Written by: Jeffrey Delman, J. Edward Kiernan, Charles F. Shelton
Directed by: Jeffrey Delman
Starring: Scott Valentine, Nicole Picard, and Matt Mitler
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Once upon a time, there was a little girl named "Rachel." Actually, she wasn't all that little. She was a hot-looking high school senior with deep blue eyes, and fine, firm breasts and..."
"That's not the way Mommy tells it!"
"Shut up, that's the way I tell it."
"That's not the way Mommy tells it!"
"Shut up, that's the way I tell it."
I suppose it helps to be around the same age as Brian (Brian DePersia), the pint-sized protagonist of Deadtime Stories, to appreciate where this scrappy, virtually homemade 80s anthology is coming from. Not that it’s explicitly made for small kids, nor is it particularly appropriate for them—it’s just that it certainly appeals to those among that age group that craved the kind of lurid, bloody thrills of Deadtime Stories before they should have. I presume that includes most of us, the lifelong horror fans who would wait all weekend to pluck what should have been forbidden fruits from video store shelves and delight in scary stories. Like Brian, we were likely surrounded by little Monster Kid trinkets—a figurine here, a poster there—so we understood the fun of being terrified.
Deadtime Stories gets that. It’s a silly omnibus marked by playfulness and a willingness to engage the lizard parts of a pre-adolescent brain that only craves blood, breasts, and beasts. What it lacks in seriousness it most certainly makes up for with an impish glee to twist well-known bedtime stories into wholly inappropriate horror riffs—this is a film that’s gleefully, totally wrong, and its commitment to this makes it a worthwhile (if not a tad perfunctory) entry in the 80s anthology canon.
Writer/director Jeffrey Delman’s playfulness is evident almost immediately, as Deadtime Stories opens with a familiar, roving POV shot of someone stalking through a suburban house. It’s a crude riff on Halloween’s famous opener, complete with ominous music and a prowling, unseen menace prowling about. In this case, though, the “menace” turns out to be Uncle Mike (Michael Mesmer), an exasperated middle-aged guy who just wants to bury himself in a recliner and sip on booze as quickly as possible. Before he can do that, however, he has to tuck nephew Brian into bed by regaling him with a bedtime story. No basic story will settle, either, as the tyke demands his uncle to make up one on the fly, which yields a trio of deranged fairy tales.
The first whisks audiences away to the Black Forest, where a young man (Scott Valentine) serves as a slave to two diabolical witches. When these two sisters aren’t seducing local priests and harvesting unsuspecting virgins for body parts, they’re plotting to resurrect their long-dead sister. After decades of waiting, the conditions are right: a rare moon will hang in the sky, and their slave has unwittingly provided them with a young girl with whom he’s smitten. Because this opener was originally conceived as a feature length film, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s the best segment here. While the story is thin, it nonetheless coasts on a wave of nice gore effects, including a severed hand gag and the sickest resurrection scene this side of Dracula: Prince of Darkness. It’s a tremendous display of gnarly, goopy nastiness that cuts right to the heart of what Deadtime Stories is up to: this is unrepentant junk that wouldn’t scare a kid as much as it would actually delight them.
Of course, there’s an inherent problem with an opening anthology segment being the best, as the rest of Deadtime Stories slowly deflates. The second segment is an admittedly clever riff on “Little Red Riding Hood,” at least in concept: gone is the fairy tale woods setting, here replaced with suburbia, where a high school teenager has to deliver some medication to her elderly grandmother. Along the way, a mix-up at the pharmacy results in a local werewolf’s (yes) drug fix being sent to the old lady’s house, much to her grisly misfortune. Honestly, only the familiar characters make this a “Riding Hood” tale—really, it’s just a typical 80s teen horror movie, complete with gratuitous nudity, copious screwing, and eventual bloodshed. It just happens to feature a werewolf instead of the usual slasher maniac, and it’s fine if not unremarkable. The wolf effects are passable, as is a cool gag involving a cake knife to the neck, but it’s hardly the splatter show you might expect following the opening vignette.
If the silliness of Deadtime Stories weren’t obvious enough, the final segment leaves no doubt. It’s here that the anthology becomes a fully unhinged farce, as Uncle Mike warps “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” into a wild affair involving a lunatic family (headed by Melissa Leo’s “Mama Bear”) escaping an asylum. Yes, these are “The Bears,” who return home only to stumble upon “Goldi Lox” (Cathryn de Prume), a young girl who has run away from home and shacked up in the family’s house. The twist? This Goldilocks is also fucking insane and has filled the Bear Family mansion full of cadavers of would-be young lovers. Because people in blood-stained glass houses cannot throw stones, the Bears take her in as an honorary member of the family, leading to some terminally silly exploits as the group tries to outwit the completely witless police.
This closing segment is clearly the signature episode of Deadtime Stories—which is not to say it’s the best so much as it’s just the most indelible. Leo is especially delightful as the scenery-devouring matriarch, and the entire thing unfolds with the breathless energy of a child’s imagination (or, in this case, an irritated adult doing everything he can to entertain a child). You can easily sense it being made up on the fly: “and then the Bears find Goldi Lox, who is surrounded by corpses. And then she becomes part of the family, and then she starts screwing the dimwitted Bear son. And then, her orgasm causes her telekinetic powers to go haywire.” Yes, this Goldilocks fucks. And has telekinetic powers. Eat your heart out, Carrie. What an odd note to end on, and, even though its brand of broad, silly humor isn’t exactly my speed, I can’t deny how singularly weird it is, at least. It’s nothing if not memorable, since I imagine it’s easily the most infamous segment from Deadtime Stories.
The capper also best reflects the demented spirit of Delman’s wacky anthology, which, if you recall, is framed by an adult relaying these extremely fucked up tales to a small child. During the course of the film, Uncle Mike emerges as quite the character, if only because his stories are so hilariously wrong-headed in this context. I’m thinking especially about a sequence early in the second segment where the main girl all but explicitly and gratuitously masturbates in front of a mirror for a good minute or so—great babysitting, Mike! (Of course, it should be noted that this scene was inserted at the behest of distributors who demanded something more titillating, so we shouldn’t judge Delman and company too harshly here.)
At any rate, this frame story—which climaxes with poor Brian being terrorized instead of his asshole uncle—is just as instrumental in capturing the wickedly inappropriate verve of Deadtime Stories. Delman occasionally finds a thrillingly spooky moment, like when Brian suddenly finds himself looking around his eerily calm, still room, where his horror figurines and posters suddenly turn a bit sinister under the glow of moonlight. Larry Juris’s score finds some rare unnerving notes here as Delman manages effectively recall those moments from childhood that are almost irrationally creepy. We know there’s no real monster out to get us—or is there? Such moments are fleeting, though, in Deadtime Stories, an omnibus that’s otherwise preoccupied with schlocky entertainment.
It’s perhaps only a few steps removed from the backyard DIY projects that would pop up throughout the 80s, as it can at least boast the participation of actual film students, who spent a few years stitching together this crazy patchwork quilt. The result comes off as feeling like Creepshow Lite, and it’s probably little too silly for its own good, but it’s quite endearing. Its heart is in both the right and wrong places, which is generally what you want from this sort of thing.
Deadtime Stories is now available on a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack courtesy of Scream Factory. Special features include an audio commentary and on-camera interview with Delman, a retrospective featuring Leo (!), de Prume, and Valentine, some promotional art, and a trailer. Also included are a handful of deleted scenes and the original, 30-minute version of “The Black Forest.”
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