Writer/ Director: George Barry
Cast: Demene Hall, William Russ, Julie Ritter
Length: 78 mins
Label: Cult Epics
Release Date: June 4, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 2.0
- Introduction By Stephen Thrower (2013)
- Introduction By George Barry (2003)
- Audio Commentary By George Barry And Stephen Thrower
- Nightmare USA: A Conversation Between Stephen Thrower And George Barry On Horror Films Of The 1970s And 1980s
- Behind-The-Scenes Of Death Bed In Detroit (2013) Original Death Bed Credit Music Track
Death Bed: The Bed that Eats has to be the best, most provocative title in the history of genre cinema — at least, that is, until the coming of digital technology’s democratization of the industry making it so any crackpot can (and will) make and release films. Everyone’s probably heard Patton Oswalt’s joke about the title, and part of the effect of that bit is how true it is. But laughing at it is only half the battle, because, while there is an element of humor in its bluntness, the sheer audaciousness almost demands that everyone see what this film about a bed that eats could possibly be about. Somehow, in spite of this stimulating name, Death Bed was nearly a non-existent product. After completing the film — an arduous task at nearly 5 years — George Barry could not sell the film. He spent years showing it to different distributors (and keep in mind this was at the start of independent horror’s heyday, where people were buying these films up) but they all passed. Eventually, Barry gave up, put the film in his closet, and forgot all about Death Bed. As luck would have it, the film somehow found its way into the hands a few bootleggers, who proceeded to give the film its first real shot of being seen. This is maybe one of the few stories in the history of cinema where, undeniably, a form of piracy can be said to irrefutably contribute to a film’s success. Without these bootleggers, Death Bed may very well have never seen the light of day and would probably still be collecting dust in the corner of Barry’s home. Years later Barry stumbled on a message board and learned that Death Bed, a film he believed no one had seen, was actually a cult classic. Barry would then work with Cult Epics in 2004 to see the film’s first ever legitimate release, following that DVD with a Blu-ray (the subject of this review) 10 years later. Death Bed’s story is one of genre cinema’s greatest unlikely successes; from something could very well have never really existed to cult phenomena. Thanks to the dedication of folks like Cult Epics, Death Bed lives to eat another day.
Death Bed began its rocky production in Detroit in 1972. George Barry hadn’t made a film prior (and hasn’t made one since), so perhaps it was because of inexperience or a limited budget (a mixture of both is likely) but the film’s production lasted five years before coming to completion in 1977. When it was made, American horror cinema was changing gears, ramping up towards the slasher boom but Death Bed only loosely reflects that influence in the industry. In fact, the film hardly feels like a US production but more closely resembles some of the genre films that were being released in Europe around the same time — especially in Eastern Europe.
Death Bed is a folk fairy tale of the darkest variety; a horror story that preys on fantastical elements like some sort of drug-fueled spin on the Brothers Grimm. Matching the fairy tale-like structure, Death Bed is told in chapters, or, rather, meals (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Just Desserts). The film opens on a couple breaking into an old mansion and eventually finding their way to the fabled bed. As they begin to engage in certain carnal pleasures, a strange yellow foam rises from the bed and engulfs the food surrounding the couple. Not satiated with the apple, fried chicken, and wine, the couple becomes the bed’s final course, but not before the bed closes its drapes to block the camera’s view. The rest of the film is comprised of similarly themed vignettes, tales over time that position some group of people entering the bed’s corridors sbefore succumbing to their painful deaths. Interspersed between these scenes, is a running monologue (or dialogue, only we don’t hear the bed’s answers) between the bed and a painter that the bed has trapped behind one of his paintings hung on the wall. Through this conversation, we learn about the history of the bed, as well as some of the mechanisms to its powers.Much has been made of he film as a famously bad movie, and, sure, that thinking works. Barry is not a masterful director, there are a great deal of technical issues riddled throughout, the acting is mostly mediocre, the editing is awkward, and the script is (at best) amateur. But, there is so much more to Death Bed than just ironic praise. There is something undeniable to this film that has attracted, and continues to attract, audiences. Death Bed has a spirit that is as infectious as it is fascinating. I would argue that what has attracted viewers is the film’s abnormal ingenuity. While the film is not a technical marvel, it is more imaginative than a great deal of its technically proficient contemporaries. There isn’t another film like Death Bed, it may be the most singular works I’ve ever seen. Parts of it suggest some sort of mad artistry, while other parts are nearly inept. It continues forward in this schizophrenic ebb and flow, never really finding its footing until it’s explosive finale. There is something in this uncertainty that is undeniably appealing.
The film suffers most to it laborious pacing. It’s a very short film at only 80 minutes but, as it is more of a loosely connected series of stories than a fully realized film (probably a result of the suspended production), it feels a great deal longer than it actually is. While the story — especially the backstory involving the creation of the bed via a Demon’s misguided attempts with a mortal — is original and very creative, it does tend to be a bit underdeveloped in places. The main thrust of the story is coherent but questions along the way are left unanswered. Perhaps this ambiguity has become a strength and I think people have fun with the fact that the film finds itself somewhere between esotericism and folly.The one true aspect in the film that does find itself in the unintentionally humorous camp is the excessive (and I mean excessive) use of voice-over. While the painter’s voice-over — as stated — serves an appropriate function, practically every character in the film seems to be gifted a voice-over as well (often only to spout off mundane lines). This film might very well have the more voice-overs than any other film in the history of cinema. These can sometimes lead to a few good laughs.
Beyond the voice-over blunder, Barry does show some real promise in a few of the artistic flourishes he uses. Most striking — although probably overused — are the scenes within the bed’s, for lack of a better term, stomach. Once absorbed, the bed devours the food in a pit of acid and viewers are privileged to a sort-of psychedelic visual portrayal, as the objects, bathed in the yellow liquid, are slowly dissolved. There are a few other scenes that show a great promise from Barry— the dripping of blood on a candle (somewhat of a cliché but still nicely composed), the cracking of a mirror, and the scenes of the painting entrapped behind his painting are all beautifully comprised. With a bigger budget and some professional actors, Barry could have had a real chance but at least Death Bed exists.
Cult Epics have really proven themselves to be a company to keep an eye out for. They don’t get the same accolades as companies like Synapse, Severin, or Arrow, but they certainly should because their work is becoming increasingly impressive. Their recent release of Angst was stunning and featured a great booklet (something that too many companies just overlook). Similarly, their presentation of Death Bed is quite beautiful. It should be noted that, because the film was low budget, they are somewhat limited by the original source material, but with that said, the film is presented in its original aspect ration of 1.33:1 and features a fine filmic grain, as well as, natural colors (if somewhat muted at times by the source), and only an understandable amount of dirt, dust, or scratches to be seen. As the film was never picked up for distribution, they were working from the original 16mm elements, as a 35mm blowup print was never cut. All in all, this is a great restoration that will probably not be given its proper accolades due to the lack of prestige of the film.
Similar to the video, the audio is presented, here, without hitch (given the limitation of the low budget source). CE have provided both a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 mix, both of which offer a nice clarity and fidelity, with the 5.1 given slightly better overall feel.
CE has provided quite a few entertaining extras to this disc. Writer Stephen Thrower winds up on quite a few of them, and given Thrower’s expertise and love of this film, that is no problem here. There are two introductions to the film. The first is by Barry (and was originally included in the DVD). This offers a great insight into the trouble behind the production and distribution — or lack thereof — and goes into a fascinating story about finding out, years later, that the film had an audience. The second introduction is newly recorded and features Thrower quickly setting up the film and its troubled place in the genre world. There is also a fantastic audio commentary that features both Thrower and Barry, that will be sure to please Death Bed fanatics. I really loved the piece Behind the Scenes of Death Bed in Detroit, which visits the Detroit locations today, and features Barry discussing the production at these sites. There is a fifteen minute discussion between Thrower and Barry, that talks at depth about Thrower’s work chronicling independent horror that is quite nice for those who appreciate (or want to learn more about Thrower). Finally, CE have included the original Death Bed Credit Music track, which is a nice little add on for completion sake.
Death Bed is a pure example of ambition. The film tries as hard as it can to be great, it’s just not quite there. But, an interesting failure is almost always more worthwhile than a technically sound but safe effort. That’s why Death Bed remains a crowd pleaser. It’s strange, it’s sometimes brilliant, it’s sometimes horrendous, but it’s never really boring. While pacing drags the film down a bit, Death Bed is a totally engrossing experience, one that you will never be able to imitate with any other film. As stated, Death Bed is one of a kind and with a fantastic transfer commissioned by Cult Epics, it is an easy recommended purchase.