Last night I was privy to one of those harrowing cinematic experiences my film professor, Gary Adelstein, always hoped his students would have during a screening of Berks Filmmakers Inc., at Albright College. That is, witnessing a film that left them confused, uncertain and completely unsure just how they felt about life.
For me, the first of these aforementioned film experiences actually occurred at Berks, watching Pier Paolo Pasolini’s, SalÃ² o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1976). If I watched SalÃ² today, I’m not sure how much it would shock me. This isn’t to say that its depictions of burning penises and women sitting in vats of poop isn’t horrific. Rather, it is that I now have more of a context to couch the film within and realize that SalÃ² was aimed, in part, to shock with its portrayal of fascist Italy. As such, today, the films that leave me unsettled now are of an entirely different breed like Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (1994), a documentary about the life and times of comic artist Robert Crumb (Grue will back me up on this one). And then there was last night’s film, Jim Van Bebber’s Deadbeat at Dawn (1988).
Originally I hoped to watch the film with my friend Brian (Dick), because I know he has a penchant for the Nintendo game River City Ransom, a video game (as far I can tell) about thugs beating other thugs up. When I initially read about Deadbeat at Dawn, I thought it sounded like a celluloid version of River City Ransom. And on its surface, that’s essentially what Deadbeat at Dawn is. The story of Deadbeat at Dawn is pretty straight down the line as thug fantasies go, reading something like: Thug goes out and fights other thugs; thug goes home to girlfriend who convinces him to give up thug-life; thug does so, but then other really bad-thugs who are pissed off at said thug kill thug’s girlfriend and in a rather roundabout way thug enacts his revenge on bad-thugs. In addition to a cartoon plot (or video game plot), there were ninja stars, nun-chucks and plenty of shaggy Chuck Norris antics to boot.
So what on Earth made Deadbeat at Dawn one of my most frightening film experiences in recent memory? I can hear you saying, “The film sounds fucking retarded.” Well, I’ll tell you – Jim Van Bebber, the film’s director, writer, star and auteur, did.
Let me explain. Back in my heady days of playing Dungeons and Dragons, somewhere in my head I drew a line between the kids whom I’d fight imaginary monsters with and the kids whom I wouldn’t. Funnily enough, the division had nothing to do with the kid being a dickhead. Due to the very nature of the game, you were inevitably going to play with dickheads, because you needed them to fill out the table. These weren’t the kids I shied away from. Dickheads were welcome, and today some of these same dickheads are my best friends.
Scary kids, on the other hand – I steered clear of. Sometimes they wound up at one of the tables I sat, but I either never invited them back or met them on neutral territory after I got a sense of their agendas. Usually these kids had penchants for black, camouflage and trench coats, blades, Satan and scary music. My mother never told me that I should avoid these kids like the plague, I did it instinctively.
Perhaps it was these instincts that I honed early on that gave me cause to suspect that these wayward children were lost souls, and it had nothing at all to do with Dungeons and Dragons, but something else entirely, something much, much darker. For instance, I watched Mazes and Monsters (1982), directed by Steven Hilliard Stern, and managed only to find absurdity in Tom Hanks’ portrayal of a gamer gone mad. While the events that inspired the film were no laughing matter, the depiction of Dungeons and Dragons as a gateway to the dark-lord himself was farcical. Was my laughter misbegotten? Something, after all, made the scary kids tick and want to do things like venture into the sewers in search of the black demon goat god. Even though my idea of D&D was listening to the Swedish jazz of Bo Hansson and drinking generic cola, maybe I, too, was just a dice roll away from a subterranean adventure of blood and madness.
So, during my senior year of high school, I set out on an adventure of my own of sorts, when I decided I would either dispel the myth that Dungeons and Dragons was the root of all evil or confirm that it was indeed a skintling portal to hell. To do this, I chose to write senior term paper on the subject.
Research began, along with my many hours of sitting in the Wicomico County Library. The brunt of my paper focused on an a group of kids who had been involved in a series of killings that had been linked to their fascination with the game. The arguments tended to be put forth by conservative watch-dog and/or religious groups. The more I read, the angrier I got, until eventually I was pounding my fists, thinking, “These fools! This isn’t even bad sensationalistic journalism, this is just propaganda mumbo-jumbo!”
Something happened though, and suddenly I forgot all about my “right fight” when I was distracted by none other than a girl. I began to refer to her as the “Library Girl” (she was the start in a long line of many), as she was in the library most of the evenings I was there, obviously working on her term paper, too. She wasn’t from my school, as I’d never seen her before. My friend Chris, who came with me some nights to work on his paper also, hypothesized she was from Bennett, a local rival high school. Soon my notecards became filled with odes and lyrics immortalizing the Library Girl. She’d never hear the songs though – because not only was I too scared to talk to her, I couldn’t play guitar. Accordingly, I did the next best thing, and began drawing with Chris a series of caricatures of none other than guitar legend Kurt Cobain. Beneath Kurt we rather ingeniously put captions with Nirvanian messages in them like: “Hey, way” and “Let me eat your cancer.” “God,” I thought secretly in my head, “if the Library Girl could just see one of these pictures, she’d think I was the cleverest man alive”.
Though I never talked to the girl, I wound up having a great time writing my term paper and inadvertently discovering the answer to the question it posed about Dungeons and Dragons. Things like grisly death just weren’t for me. I wanted to laugh and have a good time, whether I was dreaming of Library Girls, drawing pictures of Kurt or playing Dungeons and Dragons. My final conclusion was: Dungeons and Dragons didn’t kill, fucked up people did. Though I didn’t write that as my clincher sentence in the term paper, in retrospect, I know now that I should have.
So what does all of this retrospection have to do with Deadbeat at Dawn? Deadbeat at Dawn was one of those films that gave me the sense that most of the actors in it had played Dungeons and Dragons at one time or another. However, they were the same kids who were on the other side of the line.
While the violence of Deadbeat at Dawn is pure drive-in-exploitation and adolescent fantasy of the highest calibre, the true brutality of film lies in the reality constantly boiling underneath the film’s images. No matter how many tomato-sized jugulars are ripped out of people’s throats, there is something ten times scarier about the raw conviction and intensity that virtually all the film’s actors bring to their performances. This gives the viewer, who from the first minute of the film knows it is at best a B-Movie, cause to wonder just where the acting ends and the actors’ realities begin. It becomes quickly apparent Deadbeat at Dawn isn’t a Chuck Norris outing like Delta Force (1986), directed by Menahem Golan, but instead a film made by people who desperately wish Delta Force was for real.
This isn’t to suggest that Deadbeat at Dawn is the work of a madman, because it isn’t. Rather, Deadbeat at Dawn, is truly the work of an artist who not only seems to be fully aware of the pitfalls of his chosen genre, but is constantly willing to subvert, challenge and complicate the representation of his vision at almost every turn.
Along with Deadbeat at Dawn‘s somewhat too intense performances, this is evident on an artistic level in the film’s portrayal of its central protagonist, Goose, played by Van Bebber. While Goose is highly romanticized, from his ninjitsu-absurdity to his Rambo physique, his character is again and again placed in an undignified light, a light which subverts his character’s more romanticized traits. At one point in the film, Goose hides out with his father, a crackpot and drug addict who shoots heroine in his toes. When Goose’s father tries to kill Goose for junk money, Goose punches him and proceeds to give him the money telling him to kill himself if he wants. The disdain and loathing for his father is apparent.
Yet Goose’s loathing is shown to be hypercritical, as he himself is not only a drug addict, but also a drug dealer. Shortly after Goose’s girlfriend is killed, Goose goes on a drug binge, winding up stupefied and fumbling with a gun. A nearby bum, afraid that Goose is going to use the gun on him, asks Goose what he plans on doing with the gun. Goose answers he’s going to commit suicide. The bum laughs that’s cool, as if to say even he, a cowardly hobo, is not that stupid. It isn’t Goose’s own good sense that prevents his suicide in the end, but one of his fellow X-gang members.
Even Goose’s final revenge on the gang who killed his girlfriend isn’t accomplished because of a set of noble heroics. Rather, it is comes about merely because Goose attempts to preserve his own life amidst a gang coup. It’s only after the gang start killing other members that Goose realizes he’s next and, in attempt to preserve his own life, is able to exact his revenge on the gang members who killed his girlfriend. In a way, Goose finally becomes a Chuck Norris of sorts with the conclusion of the film, but his transformation is one that is fractured and distorted, much like the fractured kaleidoscopic transitions between the various scenes in the film.
In this regard, Deadbeat at Dawn finds a kindred cousin in the writers of the American Naturalist tradition of the early 1900’s like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. Whereas Dreiser and Norris had often utilized melodrama and sensationalism to reveal what they felt to be the reality inherent in the worlds they wrote about, Deadbeat at Dawn similarly uses its comic book violence as vehicle to reveal a very real world of the streets.
The DVD itself is chock full of great extras, such as a commentary from Van Bebber and the film’s producer, Mike King. It also contains the surprisingly good short film, My Sweet Satan (1994) also directed, written and enacted by Van Bebber. Whereas Deadbeat at Dawn‘s pulpiness may deter some from seeing Van Bebber’s talent, My Sweet Satan, makes it quite clear. While the story of the film is very straightforward like Deadbeat at Dawn, Van Bebber is virtually unrecognizable as Ricky Kasslin. Without raving more about the merits of this DVD and the films on it, I should end it by saying that if any of this review has piqued your interest at all, then you should do yourself a favor and check out Deadbeat at Dawn as soon as possible.
Ultimately, like those kids on the other side of the line from my Dungeons and Dragons days, I wouldn’t want to hang out with anybody responsible for or who acted in Deadbeat at Dawn. However, this doesn’t mean that the film isn’t a truly stunning piece of independent cinema, because it is and very possibly a work of genius.