CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS
Color, 1972, 88m.
Directed by Bob Clark
Starring Alan Ormsby, Valerie Mamches
Nucleus (UK R0 PAL), VCI (US R1 NTSC), Anchor Bay UK (UK R2 PAL) / 1.85:1 (16:9)

DEAD OF NIGHT (DEATHDREAM)
Color, 1974, 88m.
Directed by Bob Clark
Starring John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Richard Backus, Jane Daly
Nucleus (UK R0 PAL), Blue Underground (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)


Children Shouldn't Play with Dead ThingsIn Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, director and egomaniac Alan (producer Ormsby, later responsible for writing the Cat People remake) escorts several struggling hired actors (his “children”) to a remote island where they can perform a satanic ritual. It all turns out to be one big, sick lark involving some tasteless practical jokes in which they dig up a corpse (nicknamed “Orville”) and read spells which will supposedly bring him back to life. The omnisexual Alan also arranges for his two flamboyantly gay pals to run around in cheap costumes and scare the folks for no apparent reason other than his own twisted private amusement. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the black magic spells really do work. The corpses begin to rise in a particularly foul mood, and Alan finds his callous witticisms useless in the face of the clutching, rotting hands of the undead.

A textbook example of a cult movie designed for fans, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things continues to divide its audience between those who respond to its morbid humor and bargain-basement creepiness or just simply find it cheap and irritating. Set entirely during one night on a remote island, this tongue-in-cheek horror opus from Bob Clark (Black Christmas) is admittedly very difficult to warm up to if you’re not in the mood; for best results, try watching it after midnight with plenty of beer and popcorn on hand, preferably in the company of other people looking for a few lowbrow chuckles and scares. In essence Children operates like an E.C. Comics tale stretched out to feature length, with thoroughly obnoxious, vile characters who all get their just desserts. Whether Ormsby intended his portrayal to be utterly grating or simply gave a bad performance, the character of Alan is the true villain of the film and stoops to a low during the final scene that even makes the zombies pause for a second (a great moment!). Despite its flaws, Children features a terrific concluding half hour in which the horror finally takes over completely. Clark generates a truly chilling atmosphere throughout, but once the dead start to walk, things get very, very creepy.

This first “restored” edition of Children originally appeared on laserdisc from Phantom Video, a fledgling company who unfortunately had to discontinue its pressing immediately due to an unforeseen rights issue. VCI used the same materials for their first DVD, with a transfer plagued by unstable blacks and a dodgy compression job. The film will never look pristine due to its impoverished budget and deliberately hazy look, but there was still room for improvement. It also includes a gallery of lobby cards and promotional art. Anchor Bay UK issued an anamorphic print with (mostly useless) Dolby 5.1 and DTS remixes but fatally failed to thoroughly check their source materials, releasing the shorter cut of the film which runs for barely 75 minutes. Even taking into account the PAL format speed-up, this amounts to almost 10 minutes of missing footage compared to the NTSC version. The big extra here is a commentary by Ormsby, his former wife Anya, and Jane Daly (moderated by future Plague Town director and Severin Films co-founder David Gregory), which makes for a rollicking good time for fans. Unfortunately the chat had to be recut to accommodate the shorter running time. In the US the film was reissued by VCI as a 35th Anniversary edition whose first pressing (erroneously containing the cut version and a seriously botched compression job) was recalled and reissued in much better quality. The commentary is carried over here (in its shorter form) along with a video Q&A with Ormsby, composer Carl Zittrer, construction chief Ken Goch, and set decorator Albert Fisher chatting about Clark at a double feature screening. Then Goch appears solo for a “Confessions of a Grave Digger” interview, followed by zombie-themed music videos by the Deadthings and Freak along with a promotional gallery, the trailer, and an Ormsby bio.  

In the UK, Nucleus tackled the film for a 2012 UK double feature with a better-compressed version of the film (uncut for the first time in the UK, natch) from the same anamorphic transfer (it's still not pretty, of course, but that's the nature of the beast) as well as the only complete release of the audio commentary, slugging in those lDead of Nightong-missing stretches with the bits originally recorded. For that novelty alone this would be worth picking up; you also get the theatrical and some stills. As for the double feature part, it's paired up with another Bob Clark horror fillm, Dead of Night. Released by Blue Underground in the US as Deathdream, it's the grim story of Charles and Christine Brooks (Marley and Carlin), a couple devastated by the news that their son Andy (Backus) has been killed in Vietnam. Christine insists he can't be dead, and soon Andy does show up at their doorstep... but he's a little different and keeps wearing sunglasses. Soon Andy's off on a strange, sinister mission and looking a bit more decomposed by the day, while his family refuses to Dead of Nightconfront the awful truth...

Also written by Ormsby and clearly inspired by the classic short story "The Monkey's Paw" (the same source for Pet Sematary), this eerie little gem has long been a word-of-mouth-favorite among horror fans. The macabre and strangely poignant ending is one of Clark's strongest moments as a filmmaker, and the whole project drips with that queasy sense of dread so specific to the early '70s. It also helps having real pros heading the cast including excellent John Cassavetes veterans Marley (The Godfather, The Dead Are Alive) and Carlin (Taking Off), who manage to sell the potentially tasteless storyline into a truly affecting human drama that happens to involve a moldering zombie.

The solid Blue Underground DVD from 2004 remains the definitive standalone release of this film, of course; it features a satisfying anamorphic transfer from the best 35mm elements (grainy but very film-like and properly rendered) plus commentaries with Clark and Ormsby, a short on the early career of FX artist Tom Savini, a video interview with Backus, an alternate title sequence, a gallery of promotional art, and the slightly longer ending that turned up on Gorgon's VHS release back in the '80s. As a co-feature for Nucleus it's fine here with a virtually identical transfer from what appears to be the same source, though the extra bits from the ending have been incorporated here into the main feature. The trailer and a gallery are also included, but the really substantial new goodie here is a thorough set of liner notes by Julian Grainger, whose "Production History" is a fact-stuffed chronicle of the two films from the early days of "She-Man" through the production and release histories of both films, including some surprising potential casting choices and the odd connections to Ormsby's forgotten drag comedy The Great Masquerade. Essential reading, and a nice tribute to two of the shining moments in '70s horror filmmaking.

Review on 6/24/12.