Monday, March 30, 2020

"Be Hospitable and Gay" - Dream No Evil (1970) - Film #174

It is time to return to the world of one of horror's most underappreciated auteurs, John Hayes, director of Grave of the Vampire (1972), Garden of the Dead (1972), and End of the World (1977), among several other non-horror films. Dream No Evil is the thoughtful, surreal story of a woman's descent into madness and, possibly, murder.

Not all of your universe's critics appreciate the subtlety of Dream No Evil. For example, reviewer Coventry writes, ""Dream No Evil" is easily one of the most pointless films I ever sat through." Reviewer jacobconnelly-47681 writes, "It's a tedious, slow journey into absolute nothingness." On a more positive note, reviewer BA_Harrison writes, "I would hesitate to call Dream No Evil a good film."

Is Dream No Evil a good film? Please read on...

The film begins with an efficient establishing shot of a simple wooden sign: DAVIS COUNTY ORPHANAGE. The narrator intones, “We are all haunted by things other than the dead.” He adds, “As Grace McDonald was haunted by a dream. An innocent dream, which became a bridge to horror.”

A young girl wakes up. “Daddy, please help me.” But of course she is an orphan in an orphanage, and her daddy cannot help her—only the orphanage director, who tries to calm Grace down by grabbing her wrists and yelling, “You have no daddy!”

When Grace runs into the hallway, the cruel director grabs her nightgown and rips it half off.

After Grace is back in bed, she says, “My daddy will come.”

“No, Grace,” the director says with finality, “he will not.”

In the morning, the children line up in their fanciest clothes while the director and a prospective adoptive parent walk past them like military inspectors. The director even orders them to march back to their classroom, after having Grace step out of line. An overhead shot of Grace standing alone, superimposed for some reason against colorful boiling lava, sets the backdrop for the title sequence.

The film moves forward in time. Grace is now an adult, living in the desert with a traveling church that is patterned after a traveling carnival, presided over by John Hayes regular Michael Pataki, this time with a southern accent and playing Grace’s future brother-in-law. When Grace objects about an outfit Mr. Pataki wants her to wear for the church/carnival show, he tells her, “Your pappy’s dead just like mine.”

In a scene some might find odd, Grace climbs a ladder to a point 30 feet in the air, where Mr. Pataki cues her to drop off the ladder and fall into a mattress made of a net and foam rubber.

The film then cuts to a small house in Southern California where Grace’s future husband Patrick wakes up a young woman named Shirley in a boarding house because both he and Shirley have final exams in medical school. The landlord, Mrs. Jordan, tells Shirley, “You’re going to pass and be a good lady doctor.”

While Shirley takes a shower, Patrick explains the backstory to Mrs. Jordan. About Grace, he says, “She does church work.”

“Church work?” Mrs. Jordan replies. “You mean bingo?”

He explains that Grace travels preaching the Bible.

Later, Patrick drives to the snowy high desert. He arrives at the church’s temporary performance site around sunset. Before the carnival-like services, he takes a walk with Grace through the nearby woods. They kiss while the narrator tell us helpfully, “The visit of Patrick was an intrusion on Grace’s dream. Finding her father was more important than loving...or living. She could stall no longer. The dream had to be given life. Here. Tonight.”

Later, Grace and Patrick lie on a bed in a trailer kissing. “Is Shirley a virgin too?” Grace asks awkwardly. She adds, “I can understand weakness of the flesh, with Shirley or with anyone. I just don’t want to hear about it.”

Outside, Mr. Pataki strides onto an outdoor stage in front of a huge crowd of elderly churchgoers. As he preaches, his accent changes from southern to New England. “Gawd is giving it to you good!” he preaches. He walks among the crowd, curing cancer by holding an old lady’s hands.

At the trailer, Patrick tells Grace he wants to do more than kiss (and more eloquently, “I’m not going to walk away half bent over from that pain anymore.”) She refuses his advances and walks to the ladder for her performance. She climbs and falls successfully (if falling 30 feet can be described as “successfully”) into the pile of foam rubber chunks.

Patrick walks away from the traveling church, only to meet the sheriff, who tells him a story about how Mr. Pataki healed him, and who keeps staring into space and saying “Jesus Jesus Jesus.” Patrick backs slowly away from him.

After Grace heals someone in the crowd, the filmmakers dissolve to the desk at an old hotel. The narrator says, “Later that night, her search ended in a hotel for retired men. The people, places, the events...all real to Grace, but they are in fact the beginnings of her imaginary world.”

She tries to find her father among the old men sitting in the lobby, but she’s surprised to see a man enter with a group of old women prostitutes dressed as if they’ve just performed in a circus. The women pair up with the old men and take them upstairs. The pimp, played by Marc Lawrence, who identifies himself as an undertaker and tries to recruit Grace into prostitution, and then he mentions her father. “Your father’s dead. He died yesterday. I got him at my place.”

The film cuts to Mr. Lawrence’s funeral parlor in the desert, where he leaves her with the body of her father, who is lying for some reason on a hospital bed with an IV connected. “Why did you die?” Grace asks her father when she is alone with him, crying. She leaves the room to compose herself, however, and when she returns she sees her deceased father sit up in his hospital bed.

Of course, she runs to get Mr. Lawrence, but when they return to the room her father is dead again. “I’ll have to embalm him,” Mr. Lawrence says.

“No. Don’t touch him. He sat up!”

Of course, her father’s corpse, played by Edmond O’Brien, stands up, grabs a scalpel, and slashes Mr. Lawrence down the back. In a surreal death scene, Mr. Lawrence staggers against the operating table, intentionally disconnects the plug on the IV full of purple embalming fluid, then falls to the floor and dies.

Grace’s fantasy life continues as she retrieves Mr. Pataki to bring him to her father’s farm, where Mr. O’Brien greets the preacher. “For a preacher, you talk in awful short phrases.”

“Do I?”

“What are you so nervous about?”

“Papa, you’re overpowering him,” Grace interjects. “Be hospitable and gay.”

“I AM NOT OVERPOWERING HIM!” Mr. O’Brien bellows.

Then Mr. O’Brien plays the squeezebox while Grace dances an aggressive jig in the farmhouse.

Later, in the barn, Grace begins an affair with Mr. Pataki. They make love on the ground, unaware that Mr. O’Brien is watching them until he barges in. “Damn kids!”

Mr. O’Brien picks up what appears to be the head of a hammer and murders Mr. Pataki.

Later, Grace sits in her bedroom in the farmhouse. Suddenly, it becomes an abandoned, dusty room—Grace has returned to reality. She runs outside, searching for her father. She does not find him, but she finds Mr. Pataki’s still-deceased body under some bloody straw.

She runs back to her room to return to her fantasy, where Mr. O’Brien is still alive. He tells her that her return to reality was just a bad dream due to the devil’s church she has hooked up with.

Self-awareness seeps into Grace’s fantasy. “I asked myself, ‘Who is it that killed him and covered him in straw?’”

“I killed him, I tell you!” Mr. O’Brien says. “I killed him!”

“I killed him, Daddy. Cause I’m thinking that you’re not even here at all.”

Mr. O’Brien proves he is real by hugging her. “I’m not afraid anymore, Daddy.”

Helpfully, the filmmakers continue to explain the plot so we audience members don’t get too confused. The narrator tells us, “Grace’s own phantom father image convinced her that fantasy is reality. She moved Jesse’s body to a county disposal site, believing she was covering up for her father’s crime.” We watch as she backs a camper up to a landfill and dumps Mr. Pataki’s body, in a rather small sack, down into the dump.

Back at Patrick’s boarding house, presumably in reality, Patrick and fellow med student Shirley attempt to have a romantic dinner of undercooked duck, after which they lie on the carpet in front of the fireplace and Patrick awkwardly attempts to seduce his colleague by placing his hand close to her backside.

In bed after they have had sex, Patrick tells Shirley, “I want to keep coming downstairs. I want to keep making love to you.”

She looks at him. “I won’t move,” she says, perhaps oddly, though she means it sincerely and he takes it as a positive statement.

In the next scene, Grace arrives at Patrick’s hospital wearing a fancy white dress, gloves, and a flowery bonnet. The filmmakers have successfully pulled off an effective magic trick: We do not know if this encounter is occurring in reality or in Grace’s imagination—an ambiguity that is only enhanced by the hospital’s yellow wallpaper, a clever allusion to Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Back at the landfill, a vagrant discovers the corpse of Michael Pataki, whose face has been removed, a detail about which the audience had not been informed. Playing a hunch, the sheriff calls Patrick, who tells him that Grace and Mr. Pataki are staying with her father on their farm. (It is not explained how Patrick knows any of this, as he has not spoken to Grace since the night of the revival show when she fell into the foam rubber.)

The film furthers its ambiguous surreality as the sheriff investigates the abandoned farm, only to be attacked by Grace’s imaginary and reanimated father with a deadly scythe.

Even more surreally, Patrick and Shirley, driving up to the farm, fill up their gas-guzzling car for $2.

In the climactic confrontation, Patrick meets Grace in front of the barn. She wordlessly leads him into the barn, where he follows, catching sight of the sheriff’s patrol car—and the sheriff, dead inside. Grace brandishes an axe, revealing that she was the sheriff’s scythe-murderer. In the scuffle, Patrick loses his car keys. He scrambles back to his car, where he narrates the situation helpfully to Shirley. “Let’s get out of here! She’s gone crazy! The keys! Roll up the windows! All of them! Quick!”

Grace smashes the windows with the axe.

“She’s running around to your side! Keep down, away from the glass!”

When the windows break, however, Patrick has no trouble grabbing the axe and pinning Grace down on the ground. Shirley gets his black bag and administers pentathol to Grace, subduing her. In a disturbing shot reminding us of Grace’s constant refusal to make love to Patrick, he lies on top of her unmoving body, her skirt pulled up over her legs.

In the film’s Psycho-esque coda, a psychiatrist explains everything to Patrick and Shirley. “She has projected herself into a father image. All of her life, from what I can gather. Now, a chronic psychosis is very difficult to dislodge. She very well may want to remain in her fantasy world.”

And she does.

The End

Thought it might eschew the visceral punch of his later films Grave of the Vampire (1972) and Garden of the Dead (1972), Dream No Evil might be the most sophisticated of John Hayes's horror films. The subtle allusions to "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Psycho (1960) add depth to Grace's touching and ultimately tragic story, while the narrator whose voice occasionally appears helps the audience understand exactly what is real and what is illusion (frequently a difficult task in movies from the 1970s). Perhaps the subtlest touch is the presence of Grace's father's white horse, Sultan. Edmond O'Brien is shown riding Sultan in several scenes, and at the end of the film we see the white horse running alone around a corral. The narrator tells us that Sultan is "the ghost of some wild part of herself" -- presumably the part that (not to be too indelicate) desires to be ridden around a farm by her father. Sultan is just one example of how carefully John Hayes constructed Dream No Evil to explain Grace's psychosis. She loved only her father, and when others got in the way of that love, they were either killed or, in the case of the sexually frustrated Patrick, they ended up sedating Grace, lying on top of her, and then delivering her to a mental institution. The timeless classic tale, as only John Hayes could tell it.