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Film Review: Deadtime Stories (1986)


SYNOPSIS:

a babysitting uncle spins a trio of twisted bedtime stories freely adapted from the Brother’s Grimm.

REVIEW

Fairy tales have always been great source material for low budget filmmakers, primarily because the stories are public domain (AKA free), have built-in marquee value and the films can be distributed to a less discerning audience of children. During the sixties and seventies, K. Gordon Murray made a fortune off el-cheapo Mexican fairy tale films like 1961’s Puss N’ Boots.

But the 2000’s ushered in a new wave of big budget movies that threw a darker spin on classic fairy tales. The success of films like Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) and Beauty and the Beast (2005) put Germany’s Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm on a par with William Shakespeare as history’s most underpaid authors. If the Brothers Grimm were paid for all those adaptations of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood they could buy Germany and maybe Austria to boot.

But before the major studios got into the storybook game there had already been low budget attempts to creep up those beloved fairy tales. 1986’s Deadtime Stories stands as one of the more eccentric forays into the scary-fairy-tale realm. It’s also an example of the quirky low-budget horror flicks being produced on the east coast during the eighties. Once upon a time (in the 1980’s) horror films were divided between east and west coast camps. It was like rap music, but all the bloodshed was onscreen.

The west coast horror flicks looked more polished and were usually financed by independent distributors like Empire and Concorde who scrounged up enough money to pay a fading movie star for a few days work.  In contrast, the east coast productions were grittier, lacked star power and tended to be less commercial. Basket Case (1982), Sleepaway Camp (1983), Maniac (1980) and Deadtime Stories are all examples of NY films made with a little money and a lot of moxie.

Deadtime Stories is an anthology film, but while Amicus productions like The House That Dripped Blood represented the Westminster purebreds of the genre, Deadtime Stories is more like a loveable mongrel that follows you home.

Like every anthology, we get a wraparound story- this one’s about Brian (Brian DePersia) a little boy being babysat by his uncle. In a desperate attempt to lull young Brian to sleep uncle Mike (Michael Mesmer) improvises a series of bedtime stories about cannibal witches, high school girls losing their virginity and serial killing families on the prowl. Clearly, Uncle Mike shouldn’t be allowed within two hundred feet of children.

First up is the tale of Peter (Scott Valentine) a young man apprenticing with a pair of cackling witches- a gig that includes procuring gullible victims for them to sacrifice. His first sucker is a priest who’s filthy in both body and soul. Peter delivers him to the murderous witches without a hitch or an ounce of guilt. Next, he lures a beautiful young woman to the slaughter but finds himself hopelessly smitten with her. Even though the witches have provided him with an interesting, well-paying career during an economic downswing, Peter still chooses to double cross them and save the pretty girl. Gory, old school prosthetic makeup effects ensue.

This is the least successful of the film’s three stories in part because it has no specific fairy tale to fracture. It’s just an Amish quilt of witch story tropes. The other problem is Scott Valentine, who flat-lines as the semi-innocent young hero. His somnambulistic performance is in stark contrast to the witches, who play it over the top and into the stratosphere. In Valentine’s defense, the film was shot when he was just an acting student, years before he scored his showcase role on Family Ties.

The real stars here are the excellent prosthetic makeup effects courtesy of Ed French. The resurrection of a dead witch is the highpoint; employing clever air bladder effects, reverse photography and even a dash of stop motion animation. French honed his craft on micro-budget New York productions like Tim Kincaid’s Breeders (1986) and Robot Holocaust (1986) along with more memorable projects like Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985). Given Deadtime Stories’ minuscule budget his work here is nothing short of miraculous. He’s gone on to win Emmys for his makeup and also won acclaim as an audio book narrator- clearly a renaissance man.

Our second fable is a variation on Red Riding Hood, only this time, Red has a big bad werewolf as her nemesis. A mix-up at a local pharmacy places high school student Rachel (Nicole Picard) on a collision course with an angry lycanthrope (Matt Mitler). But before the full moon rises she finds time to whip off her red running suit and lose her virginity in an old gardening shed. The sex scene is pretty tame until you remember that Uncle Mike is supposed to be telling this story to an eight-year-old… Then it all feels creepy. It’s also pointless because her chastity or lack thereof has no impact on the story.

The idea of mixing Red Riding Hood with a werewolf may not be terribly original, but there’s still a nice twist in the tale that I won’t spoil. Ed French delivers a traditional Lon Chaney Jr. style wolfman that’s simple but effective.

The grand finale is a John Waters-style riff on Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Bears, in this case, being a family of psychopathic killers comprised of an overbearing momma (Melissa Leo), a milquetoast poppa (Kevin Hannon) and their mentally deficient son Baby Bear (Timothy Rule). After escaping from the “Home for the Hopelessly Insane,” they head back to the family homestead. But they discover a squatter in their house named Goldi Lox (Cathryn de Prume) who’s every bit as psychotic as them, with telekinetic powers to boot. She’s already decorated the Bear’s home with the rotting cadavers of her many unsuccessful suitors. Romantic sparks fly between Goldi and Baby, but the local police are already hot on their trail.

Though it never rises to the brilliance of a John Waters film the segment has a black-hearted, silly charm. The performances are way over the top, but still enjoyable. Homicide: Life on the Street’s Melissa Leo is almost unrecognizable as momma bear. Cathryn de Prume shines as Goldilocks while kindly providing the film’s only nudity. The subplot about squabbling police captains named Jack B. Nimble and Jack B. Quick never really gels, and the TV newscaster’s set isn’t the least bit convincing, but considering the film’s tiny budget that’s just splitting hairs.

To sum things up, Deadtime Stories should be commended for its original ideas and for shunning the era’s clichés. Like a mongrel dog, it has a ragged, playful charm that outshines its many imperfections.

Up till now you could only see Deadtime Stories on dreadfully transferred, bargain bin DVD’s. That’s what I endured- yet I still enjoyed the movie. But now Shout Factory has waved its magic wand, conjuring up a new Blu-ray edition with a sparkling High Def transfer and tons of extra features. I heartily recommend experiencing this restored version… you’ll love happily ever after.

Bonus Features

    • NEW Hi-Def Transfer From The Original Negative
    • NEW Audio Commentary With Co-writer/Director Jeffrey Delman
    • NEW I Like The Grotesque – An Interview With Co-writer/Director Jeffrey Delman
    • NEW Interviews With Actors Cathryn de Prume, Melissa Leo And Scott Valentine
    • The Black Forest – An Alternate Cut Of The First Story
    • Deleted Scenes
    • Theatrical Trailers
    • Still Gallery

Deadtime Stories is now available on bluray per Shout Factory

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