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The Front Row

Check your emotional bags: ‘Dream No Evil,’ takes us on a trip to Daddy Issue City

EVANSVILLE — At the outset, the premise of John Patrick Hayes’ 1970 film Dream No Evil could easily be mistaken for the plot of the recent Star Wars films, as orphan Grace MacDonald (Brooke Mills) is taken in by a religious zealot as she longs to search for her long lost, and most likely deceased father. But instead of wielding a lightsaber and saving the galaxy from an emo, naval-gazing, biker gang lead by that guy who works at the record store that scoffs at your purchase of Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried because he’s darker than you are, Grace’s predicament is far worse as she performs a pretty dangerous, very loosely symbolic, impotent high-rise trapeze act for a traveling church service lead by her adopted brother, the hell-fire and brimstone reverend who’s just a few lines of coke away from fronting a gothic punk band, Jessie Bundy (Michael Pataki). And did I mention Grace is engaged to be married to her other adopted brother Patrick Bundy (Paul Prokop) who seems like a sensible guy by not following in his family’s footsteps in the traveling faith-healer business, but is instead studying to be a true healer like, you know, a doctor.

Title card for “Dream No Evil.”

And if that’s not weird enough, one night after Grace dives into a pile of foam rubber for the Lord, she wanders into a “hotel for retired men” and is approached by an undertaker (Marc Lawrence) who propositions her to work at his whorehouse because he’s also a pimp, and who happens to be right smack in the middle of preparing to embalm, you guessed it, Grace’s dead father in the basement of his funeral home / hotel / brothel. And if the weirdness is too much, and you really aren’t sure you can believe what you’re seeing, fret not, my good and faithful servant! Thine fears shall be abated by the omnipresent narrator who guides the plot along telling you everything you think is happening is actually happening, making this thing seem like an exploitation educational film. Yay, verily.

You’re probably saying to yourself, “Okay, all that weird stuff is out of the way, we can finally get to what’s really going on.” I say thee, nay. Because not only is Grace’s dead father conveniently placed at this critical moment in what we’re calling a story here, like the faith she’s high-rise free-falling for, daddy MacDonald rises from his inert state and murders the undertaker pimp who has so wrongly attempted to appropriate his daughter into an unsavory lifestyle.

And now that daddy Timothy MacDonald (Edmond O’Brien) is inexplicably, alive, well, and vertical, we’re well underway, as Grace and Jessie pay him a visit and the killing continues.

I hesitate to call Mr. MacDonald a helicopter parent, not only because he’s just being protective of his daughter, but also because he’s actually dead, and in case you didn’t know already or missed the narrator’s spoiler commentary, it’s actually Grace killing anyone who might see fit to harm her, particularly in a sexual way.

But at the heart of this film clearly isn’t a murder mystery — the narrator makes damn sure of that — but a comment on that cold shower topic of “Daddy Issues.” This film catches a lot of hell for giving away who the killer is, and it’s done so blatantly, I have to believe that director John Patrick Hayes was actually trying to tell us about the possible world view of a child who grows up searching that missing parental connection that is so critical in our impressionable years. And according to an article on the Minnesota Psychological Association website which states, “children raised in households lacking a father experience psychosocial problems with greater frequency than children with a father in the home,” I can’t say Hayes is entirely incorrect in his speculation.

The article goes on to outline 10 different possible scenarios that are the result of children raised in homes without a father. And relevant to this film, the key scenarios being “Perceived Abandonment,” “Mental Health Issues,” and because a traveling church service from the back of a pickup truck and a camper aren’t exactly the Life of Riley, “Poverty and Homelessness.” But the gospel most relevant in this film is “Attachment Issues,” which the MPA explains, “The inability to form a strong caregiver bond is associated with hypervigilance to anger and a misappropriation of hostile intent to neutral stimuli, both of which may result in conduct problems in the child. Such misconduct may have the unintended consequence of creating difficulties in the development of friendships and healthy romantic relationships.” Tack that on to the previously mentioned abandonment and mental health issues, with a little bit of exploitation cinema to drive the point home, and you got yourself a Grace MacDonald with a bloodlusty personality complex.

You might say, “I don’t think so, Lucas. None of that seems very exciting, and sounds like a pretty lame way to look at a horror film.” Behold, friends, and lay thine eyes upon the trailer that Grace rides around in for her Jesus carnival: “God is alive… I talked to him this morning! Decide now to be with Jesus or burn in everlasting Hell,” are the words emblazoned on its side. And if you’ll bow your heads in prayer, we know that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the same, and here are used as a metaphor for Grace’s own father, who was “resurrected,” and also exists as a “spirit” in the sense that he lives in her mind, and lest she “decide now,” she is doomed to burn in the “everlasting Hell” of “Perceived Abandonment,” “Mental Health Issues,” and “Attachment Issues.”

And while we’re on the topic of Southern Baptist convictions, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention their predilection for death and aversion to sex which are both pretty heavy-handed themes in this film, which makes me believe that Hayes is also commenting on how beating a kid over the head with all that during the impressionable years, along with enough emotional baggage to need a dozen existential bellhops could really make a pretty troubled adult.

This film was one of Hayes’ tamer pictures during the 1970s. He had done quite a bit of exploitation and porn, but he’s probably best known for his three horror films, Grave of the Vampire, Garden of the Dead, and of course, Dream No Evil. Hayes was also the longtime lover of our favorite and sexiest Golden Girl Blanche Devereaux played by Rue McClanahan who starred in several of his early pictures. My favorite title of their films together, 1963’s Five Minutes to Love, where McClanahan’s Poochie basically explains it just like you think she means it: “It only takes a minute. Five minutes, that’s all. Did you ever look at a clock? That’s all it takes, actual time. Five minutes maybe. Then what? It’s all over. There’s no sign left, no mark. It’s all done and past. Just two people, for five minutes.”

By the time we reach the final moments of the film, Patrick has fallen for his roommate and fellow student Shirley (Donna Anders) and heads out to old MacDonald’s farm to break things off with Grace only to discover his brother is dead, the place is boarded up, and after Grace tries to kill Patrick and Shirley with an axe to the windshield, the cops finally arrive to take poor, troubled Grace away. And if the narrator (who I can’t seem to find a credit for) didn’t already make it clear enough, the police psychiatrist (Arthur Franz) is on the scene to basically tell us what we already know.

This movie shows its entire hand pretty early on and then jams it down our throats for the entire 84 minutes, and it bounces around from scene to scene getting weirder as it goes. But its sum is not quite as weird as its parts which makes for an entertaining show, and like the Bible and Star Wars tells us, meek are the children for they shall inherit the earth, may the Force be with you, forever and ever, Amen.

Three stars.

(Blu-ray release from Arrow Video’s American Horror Project, Volume 2 box set.)



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