Friday 29 March 2013

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats
(George Barry, 1977)

If ever there was a film title destined to provoke immediate expressions of hilarity and disbelief from the general public, and a corresponding instant viewing/purchase decision from the kind of special cases I’d imagine/hope peruse this blog, ‘Death Bed: The Bed That Eats’ would surely be it.*

Once the initial chuckles have faded though, and the DVD has been obtained, I think the perfect way to experience ‘Death Bed’ would be to dive in blind, with zero prior knowledge. Such an approach would help to maximise the kind of holy mystery that movies like this thrive upon, and would allow the realisation to dawn slowly, alongside the events on-screen: what we are seeing here is not some ill-conceived, ‘last idea left in the bucket’ laff-fest, but actually one of the most challenging, original and uniquely strange independent horror films ever produced in the USA.

Of course, now that you’ve been hit with that bit of hyperbole, your expectations have been raised accordingly and your perfect blind viewing experience has been ruined. Sorry about that. But how else am I going to write the damn review? Lovecraftian evasion and vague intimations of the subject’s worthiness can only go so far. At some point I’m going to have to start talking about the stuff that happens in the film and why I like it so much, so we might as well get our facts straight right from the outset.

As is so often the case with such matters, we have Stephen Thrower and his endlessly rewarding ‘Nightmare USA** to thank for the dissemination of those facts, and it is fortuitous I think that the unlikely series of events that comprise the Death Bed Origin Story allowed the entirety of the film’s initial audience to experience it under the kind of perfect, context-less conditions that I am now in the process of denying my readers.

So, in short, it goes something like this: Detroit native George Barry filmed ‘Death Bed: The Bed That Eats’ between 1972 and 1977, relying largely upon the help of friends & family to make his vision a reality. Shopping a rough cut of the film around various theatrical distributors in the late ‘70s, Barry was disappointed with the few offers he received and, deciding that his options for getting the film shown in public were too dodgy and compromised to really be worthwhile, he took his reels home, stuck them in the attic and wrote the whole thing off as a failed misadventure, shifting the focus of his life toward more rewarding, non-movie related pursuits.

Little did he know however that a marginal LA company to whom he’d lent his print of the film had, for some reason, made an unauthorised video master of ‘Death Bed’ prior to returning it.

Shortly thereafter, we reach the dawn of the ‘80s home video boom, when new, fly-by-night video labels were suddenly hungry for absolutely *any* horror-related content that they could cheaply lay their hands on. And thus, a copy of this illicit video master somehow ended up in the greasy paws of a particularly shady UK-based outfit called Portland Video, who proceeded to rush it onto rental shelves around the British Isles with some cheap n’ cheerful original artwork and zero copyright/contact info. ‘Death Bed’ was unleashed.

And just imagine being one of those first, curious viewers, pushing that tape into the mew of your gigantic early ‘80s VCR, wondering what was about to transpire...

Uncompleted at the point at which the video copy was taken (modest completion funds, along with the prohibitive cost of a blow up from 16 to 35mm, were likely deal-breakers in Barry’s attempts to find distribution), ‘Death Bed’ featured no opening or closing credits whatsoever, with silence often standing in for planned music cues. Thus the film opens with a minute or so of total blackness, accompanied by what seems to be a series of strange munching noises – or perhaps footsteps on gravel, or someone eating an apple? By the time this has gone on for 45 seconds, you’ll likely be checking whether something’s gone wrong with the visuals, or worrying that the audio track has gone massively out of sync or something, just as heavy, reverbed footsteps and the high-pitched mad scientist whir of an oscillator chime in atop the munching, fusing together into what is gradually revealed to be a rough and disorientating music track.

Then, just before the one minute mark, a single word appears, high-lighted in white art deco Desdemona lettering: BREAKFAST.

Next, a grimy, underlit exterior shot of an isolated country-house. Canned thunder and wind noise join the cacophony, as a foreboding tracking shot across some unkempt grassland takes us to the doorway of a small, stone outhouse. Inside, a wood fire is burning beneath an incongruous wooden mantelpiece, surreally propped up against the bare grey brick wall, apparently without an accompanying fire-place or chimney vent. Panning across the room, we get our first glimpse of the bed itself – an ugly, blocky, purple-hued four poster thing, already looking threatening, and decidedly out of the place in this empty, concrete floored basement. We continue to pan over to the facing wall, where we find… a framed portrait of the bed?

Observant viewers may have noted that the painting (well, more a pen & ink drawing, really) is executed in a precise, black & white style reminiscent the famed Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. And indeed, when the portrait begins to speak to us, in a deep and sonorous English voice, it gradually becomes clear that we are listening to the spirit of Beardsley himself. Following his untimely death in 1898, it seems he found himself trapped behind the surface of his final work – a rendering of the bed upon which he died, the same bed which now appears to have been endowed with a hungry, demonic sentience, luring passing humans to their death, as Beardsley’s unfortunate ghost is forever condemned to hang alongside it in this subterranean chamber, bearing witness to its depredations for all eternity. (“I think half my time I’ve spent in listening to that monster snore”, Beardsley complains, later lamenting the fact he hasn’t had a cigarette in 70 years.)***

Once we’ve got our heads around this concept – and I’ll admit, it may take a few minutes - I suppose we’ll want to see this cursed recliner in action, and to that end, a couple of care-free, modern day young people are on their way, strolling toward their doom through buttercup-filled fields in that washed out, wistful sort of fashion unique to low budget films made in the post-hippie ‘70s.

When it comes time to speak, the couple’s post-synced line readings are… questionable, to say the least, but not in a way that really displeases me. In the first of numerous instances in which ‘Death Bed’ seems to be inadvertently channelling the spirit of Jean Rollin, the acting of the human characters here seems deliberately unnatural – their performances naive and emblematic, with slow, staggered reaction times serving to further the inevitable impression that everyone in this damn thing is walking through a stoned dream.

It is only after this initial couple have met their demise – sucked into the bed’s insatiable belly, after it’s already gorged itself on their picnic feast of fried chicken, wine and tomatoes – that we witness the single title card that provided ‘Death Bed’s original VHS audience with their only clues as to the origins of the bemusing production:

‘© George Barry 1977’.

Judging from the accents on the dubbed in dialogue track, they could assume the film was made somewhere in the USA, but beyond that… how could you hope to track down someone with as common a name as ‘George Barry’, holder of no other known film industry credits? Basically ‘Death Bed’ could have been beamed in from another planet - a perfect, inexplicable mystery film, with an intoxicating, otherworldly atmosphere and brain-breaking concept to match, ready to captivate and obsess appropriately attuned viewers for all eternity.

As the assorted human characters continue to behave in somnambulant, zoned out fashion (synced dialogue is often ditched entirely in favour of overlapping voiceovers, much in the manner of lower grade ‘60s exploitation flicks), and as Beardsley drones on and the bed churns and digests, we start to realise just what an impossible task Barry has set for himself here – making a film in which both of the primary dramatic agents are inanimate objects trapped in one room, whilst the ostensibly mobile, living characters just wander aimlessly, like human cattle awaiting the axe. By the time the ‘Breakfast’ segment is over, you’d be forgiven for thinking: how the hell is this thing possibly going to work..?

Well thankfully, Barry’s directorial suss is as otherly inspired as his choice of subject matter, and the ideas come thick and fast, with unexpected diversions, beautifully surreal imagery and goofy visual gags all piling up with such frequency as to completely overcome the potential monotony of the static and repetitious narrative.

Before we even really know what’s happening, super-imposed blood is dripping across stock footage of early 20th century street scenes as damned souls distantly wail. One potential victim suffers from strange, bed-induced nightmares in which she is seated before a white cube and served a platter of food full of huge, squirming bugs. Two roving lesbians discover a primitive riverside graveyard, and the bed’s telekinetic energy begins to make statues in the grounds bleed and paving stones crack. Eerie, disconnected incidents, seemingly designed to make fans of weird euro-horror rejoice, continue to multiply, apparently without end… and all that I’ve described thus far transpires within the first 30 minutes. Clearly boredom is unlikely to trouble us here.

For one thing, despite the film’s obvious low budget and accompanying technical crudity, the special effects are extremely well done, effectively realising concepts that I daresay no one in the history of cinema has been asked to represent on screen before or since. As the bed consumes its prey, yellow ‘digestive juices’ bubble up around the sheets, before we cut to a shot of the ‘food’ in question slowly sinking through the yellow-tinted interior of the bed’s ‘belly’, awaiting digestion. Does this ‘belly’ actually exist in physical space? Or are objects sucked into its realm transported to some kind of metaphysical interzone or netherworld, undergoing cartoonishly swift ‘digestion’ before the remains are spat back up into ‘reality’? It’s never quite made clear, but either way, a wonderfully grotesque, tripped out concept, beautifully conveyed by Barry and his collaborators.

The filmmakers were obviously having a great time playing around with this digestion effect, and as Beardsley’s examination of the ornate jewels that cover his fingers (trophies from past ‘meals’, mockingly bestowed upon him by the bed) segues into a series of flashbacks illustrating highlights from the bed’s gruesome history, the scope of its diet is expanded to include everything from a suitcase to a bottle of pepto-bismol, a teddy bear and a copy of ‘Tropic of Cancer’.

Throughout the film, Barry seems unusually interested in generating an emotional response from the presentation of inanimate objects, his unnaturally smooth, gliding camera movements picking out and emphasising contrasting details, like an art connoisseur casually taking in the walls of a gallery. Elsewhere, the use of trick jump cuts to illustrate a fire going out, or a flower growing, evoke a silent-era naivety that again recalls Rollin (via Cocteau, presumably), whilst Anger-esque super-impositions are used to align key horror movie ingredients (blood, roses, skulls) with more prosaic objects (training shoes, garden statuary) to heady symbolist effect.

In fact it is rare indeed to find a narrative film in which so much of the screen time is entirely devoid of living people, with their absence sometimes giving ‘Death Bed’ the feel of a stop-motion animated short or weird college visual effects project, perhaps reflecting both Barry’s background mucking about with that sort of thing, and his evident inexperience with actors and commercial filmmaking. Even when human beings are on screen, he often seems more concerned with individual body parts and accessories than with their totality as characters, zooming in on earrings, bracelets, hands, feet or faces – anything to avoid letting the person in question exist on screen for too long, it seems.

But if all this talk of symbolism and abstraction seems rather high-minded, such concerns are more than balanced out by a strain of goofy, Monty Python-esque humour that often predominates in the film’s first half, with sudden insert shots, rinky-dink stock footage, gag newspaper headlines (“STRANGE MUNCHING SOUNDS HEARD IN NIGHT!” Proclaims the Daily Bugle), bodily function sound effects and so forth all serving to create a rather sophomoric vibe that you’d imagine would sit rather uncomfortably alongside the sort of brooding, metaphysical gothic atmosphere that the film seems to be simultaneously striving to create. Somehow though, they fuse together very well, establishing what amounts to a perfect tone for an independent horror film - not only wildly unpredictable (which always helps), but serious without being earnest, funny without being laughable, self-aware without being cynical, otherworldly without being impenetrable – just a real good time for anyone attuned to the pleasures of such imaginative, low budget filmmaking.

Which kinda brings us back to the Rollin comparison, and to the steady stream of potent, fairy tale-like imagery with which Barry invests his film. Just dig the bit in which white chrysanthemums deposited upon the bed by one unfortunate victim are stained with blood that pours from the eye sockets of her super-imposed skull, causing a patch blood red roses appear outside the bed’s lair, growing from her skull, which is now buried in the soil, looking as if it’s been there for a long, long time…. an astonishingly far-out sequence of abstract images, but executed with a simple narrative logic that makes perfect, intuitive sense. Yeah, you might think he’s overdoing it with the ‘blood & skulls & flowers’ type stuff, but what a instinctively great way to convey the idea that the supernatural forces in this film exist outside of time and stuff, pushing the present back into the past, and vice versa, on a whim.

Weird as it may be, in a sense ‘Death Bed’s central concept is also a great bit of lateral thinking, and not entirely without commercial forethought.**** After all, if the core function of the horror genre is to investigate the interplay between sex and death, well, you couldn’t really ask for a purer manifestation of that than the ‘death bed’, and these inevitable sexual connotations are duly explored in a number of moments when, despite the film’s idiosyncratic and rather child-like tone, Barry & Co seem to suddenly realise they are still ostensibly making an exploitation film.

Numerous boob shots, accompanied by the bed’s excited, disembodied panting give things a voyeuristic, sexploitational air, all leading up to perhaps the film’s most insane sequence (ok, maybe just the second most insane sequence), wherein a flashback tells us of an incident in which the bed was put to use by some kind of psycho-analytical sex cult who move it outside into the sunshine, wiring it up with electrodes and initiating a mass orgy that, as you might imagine, culminates in the biggest fried feast our four-postered antagonist has enjoyed in madness years – a vignette of queasy, impossible strangeness worthy of Jodorowsky’s ‘The Holy Mountain’.

There are a number of gleefully executed gore scenes too, including a bit in which a victim has her throat sliced by her crucifix necklace as the bed ingests it (I suppose you could read that as an ironic inversion of the cross’s usually function as protection in horror movies, if you can be bothered), and an agonising sequence in which a woman slowly crawls toward the basement door, her legs chewed up my the bed - rarely has a coat of ketchup on a pair of jeans and the repetition of some grinding, atonal music cue proved so gruellingly horrifying.

For my money though, the film’s most jaw-dropping / extraordinary / hilarious moment is the one in which a magnificently bouffanted actor known only as ‘Rusty Russ’ has the flesh sucked from his hands whilst attempting to stab the bed, pulling out the skeletal remains and considering his ruined limbs with distant, dead-eyed contemplation. In the next shot, he and his sister are calmly sitting by the fire, as the joints on his bony new fingers slowly begin to fall apart. “Great… cartilage is decaying… I don’t think I can stand it..” he casually remarks, before asking his sister if she’ll kindly break off the remaining bones for him. An indescribably odd, emotional unreadable and completely unforgettable scene that kind of sums up everything I love and seek out in weirdo horror films… so beautiful I could weep, although I’m not really sure why.

But I won’t weep. Instead I’ll quickly finish the origin story I began all those paragraphs ago, even if it is a bit of an anticlimax. So in short, an older George Barry, ‘Death Bed’ long forgotten, happens to be browsing some film forum on the internet one day in the early 21st century, researching some other matter entirely, when he discovers a message posted by someone seeking any information on what on earth this ‘Death Bed’ film is all about. Communications of a “hey, I directed that film – how the hell did you get to see it?” type nature were exchanged, the small but dedicated cult of the Portland VHS was uncovered, and before we know it (well, 2004 to be exact), we have the Cult Epics DVD release before us, complete with a new closing credits sequence and additional music from Stephen Thrower’s group Cyclobe. The briefest google search turns up pages of reviews, screen grabs, posters for one-off screenings - ‘Death Bed’ belongs to the world.

A happy ending..? Well, kind of, but somehow I still find myself hoping that one day far from now, when the servers have died and the grid has gone kaput, when the libraries of information on cultural ephemera are long scattered or burned as fuel, some roving collectors of things past might stumble upon a carefully shelved copy of the DVD, might fire up the generator to get their reconstructed a/v set up going, and might spend eighty blissful minutes thinking, what the hell is THIS, content in the knowledge that they'll never, ever know.

*Unlikely as it may seem, there’s actually another ‘Death Bed’ – a 2002 Full Moon Pictures SOV joint directed by a guy named Danny Draven and ‘executive produced’ by Stuart Gordon. A few years back I bought a second hand copy of THAT ‘Death Bed’, mistakenly believing it to be THIS ‘Death Bed’, just because, well… how many films named ‘Death Bed’ can there possibly be, y’know? Thankfully, I actually quite enjoyed the other ‘Death Bed’, so no hard feelings. It’s kind of a gothy, psychological-erotic-horror type thing, but quite well done in spite of ample potential for terrible-ness – check it out, if you’ve got a minute.

**Now apparently out of print and already going for silly money on Amazon etc. - what a bummer! Every home, library and public building should have a copy.

***In one of Death Bed’s several strange and unexpected connections to “the real world”, Beardsley is actually portrayed in the film by well known rock writer and editor of ‘Creem’ magazine Dave Marsh – a friend of Barry who also helped arrange access to the house and grounds in which the film was shot. (All info via ‘Nightmare USA’, of course – I’m not *quite* enough of a rock-write nerd to recognise Marsh right off the bat.)

****According to the interview in Thrower’s book, Barry decided on the bed idea after considering a ‘Willard’-esque killer rat movie.

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