It is reported that screenwriter, and sometime director, Alan Ormsby (1943-) was inspired in the late 1960s after seeing a screening of the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) with some university friends.
“Let’s do something like that,” said Ormsby after seeing the movie in downtown Miami one evening. The result would be Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972).
Children, as we’ll call it, has been described as having an overly silly script while Leonard Maltin also didn’t like it but also calls the film “weird”.
The script is the brainchild of Ormsby (1943-) and Bob Clark (1939-2007 killed with his son in a head on collision with a drunk driver) who is probably best known as the director of Porky’s (1981).
It was one of Clark’s first projects as well as Ormsby’s first. Both had been students at the University of Miami and their work in theatrical studies would also associate another student there by the name of Jeff Gillen (1942-95).
Ormsby called the three of them “friendly rivals” but “more friends than rivals”.
Children was described by Ormsby, who also stars in the movie as ‘Alan’, as a “half-arsed endeavour”.
Filmed on a reported cost of as little as $50,000 – it’s a cult film. Shot in fourteen days.
“It’s a masterpiece. The vibrations are powerful,” says Anya Ormsby (no info) about the setting for the movie, a cottage amid a cemetery on an isolated island. She also plays her real name ‘Anya’ in the movie.
The film which will see the dead come to life is either slightly impeded or helped by dark photography by the movie’s director of photography Jack McGowan – he worked on another cult baddie Zaat (1971).
The other wonder of the movie is Ormsby’s performance as the colourful – he wears unholy striped pants – leader of “a group of jaded young deviates” who go to the island with a book of spells, which Alan thinks will raise the dead.
They set up house in an abandoned caretaker’s cottage – he went to the asylum a couple of years earlier, while the first caretaker murdered his family and the second one hanged himself! A bit different to Gull Cottage in the tv series The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1968-69)!! This cottage is also rat infested.
Ormsby’s script with Clark matches his near fruity – not quite – performance. In fact, his is one of the great performances in low budget films of the day along with his almost over the top laugh…
“Something is going to happen tonight,” says Anya… “I can feel it.”
Children is cheap but not too nasty.
The book of spells comes direct from the Druids and the old religions… and the spell they pick will call the dead from their graves. Did I mention that already?!!
“… and it is nearly midnight. So I suggest we go and exhume our corpse…”
They go about doing so… with a failed midnight reading at the grave. No rising corpse! We’ve already had a gay couple impersonate zombies in a preamble to the reading, something which leads to Ormsby’s ‘classic’ laugh.
“You’ve got a weird sense of humour,” says one of Ormsby’s students, while another has peed his pants.
And when Ormsby is about to do his failed reading he says at the witching hour: “We have to hurry, he won’t wait” of the devil. And after some dithering the “children” decide they’re going to try and raise hell… using the dried blood of an unborn infant… “by these words we do implore” goes on Ormsby’s satanic monologue… “let them rise… let them rise up!” But as I said – sadly, no – much to Ormsby’s disappointment.
“They must be out to lunch,” jokes one of the children.
It’s actress Valerie Mamches (1941-2015) who startles with an artistic version of raising the dead… but, no.
The “children” take a corpse, which Ormsby has nicknamed Orville, back to the cottage where they keep him in a spare room while outside there is the beginning of some kind of graveyard disturbance.
The make-up is good thanks to Ormsby again. He admitted for special effects he used “anything in my mother’s kitchen” including egg shells, toilet paper as well as latex.
As the dead come to life and start to mass outside the cottage, the sense of claustrophobia is palpable, like it was in Night of the Living Dead. Bob Clark has clearly learned from director of that film George A. Romero. The atmosphere is great, or it’s a piece of trash depending to your point of view.
“There’s great beauty in death,” says Anya. “It shouldn’t be defiled.”
But these “children” have defiled it and insulted it to the extreme as Ormsby continues to show no respect in the lead-up to the corpses gathering outside – when he says he might make mobiles out of Orville’s bones… or take his scraps and feed him to his dogs.
Ormsby is definitely Manson-like and his “children” follow him to the end, which in this case means being torn apart and eaten by the undead. The gore is minimal although the zombies are believable.
Carl Zittrer’s music at the beginning of the climax is incredible in that it is hard-core synth. It is his first score followed by the Bob Clark directed horror classic Black Christmas (1974). Zittrer also did Dead of Night aka Deathdream (1974) and Deranged (1974). The rest of the movie is all grunts and groans.
Children is a low-budget masterpiece when taken in context and worthy of reappraisal if you haven’t seen it already.
“Return and sleep… return and sleep… return and sleep,” says Ormsby towards the end, like it’s an overnight video to be taken back to the local Blockbuster, only to borrow again the next night.
Clark and Ormsby showed their finished product to some producers in Canada and money was quickly raised to make their next movie Deathdream. The films were not shot back to back as is reported by some sources. Although the turnaround was quick, Ormsby had to write the screenplay first.
His first solo screenplay, the filmmakers used the first draft, adding only three scenes.
According to Ormsby, he used the inspiration of a 1940s play by Irwin Shaw (1913-84 prostate cancer) and the short story The Monkey’s Paw (1902) by W. W. Jacobs (1863-1943).
The story has a young Vietnam solder killed in action return home upon the conjuring wishes of his mother alive and well… well, not very well as it turns out…
Ormsby upon writing the script said he knew people who died in Vietnam and felt at the time, like most of the public, that the government was lying about the war. Thus, it is one of the first films to look at Vietnam in a negative light. There is also a drug element in the film as the main character upon returning uses syringes to extract blood to drink.
Ormsby said the film had a “quality feel” despite being “a cheap movie”, due to a good cast which included John Marley (1907-84 following open heart surgery) and Lynn Carlin (1938-). Both were in the John Cassavetes movie Faces (1968) and Carlin got an Oscar nomination for her role in that film.
Richard Backus (1945-) plays the vampire soldier. He was a stage actor who never went on to do much film. Ormsby, however, said Backus had a “sinister deadness” and was perfect for the role.
He wrote the part of the sister for his then wife Anya who was in Children. He also did the make-up on Deathdream. In fact, Tom Savini has one of his first credits for this film and was also the official still photographer. Cinematographer Jack McGowan over-lights some scenes as he works again with director Bob Clark. McGowan would also work on Deranged under Ormsby’s co-direction. So there was definitely a real core of Florida filmmakers on these early movies.
The family in Deathdream are influenced by the family shown in the early 1970s play Sticks and Bones by David Rabe (1940-), who is the father of Lily Rabe (1982-) who appears in American Horror Story. That play looks behind the façade of a typical American family.
“He’s crazy,” says Marley, when Backus strangles the family dog in front of a group of horrified children.
Not only that, but like The Monkey’s Paw, he’s really undead himself.
“I don’t know why every director has to take it on himself to rewrite a script and turn it into his vision, especially is he has no vision,” said Ormsby about the director as auteur. Director Paul Schrader rewrote a lot of Ormsby’s screenplay for Cat People (1982). Yet Ormsby said some things have been attributed to Schrader in that film which are “ludicrous and laughable” since they were not the director’s ideas.
For me, Deathdream is the least enjoyable of the Ormsby/Clark collaborations but it is still a very atmospheric low budget movie.
Looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator in a scene at a drive-in where Backus wears sunglasses… it leads to the final ghoulish make-up in the climax with eye contacts and prosthetics… There’s little gore except for a mannequin getting run over at the drive-in, not real gore, but slightly effective.
Deathdream was shot for between $200,000 and $250,000 depending on who you believe and is an imaginative variation on The Monkey’s Paw. All we get in terms of horror is the knock at the door at the end of the British 1948 film. That version is very disappointing.
The end scene in Deathdream, where Backus crawls into a grave and tries to bury himself, having scrawled his name on the tombstone, is a bit of a classic and the film ends with a cherry-picker shot of said scene.
Also made in quick succession is the American International release Deranged (1974), written by Ormsby who co-directed with Jeff Gillen after Bob Clark pulled out.
We look into the twisted comedy of Deranged and then the horror of Cat People in PART TWO.