Monday, August 9, 2021

“Pages of Dynamite Horrible Stuff” - Deadline (1980) - Film #210

Let us now discuss the 1980 Canadian horror film Deadline, a film that proves that self-loathing is good for the soul. Unlike most of the films we discuss here at Senseless Cinema, Deadline is a relatively well reviewed movie, but make no mistake -- it is still from a different universe than yours, a universe where horror movies can hate horror movies and still be horror movies. Because of the film's many good reviews, I will forego the usual list of misguided critical assessments and jump straight to my appreciation of the fascinatingly self-loathing film Deadline. Please read on...

The film begins with author Steven Lessey sitting at his desk typing while his children make noise in the next room. Steven goes to the kitchen, where his boys are finishing breakfast and getting ready for school. His wife Elizabeth mentions Steven’s presentation, which bothers Steven because he hasn’t prepared. Steven tries to cheer up his little girl, who says he works too much.

The breakfast scene is intercut with a completely unrelated, context-free shot of a nude woman in a shower that begins to spray blood, eventually drowning the woman.

Steven drives Elizabeth to the university where he is scheduled to make his presentation. They park their expensive Mercedes on a walking path in front of an old brick building. “You know, the most astonishing thing about education is how it remains so consistently boring in its attempt to make life more interesting,” Steven tells his wife, a statement that is both eloquent and meaningless.

“Thank you, Professor,” Elizabeth says drily.

“That sarcasm is cute, particularly coming from a woman who probably wouldn’t have made it through Freshman English if she hadn’t—"

“If I hadn’t dropped my knickers for the professor every night and told him he was Leo Tolstoy reincarnate all day long?”

“Same sophomoric repartee,” Steven says with great annoyance.

 At the lecture, the department chair helpfully fills the audience in on Steven’s background. He was a member of the faculty but became a celebrity when his first novel “The Executioners” was made into a hit film. Before allowing Steven to speak, the chair shows a clip from Steven’s new film, called “Anatomy of a Horror.” The excerpt is simply a suspense sequence in which a supernatural force represented by a black goat starts the ignition on a big piece of snow-removal equipment while a mechanic unwisely works on the blades. After the gears grind several times by themselves, the mechanic continues to crawl into the mechanism, until the blades grind him to pieces.

The film ends, to no applause and only mild reaction from the audience. The chair presents a plaque from the faculty of the cinema studies department (Steven is a novelist and screenwriter, and apparently a film producer, but not a director). Steven gives his talk. His wife, sitting in the audience, flashes back to when she first met Steven—he was the Freshman English professor and she was the flattering student, and Steven was idealistic then, talking about books serving as keys to the soul. When the flashback ends, Steven expounds about the meaning of his horror writing. “It represented for me an opportunity to comment on what I believe to be the distasteful corruption of our society. The metaphor of execution is primary to our lives. We are all dying or being executed by our culture and our environment.”

Several of the students accuse Steven of contributing to the downfall of society. “Do you mean that your horror is the language of our times?” an outspoken student asks.

During the lecture, the filmmakers cut to another context-free scene of horror, this one involving two gleeful young children tying their grandmother to a bed and setting it on fire. It becomes apparent that these images of horror are parts of the novel Steven is writing, though they all feature different characters and settings.

Steven’s lecture ends poorly, with Steven yelling at some of the students while offering no real arguments in favor of horror in literature or film.

In the car on their way home, Elizabeth laughs at Steven and he smacks her shoulder. She decides to take a taxi home and reminds Steven about a party they plan to attend, while Steven drives to a movie studio screening dailies, a scene where a nun retrieves something from a grave. At the end of the scene, the lead actress Darlene blows her line, but in the screening room, the actress, wearing the traditional actress’s flapper outfit, threatens Steven because she wants better lines.

After she storms out, Steven’s agent Burt threatens Steven because he hasn’t seen pages from the new book. Burt says, “I need ten, fifteen pages of dynamite, horrible stuff.”

Steven says he is trying something different with the new book, but Burt retorts, “Leave the different stuff to the Europeans.” (It is unclear if he is talking about film or novels; in any case, the nun film from the dailies looks curiously like a European film from the 1970s.)

The film cuts to another context-free horror scene in which a woman is giving birth. As before, this scene has nothing to do with previous scenes from Steven’s alleged book.

At Steven’s mansion, Steven’s writing is interrupted when Elizabeth stumbles drunkenly into the house, scolding her husband about missing the party in the city. In an extended sequence featuring children whining and screaming, their kids try to help their mother, only to watch her scream childishly at Steven. While the younger son and daughter don’t understand what is going, Steven’s older son watches coldly and helps his siblings after Steven carries his wife to their bedroom and slaps her.

Oddly, a voiceover, presumably from Steven’s new book involving the horrific pregnancy, is heard over shots of Elizabeth lying in bed in the real world: “It is as if suicide had been committed in the womb. It seems that the fetus in all five cases had consciously decided to die rather than be born and take their mothers with them.” (In the literary scene, the baby and mother died in childbirth. The filmmakers are foreshadowing a future plot point in reality in a manner that can only be described as “clumsy.”)

The film cuts to a seemingly random scene in which a group of nuns attack a priest and eat his organs as communion. This is another scene from Steven’s new novel, though it is confusing that both the alleged novel (which is obviously about blood showers, flaming grandmothers, and unfortunate pregnancies) features nuns just like his currently filming movie.

In the next unpleasant scene, this one set in real life, Steven and Elizabeth attend a party. Steven explains to Burt, “I am not writing crap anymore, Burt.”

“What else is there?”

“There’s horror. Real horror. Not the grade B blood and guts. I’m talking about the ultimate terror. That’s what I’m reaching for, don’t you see? No more schlock, Burt. From now on, we are building. I’ll see you later.” Clearly, Steven aspires to graduate from his Garth Marenghi-like roots and move on to something more dignified than horror.

Steven finds Elizabeth in another room snorting cocaine with two men, one of whom tells Steven, “I know all your books. I can’t say I like them, but they’re highly inventive, and after all isn’t that what this business is all about? Being inventive?”

In the drug room, Steven and Elizabeth realize they have left the children at home unsupervised. Blaming each other for the oversight, they call home and then get Steven’s mother to go to the house.

“What kind of a mother are you?” Steven asks.

Elizabeth replies, “Same kind of mother as you are a father.”

The next scene is a centerpiece of the film, another horror scene unrelated to anything else and one of the film’s most visionary creative statements. It takes place in a punk club where a Nazi new wave band tests a scientist’s technological innovation: speakers that cause listeners to die of explosive diarrhea. The scene features an entire song by the innovative band Carole Pope and Rough Trade, during which a group of hobos goes into convulsions and dies. In the end, something bursts out of one of the hobo’s stomachs.

The scene cuts to Steven’s mansion, where Burt says, “I love it.” He wants to see a movie where a punk concert leads to mass death and diarrhea. Meanwhile, Steven tells his youngest son he shouldn’t watch Steven’s first movie “The Executions,” which he has on reels of film in his study.

Later, on the film set, where Burt wears a giant fur coat that might come from a movie about college freshmen from the 1920s, Steven tells the lead actress Darlene that she is too stupid to memorize her lines. Of course, Darlene storms off the set, angering everyone.

Driving his car home, Steven listens to a radio announcer describe “a pre-teenage killing” in which two children hanged their sister. “That’s right,” Steven complains to himself, “Just go for the sensationalism.” He switches the station to music, not realizing that it was his own children involved in the tragedy and his daughter was killed (for unknown reasons, the radio announcer did not mention the famous author’s name during the story). The narrative has finally come around to Steven’s “true horror” at the expense of Steven’s family: his boys were reenacting scenes from “The Executioners” that involved hangings.

After Elizabeth assaults Steven on the stairway, Steven finds his two boys with his mother. Steven blames Elizabeth, who wasn’t present, and then shakes his oldest boy, Philip, who tells Steven he hates him. (After this scene, the children and Elizabeth are never shown again.)

In Burt’s office, which has a suspiciously clear and direct view of the CN Tower, placing it firmly in Toronto, Burt says of the city, “It’s just about the only city you can walk around at two in the morning and not get mugged. They don’t make good pictures, though.”

Burt tries to push Steven to move to Los Angeles, then flies Steven to Montreal for lunch on his private plane. Climbing into the plane, Burt says something about a bumpy flight, then banters incoherently with the elderly pilot about “All About Eve.” “I could have sworn she said ‘bumpy flight.’ Well, there’s no plane sequence in that film. Why would she say that?”

In Montreal, Burt spews hateful dialogue about various ethnic groups, then scolds Steven about being late turning in his pages (which is now a screenplay, not a novel). He tells Steven that he’s going to fly Steven to “Florida, or LA, or wherever the hell you want to go” so he can finish the screenplay. “I want that script, and I want it in two weeks.”

Steven returns to his Toronto house, sees that Elizabeth has left, and tells Burt’s chauffeur to leave. Steven goes to a strange Canadian bar, gets drunk, and picks up two prostitutes, telling them to get their friends for a party at his house. He returns home with five prostitutes, taking them to his study and giving them alcohol and cocaine while forcing them to watch “The Executioners” on a film reel. We finally see the notorious film, which involves growling children dressed in monks’ robes (and moving like small adults rather than children) who hang various adults in a barn.

The film’s climax is a long (some might say “endless”) sequence in which Steven sinks to drinking, snorting cocaine, and having his shoulders rubbed by topless prostitutes while the movie screen shows a long (some might say “endless”) sequence in which robed little people hang victims—little people and victims that become Steven’s sons and daughter. Then, for no apparent reason, the prostitutes turn on him and start destroying his mansion. The real horrors of everyday life (who hasn’t had to defend themself from prostitutes with questionable motives?) thus intrude on Steven’s life, destroying it.

In the end, the filmmakers drive their point home (some might say “beat a dead horse”) by showing some of Steven’s previously imagined novel/screenplay ideas invade his home, but unfortunately this idea plays out quickly in only two or three shots, to be superseded by the film’s most disturbing image: Steven sitting on a stairway when his daughter’s body swings into frame.

In the coda, Steven stumbles to the phone to leave a message with Burt’s secretary. “Tell him that I’ve found it, that I’ve got it. And tell him that he’ll love this one.”

Steven writes the screenplay for a movie that is just like Deadline, showing that somehow Steven’s goal of “elevating” horrific material with the real-life horrors of domestic abuse and juvenile homicide will play big at the box office. The screenplay takes several minutes to write. Just to be sure the film is well publicized (and just so the filmmakers can “have their cake and eat it too” like Steven), Steven takes a pistol from his drawer and shoots himself…in the middle of typing, for unknown reasons. 

While on the surface Deadline's message is crushingly obvious -- watching horror movies results in real-life horror -- one can find subtleties if one looks deep enough. The filmmakers set up a distinction between Steven's schlock horror, epitomized by the scenes he fantasizes, and true horror, which Burt dismisses as "different" and "European." In the end, however, could it be argued that schlock horror and true horror are the same thing because the young girl's death was due to reenactment of Steven's schlockiest work, making them identical? Based on the events of the film, could Steven's story have ended like John L. Sullivan's in Sullivan's Travels (1941) with the writer realizing that he is privileged to make schlock horror, rather than with him presumably coming to the conclusion that he has brought too much horror into the world?

No. Not in this film. The filmmakers hate horror movies and believe they are nothing but shock sequences full of blood showers and evil goats strung together to feature length that corrupt innocent children and college students, and no reasonable person could in good conscience contribute to horror in the world.

Could they be right?

No. Of course not. Don't be ridiculous.