, everybody starts laughing. There’s no real logic to this reaction, since the most favorable interpretation of “Yeah, I was dead” would be that it’s an unfunny joke in horrible taste. It doesn’t even qualify as gallows humor—it’s just obnoxious (or would be if it wasn’t the truth). But they all went to bed thinking he’d been killed, so we’ll cut them some slack. Clark, however, does not. He stretches this laughing fit out to a truly uncomfortable length, so that it becomes the horror-movie equivalent of the sort of diabolical laughter that Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery so mercilessly mocked. And he shoves the camera right into their gaping mouths, making them look… well, a bit like scary clowns. (See how I brought it full-circle there?) The final shot pulls back out the dining-room window, with Backus looking passively at his hysterical family; even though he’s the bad guy, and will proceed to murder several people (including an incredibly sympathetic former girlfriend), the audience can identify with him somewhat at this moment, wondering what the hell is wrong with everybody else (by extension) in America. Deathdream isn’t so much frightening as it is discomfiting, which arguably has more staying power. It takes the things we cherish—warm smiles, returning soldiers—and uses them as terrible weapons.