Monday, January 29, 2024

"They Took It Pretty Tough" - Delirium (1979)

Let us discuss an efficient thriller that took advantage of the slasher film's emerging popularity in 1979, Delirium. The first film directed by Peter Maris, who would go on to make films such as the post-apocalyptic Land of Doom (1986) and Alien Species (1996), Delirium combines a slasher film with a conspiracy thriller and a police action film to create a unique and thrilling experience set in the forests and streets of St. Louis.

Of course, some of your universe's critics are characteristically unkind to Delirium. Reviewer mhorg2018 writes somewhat cryptically about the film, "And Why doesn't IMDB have a ZERO rating? Everywhere someone can review should have that." Reviewer amandagellar-31077 writes, "Everything about it feels amateur which could be forgiven if the script were any better." And reviewer P3n-E-W1s3 writes, "be prepared to keep hitting the rewind button every time you wake up because this film has the power to induce sleep."

Of course, all these reviews are embarrassingly incorrect. Please read on for the truth about Delirium...

The film opens with an enormous car driving through the streets of St. Louis at night, followed by a much smaller car. When both cars park, the driver of the smaller car climbs into the larger car, which drives away. Then the larger car parks elsewhere and two occupants merge, but they reveal a third person in the car — a semi-conscious man. They drop him into the river, then return to their enormous car. The thrilling scene ends with the car driving off; it is in fact so enormous that it must make a three-point turn on a wide, wide street.

Later, a blonde woman named Susan returns home to her apartment, only to find her roommate impaled with a sharp blade and suspended from a door, the blade pointing outward.

As detectives investigate the murder, Susan reveals that the murdered roommate Jenny was dating someone named Charlie. 

The film begins to follow Charlie, revealed to be the killer as he jogs through the forest when he has a flashback about the night he killed Jenny with a spear, which just happened to be hanging on the wall in her apartment. In a grotesque sequence, Charlie chases Jenny around the apartment, and when she shuts the door on him he rams the spear through the cheap wood — and through Jenny’s chest.

Charlie also has a quick flashback about a firefight in Vietnam (or perhaps a wintry Missouri, but more likely Vietnam), where many soldiers died.

In the morning, Susan is cheerfully awakened by her friend, whose apartment she is sharing. Neither of the women seem unduly bothered by what happened last night.

Elsewhere, Charlie steals a convertible Mercedes from a pair of picknickers. He picks up a young woman hitchhiking, then, saying nothing, he drives faster and faster while again reliving Jenny’s murder. This flashback forces him to swerve off the road. He simply walks away from the car, but the hitchhiker follows him.

At the police station, the detectives conclude they have almost no information about Charlie, who applied for a job where Susan works but who didn’t even fill out an application. One of the detectives quips, “Maybe he’s one of those weirdos that goes around office buildings sizing up all the broads.” (This line is especially humorous given that the same detective was ogling a woman not two minutes earlier.) They also discuss the drowning death, ruled a suicide, of a criminal named Sykes, as seen in the film’s prologue. “I wish Charlie would kill himself,” says the detective insensitively. “It’d save us a hell of a lot of work.”

Elsewhere, Charlie sits on a riverside beach while his hitchhiker friend strips naked (given the small amount of clothing she was wearing, this takes only a second or two) and enters the water. 

Charlie approaches the water’s edge as he suffers an auditory hallucination regarding his virility. An echoing female voice says, “I’m going to tell everyone I know that you can’t get it up.”

Charlie leaps into the water and attacks the nude woman (who is now wearing underwear). As rousing action music plays on the soundtrack, Charlie holds the woman’s head underwater. 

Back at the police station, Susan answers questions from handsome Detective Larry Mead, who tells her he notified her dead roommate’s parents about the death, and adds, “They took it pretty tough.” (One might question if he means “rough,” as it might be interpreted that the parents were tough as they accepted the news.) The detectives send Susan with another policeman to look at mugshots. As Detective Mead watches her go, his partner quips, “What are you gonna do, adopt here?”

Mead says leeringly (and inappropriately), “That’s, uh, not a bad idea.”

Mead and his partner pay a visit to Susan’s boss, who says he can’t remember anything, but as soon as the detectives leave he calls a bald man named Stern and indicates mysteriously that Charlie could incriminate them. Also, they have a meeting tonight. When Stern hangs up the phone, another man enters Stern’s office and helpfully explains more of the backstory. “You don’t think Charlie would rat on his old Army buddies, now, do you?”

Stern says sternly, “Well, we both know what Charlie’s capable of. He flipped out once before. We don’t know what he’s gonna do now.”

“You think he’ll show for the meeting tonight?”

“I don’t know,” Stern replies. “I really don’t know.”

Then another man enters the office and reveals that the mysterious cabal is also responsible for the murder of Sykes shown in the film’s prologue. Stern tells both men, “I only hope Charlie can avoid the cops until we get to him.”

One of his cronies says, “He’s been doing that since he got out of that hospital.”

Meanwhile, Charlie continues on the lam, finding a barn to hide in and then immediately being noticed by another attractive young woman wearing skimpy clothes. He attacks her, and when she fights back he brutally plunges the business end of a pitchfork into her throat.

At the meeting of the cabal, held in what appears to be a subway tunnel adorned with an American flag, several middle-aged men express concern that Charlie was a mistake, and that perhaps hiring Stern was a mistake. Stern tells them, “I promise you we’ll get to Charlie before the police do.”

Then they bring a young man into the room. Stern reads from a torn-out loose leaf sheet of paper: “Philip  George Willingham, you have been charged here with the crime of rape and murder. These same charges were made against you in another court of law and dismissed. We are here as a court of appeals to meet our final and just judgment for the benefit of all society.”

The cabal members act as a jury. They also force him to plead guilty, as they forced him to write a confession. Of course, the sentence is death. Stern’s cohorts drag the young man away as he assures the cabal that there will be ample evidence his death was a suicide. 

Later, in an impressive and wordless scene, the cabal blows up the car of one of their own members who was critical of Stern.

After Detective Mead takes Susan out to coffee (strangely right after her roommate’s funeral, and right after she says she needs to go to work), the filmmakers follow Charlie to a cemetery. Here, he flashes back to Vietnam again, reliving an incident where he was directly ordered to kill a Vietnamese woman and child by tossing a grenade into their house. “You’re a good solider, Charlie,” his commanding officer says in voiceover.

In one of the film’s most visually arresting shots, Charlie runs through the midwestern countryside, passing an abandoned shack and barbed wire that brings together his worlds of combat in Vietnam and running through Missouri.

More disturbingly, Charlie flashes back to an encounter with a woman in Vietnam who might have been a prostitute. He strangles her when she questions his manhood.

Meanwhile, the detectives stumble upon the key to cracking the whole case. They find that Susan’s boss had a daughter who was murdered as a college student in Ohio; the apparent killer was released on a technicality, however, and then “hung himself.” Mead and his partner visit the coroner (who bizarrely is not eating a sandwich in the morgue) and, after introductions and some discussion, they realize that the recent rash of suicides might be due to foul play.

It is time, of course, for another murder. Charlie finds a house where he hears a woman inside, so he breaks in and finds her in the bath (his penchant for finding attractive women in scanty clothing is truly remarkable). After eating some fruit in the kitchen, Charlie finds an industrial meat cleaver and approaches the bathroom. Unfortunately for him and fortunately for the nude woman, Charlie bumps into a milk can decoratively placed in the middle of the the upstairs hallway, but the woman pays no attention to the sound.

Charlie is suddenly interrupted by the local grocery delivery hippie, so he hacks the man’s hand off, then advances on the woman — but she is armed with a rifle and shoots him in the stomach. This allows the filmmakers to stage a suspenseful sequence in which the woman steps over Charlie’s body, but he reaches for her, not quite dead. However, he falls dead seconds later.

With its slasher dead, the film turns to the real villains, the cabal led by Stern. Stern, unaware Charlie is dead, tells an underling to kill Susan and frame Charlie. Another crony attacks Susan with a knife in her apartment, but fortunately Mead is nearby. After an extremely short foot chase, the crony is hit by a car and killed.

After using the attempt on her life as an excuse to stay overnight, Mead allows Susan to go back to work, where by a great stroke of luck she overhears her boss on a pay phone in the lobby yelling at Stern. “The board didn’t give you the right to act as you please,” he says loudly in public, “especially when it comes to killing innocent people. I demand that you call a meeting now! I’m on my way, Stern!”

Susan follows her boss (who walks oddly like a crab through the lobby) onto the street. She follows his car through the streets of St. Louis, giving us nice views of the Gateway Arch, until they reach a run-down warehouse near train tracks. Her boss enters the warehouse while Susan finds a pay phone and leaves a message with the police department telling Mead where she is. Then she sneaks into the warehouse to spy on the cabal. After using her lighter’s massive flame to illuminate a dark hallway, she is startled by one of Stern’s goons.

When Mead and his partner receive Susan’s message via police radio, Mead’s partner quips, “Who the hell does she think she is? Angie Dickinson?” They place a red light on their car and speed off toward the warehouse.

In the chaotic climactic sequence, Susan is brought to the cabal meeting, where her boss attempts to stand up for her, only to be shot in the stomach by Stern. Stern drags Susan into the main warehouse while his lackey carjacks a random citizen (apparently the cabal has no cars available for emergency escapes). There follows a short and somewhat confusing car chase that ends in the lackey being shot in the head with a shotgun, crashing the car into a brick wall, and another car explosion. (It is probably safe to assume the lackey is quite dead.)

After a shootout that would not be out of place on a TV show starring Angie Dickinson, Stern returns to the cabal’s meeting room and loads up on high-powered weaponry. Stern leaves, locking the door to the meeting room, while the cabal board members panic and I believe they mistakenly shoot a crate full of ammunition, causing them to blow up. In the end, Stern has a flashback to Vietnam, bringing his story in line with Charlie’s. Ironically, Stern mistakes a police helicopter for an Army helicopter arriving to rescue him. Several policemen, including Mead, shoot Stern, killing him. The film ends with a closeup of blood pooling on concrete. 

The first thing that must be discussed about Delirium is the title. To what does "delirium" refer? Although the reference is somewhat ambiguous, there are only two possibilities. One is the PTSD-induced Vietnam flashbacks experienced by both Charlie and Stern as they see themselves in combat. The other is the relationship between Detective Mead and the much younger Susan, as Mead must be delirious to believe he is in a real relationship with the beautiful young woman. While this second explanation is the more probable one, looking at the film's iconic poster reveals a different, more oblique explanation. The poster shows Stern holding a gun but also somehow holding three meat cleavers in three additional hands, all of which threaten a woman who might or might not be Susan. I submit that the third possible meaning of "delirium" is the sense the viewer has when attempting to reconcile the horrific poster with the more straightforward murder/conspiracy/slasher plot of the film itself.

As always, dear reader, the choice about the meaning of the film's title is up to you.