Home Video Hovel: Deadtime Stories
Lately, I’ve been trying to be more positive about film. While so many others on the internet look for anything that they can mock, I try to give artists the benefit of the doubt. So, when I say that Deadtime Stories is almost irredeemably awful, I feel like that should say something. It’s pretty rare to find an artistic endeavor – even within the world of low-budget horror – as bad as this series.
Working my way through the two volumes of Deadtime Stories, I started to think that what I was watching was never meant to be a real thing; never actually supposed to be seen by anybody. Like it was all a front for some sort of criminal enterprise.
Sadly, the series borrows a lot of cred from filmmaker George Romero, who acts as producer and bemused MC. Romero is a tragic figure in modern horror. After single-handedly creating one of the most beloved subgenres in film history, Romero found himself pigeonholed. If he didn’t make zombie films, studios had very little interest in anything he was doing. In the last five years, Romero has had to scrounge even for that. So, while it does frustrate me as a film fan to see his name associated with such a shoddy product, I can forgive him. He needs the money.
What can’t be forgiven is the haphazard quality of the whole affair. The short films clearly have a very low budget, which can prove frustrating. However, many directors (including Romero himself) have managed to do great things without a lot of money. Here, it seemed as though the various writers and directors were constantly settling. The scripts all give off a decidedly “rough draft” vibe to them, as if the writers thought that their first instincts were perfect. Or perhaps they simply didn’t have the time in which to do a rewrite.
Admittedly, the second volume of films is better than the first. Still not saying much, but we take what we can get. Each film is a little longer and given more time to breathe, and the directorial choices seem a little stronger. While the stories in the first volume are all idiotically simple (headhunters in the jungle, evil mermaid, vampire kid), the second volume seems to focus more on psychological horror. Each film has moments of effectiveness, even if they are only fleeting. The first film in volume 2 is about three friends that go spelunking and find themselves trapped in a cave for over a month, eventually resorting to cannibalism to survive. While the writing and performances are way over the top, there is no denying the inherent power of a claustrophobic setting. There were moments in which I myself got a bit uncomfortable. Then, of course, once the characters start eating each other, all elements of genuine creepiness go out the window.
The second film, entitled “On Sabbath Hill,” is probably the best of the bunch. It feels the most complete. All the other films feel amateurish; like a bunch of high school kids having fun with a camcorder and a stage make-up kit. “On Sabbath Hill” is the closest to a real horror film. It has a protagonist that I responded to (with contempt, but that’s the point here), and it backs him into a corner. Here we have a very strict college professor whose affair with a student comes to an abrupt end when she announces that she is pregnant. His cruel reaction- along with his cold insistence that she keeps attending his class- results in her public suicide. Understandably distraught, the professor starts to see the girl everywhere he looks. Is it her ghost or is he simply going insane from guilt? We never find out. It all leads to a grisly vision and a desperate escape.
“On Sabbath Hill,” while certainly not perfect, illustrates what Deadtime Stories could have been: a collection of functional, effective horror films, for which a low budget is not a hindrance, but an opportunity to explore different horror tropes than the standard gory fare. Unfortunately, “On Sabbath Hill” is the exception. The other films are content to tell mostly simplistic stories in a half-assed way.
And punctuating these forgettable failures is George Romero, reciting lazy Crypt Keeper-esque quips written by somebody else. While many of these would-be witticisms are clearly a product of wishful thinking (“If you’re done screaming, I have another story to tell!”), I do think one of them – placed after a film that ends in a bullet to the head – seems a surprisingly appropriate way to sum up the whole Deadtime Stories endeavor.
“Well, that didn’t work out very well.”