Monday, December 12, 2016

"Sodden as Usual" - A Day of Judgment (1981) - Part 3 of 3

This is Part 3 of our discussion of 1981's A Day of Judgment, probably the most moralistic of the slasher films of that particular year. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Previously, in a small southern farming town, a black-cloaked, scythe-wielding figure has begun to punish the sinful townspeople.

We next return to the department store owner and his amorous clerk. The owner leaves on a trip to the city to look for an anniversary gift for his wife Ruby. The clerk, Kenneth, who was previously flirting shamelessly with Ruby, says he will take care of everything while the owner is away.

That night, Ruby, alone in her house, dances to Dixieland music, waiting for Kenneth to arrive. 

When Kenneth arrives, Ruby calls him a goose for no apparent reason and shows him the red nightgown she took from her husband's store. In a reversal of the audience's expectations, instead of going to bed together, they sit in the living room and have a long discussion about getting what they want in life. Ruby wants to stay in the small town because she is a big frog in a small pond. Kenneth says everything he wants is right here.

Suddenly Ruby's husband Harvey enters and finds them talking on the sofa. Harvey and Kenneth get into a fight. Harvey falls over the sofa onto the floor and dies.

"You murdered Harvey!" says Ruby.

"Murder? Don't you talk to me about murder," says Kenneth.

They drag the body to Harvey's convertible and Kenneth drives into the darkness. Then he stops and gets out and pushes the car forward. Through sound effects, we hear the car rolling across rocks, and then it explodes into a fireball. Kenneth and Ruby have made Harvey's death look like an accident.

The filmmakers cut to Mr. Sharpe, the banker, alone at Morgan's farm at night. He hears hoofbeats. "Horse and wagon," he says. "When will people learn that machinery is the answer?" He walks to the late farmer's icehouse, the only cold storage facility in the county. He opens the door.

Then something happens. He screams. The door closes and we see the silhouette of the deformed man and his scythe. The door locks.

Mr. Sharpe strikes a match and explores the inside of the structure.  Behind him we see the figure with the scythe, whose eyes are glowing red. Mr. Sharpe turns around and screams four times in quick succession.

Next, our attention moves back to Charlie, the alcoholic from the very beginning of the film who nearly ran over Reverend Cage on his way out of town. Alone in his house, Charlie talks to a picture of his ex-wife, explaining some kind of beef with a man named Sid Martin that is a bit difficult to understand but most likely involves marital infidelity. Charlie looks over at the sofa and sees his pistol.

He picks up the pistol and walks next door, where he enters a suburban house and finds a door inside marked "S. Martin, President." He rifles through a file cabinet, where he finds some blank typing paper. He starts typing something, but the audience is kept in suspense about what he is writing.

In the morning, Charlie sits in his car when Sid arrives to go to work. Charlie explains more of the situation. Sid fired him because of Charlie's drinking, and Sid also stole Charlie's wife. Charlie, as clever as he is evil, holds Sid at gunpoint for a few minutes so Sid misses an important meeting.

After Charlie's ex-wife Grace steals the photo album from his one-room house--"You, sodden as usual, punched me through the door and then locked the door behind me," she says, explaining why she left him--Charlie vows he will not lose his wife to Sid Martin. He drives to Sid's office/house to taunt him. Sid has found out that Charlie typed a letter on company letterhead insulting an important client, so he runs to his car and a thrilling car chase ensues, set to a charming banjo score.

The chase ends when the sheriff pulls Sid over, while Charlie gets away. "You give him a call," the sheriff says. "Don't go chasing after him like some Barney Oldfield" (a topical reference in 1920 but perhaps out of date when the film was released in 1981).

The car chase is just one of a series of pranks and minor annoyances Charlie pulls off in an effort, apparently, to frustrate Sid.

Charlie's master plan culminates at the train station, where his ex-wife Grace is waiting for a train. Again in minimalist fashion, the station is represented by the corner of a room with a bench and the continuous sound of a train chugging on the soundtrack (the view would be forgiven for a first impression, based on the chugging sounds, that the station scene is meant to take place on a moving train).

Charlie kidnaps Grace and Sid and drives them into a field. Charlie murders Sid in cold blood.

"Charlie, if you're going to shoot me, at least give me time to pray," Grace pleads.

"You've wasted enough time on that stuff in your lifetime," Charlie's says, and he shoots her in the chest. "It's all I've ever wanted," he says. "Justice."

A thunderstorm rolls in as Charlie goes back to his car, having decided to do nothing with the bodies in the field.

But we have not yet resolved the story of Kenneth and Ruby. In Ruby's house, she sees a figure at the window. She and Kenneth cower as the shadow of the cloaked man with the scythe rises over them.

 They attempt to run upstairs, but the house suddenly bursts into flames in front of them.

At the same time in the field, Charlie is about to get into his car when the man with the scythe appears behind him. Charlie runs through the woods but the figure seems to be everywhere. Charlie shoots the figure but it does nothing. The figure raises his scythe and beheads Charlie.

The figure makes a beckoning motion and all the sinners who have died walk toward him single file (in reverse order of their deaths).

They approach a bright white light and a vision of the pearly gates, but heaven is not to be their fate. They see a rocky hell ahead of them, complete with screams and human skulls.

This vision goes on for seven minutes.

Finally, the film delivers its last fateful surprise. (If you do not want to know this shocking, powerful twist, please stop reading now. You have been warned.)

Everyone wakes up. It was all a dream.

Not only are the sinners alive, all those they have wronged are back to normal. The children and Doodles the goat return to Mrs. Fitch's flower garden. George's parents are still living in the gas station. Ruby goes back to her husband. 

All of the townspeople have learned to be happy about their wretched, wretched lives. And they all go to church to join the three ladies in black, and to meet the new minister, who, in another stinging twist, is wearing the black cloak and hat of the deformed scythe-wielding reaper.


The church is completely full. Is the film implying that everyone in town, including the children, though not Doodles, have had their own visions of sin and punishment? Yes, yes it is.

The End.

Before the end credits, over a shot of the steeple, the ten commandments roll.

A Day of Judgment is a masterpiece of narrative complexity with a strong moral message. That moral message is: Do not break the ten commandments or the grim reaper will come and get you. But it will all be a dream so if you go to church the next day you will be fine. What could be a more responsible message for a horror film?

Something that is often ignored when this film is discussed is the narrative complexity that weaves together the stories of the sinners into a believable portrait of life in this small southern town. A Day of Judgment could be called the Magnolia of 1980s slasher films. Characters such as the sheriff and the lawyer Greg Grigg interact with most of the individual stories. The filmmakers should be commended for keeping track of every storyline and plot point, and assembling them so professionally that the viewer feels like one of the sinful neighbors of this little town for nearly two hours.

If the film has a flaw, it is that all ten of the commandments are not broken. The experience would only be improved if one of the townspeople--say Missy, or Doodles the goat--were found carving graven images, or taking the Lord's name in vain, or worshipped another god, or another of the less memorable commandments. Such inclusiveness would make the film longer, of course, but this would only serve to make it more powerful and morally convincing.

In the end, the film's greatness is due primarily to its screenplay, and especially to Tom McIntyre's crackling dialogue. I only hope I have done a small part of the dialogue justice by quoting it above. Mr. McIntyre has a rare gift for communicating conflict with the perfect turn of phrase. It is a tragedy his name does not grace any other screenplays. Perhaps, however, it is enough to have given the world phrases as beautiful and evocative as "a mockery of order and beauty," "sodden as usual," "Mr. Big Britches," and of course the immortal "Broadway Boy."