The Aussie Cult of Actress Linda Blair in Dead Sleep (1990)

*contains spoilers

The Linda Blair (1959-) movie Dead Sleep (1990) looks into a part of Australian medical history which should not be forgotten like this movie unfortunately is. The fundamental question of whether a family and the patient themselves should listen and take psychiatric treatment and advice as the gospel truth and not just as a form of moneymaking for the doctor is central to the movie.

Doctors treating the mentally ill often just rely lazily on medication as they give five or ten-minute consultations, often just upping medication as opposed to some sort of therapy to treat the real problem and instead lower medication. I nearly died of heart failure as a result of my ‘trusted’ psychiatrist treating me this way – but that’s another story. In Dead Sleep, the depicted doctor will treat you in hospital for two weeks non-stop with mega-doses of drugs to put you in a coma and you may possibly die as a result.

Actress Linda Blair in the late 1980s early 1990s
Please don’t ask me another question about The Exorcist….
Tony Bonner and Linda Blair on a VHS cover for Dead Sleep (1990)

This authoritarian doctor’s belief in his own regimen between overseas holidays and a swelling bank account at the expense of his patients is the true story of Dr. Harry Bailey (1922-85 drug and alcohol overdose) who treated and, as a result, killed many people with his deep sleep therapy which was mixed together with Electro Convulsive Therapy.

This all happened at the Chelmsford Private Hospital between 1962 and 1979. The amazing thing is that it went on so long, as people died during the treatments at the hospital, while more committed suicide after their release from treatment as they were ‘cured’.

“The people we’ve been picking have been really the bottom of the can,” said Dr. Bailey in a real-life interview. “Nothing’s going to help them. Shoot them is the only way.”

It is a line quoted verbatim in the closing moments of the movie Dead Sleep about how patients are treated or overmedicated to death for being… well, a waste of space, according to the doctors that treat them. The truth being there’s not enough good doctors to go round to treat the scourge of mental illness which is affecting the population in this increasingly complex and desperate world.

Poor Linda’s career suffered as a result of her private life
The real Dr. Harry Bailey who oversaw treatment at the Chelmsford Private Hospital
What horrors went on in the deep sleep therapy ward? Two dozen died.

Linda Blair, who will forever be associated with the movie The Exorcist (1973), starred in two movies in Australia in the early 1990s, the first was Dead Sleep, while the second was Fatal Bond (1991). Both are considered Australian exploitation movies. I’ll look in to Fatal Bond a little bit later and quote some wisdom from a latter-day Blair interview.

The story of Dead Sleep follows and creates characters taken from a 60 Minutes report into the Chelmsford Hospital’s activities in the 1980s and their ability to make money while almost acting as vigilantes in cleansing society of its misfits… while their star patients were properly attended. If you watch the current affairs report after of before viewing the movie, you may perhaps feel like looking to see if there’s a disclaimer in the movie’s credits of: “Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.”

Dead Sleep was a brave movie and a recent failed legal bid to rewrite history in terms of a defamation case concerning the Chelmsford scandal is probably the reason it has been unreleased in Australia on DVD to this day. The ruling by a judge over this case allows journalists use information found in Royal Commission findings to be used freely and without fear of legal retribution.

Dead Sleep tells us how patients who were suffering from illnesses such as depression through to schizophrenia were put under sedation with high levels of barbiturates and other drugs for two weeks at a time and given shock treatments while they were asleep and even half-awake without anaesthetic.

The movie is set in Brisbane and not Sydney where the real abuse happened under the ‘legitimate’ treatment of Dr. Bailey. In the movie, Linda Blair turns up for an interview at the Elysian Fields Private Hospital. We know she’s going to be our outsider heroine who will atone for these horrors because it is Linda Blair!

“There’s a lot more to psychiatric nursing than just taking care of people,” says the matron, at Elysian Fields, with almost a latent sense of deadly permanency in terms of ‘taking care of people’.

Actor Tony Bonner as Dr. Bailey… er, Dr. Heckett in Dead Sleep (1990)
Linda as a concerned nurse at the clinic
Tony Bonner (right) was admired in Skippy the Bush Kangaroo

The doctor in Dead Sleep is named Dr. Jonathan Heckett and is portrayed by actor Tony Bonner (1943-), who is best known in Australia for being a recovering alcoholic and nude centrefold. He is also beloved as Jerry the helicopter pilot in the tv series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1967-69). Dr Heckett explains to his captive audience in a lecture theatre that his treatment works and seems to truly believe in his own allure and abilities and compels the audience to believe in his so-called cure.

One nurse wasn’t fooled by the real Dr. Bailey and said in an interview and that he was “the debonair type, that smokes a cigar…. Very nice and charming and a lot of people had fallen for this charm.”

One of those who did fall hook, line and sinker for the real Dr Bailey was Australian entertainer and tv show host Bobby Limb (1924-99 cancer), who had an anxiety attack while filming a tv show and went to Bailey for help. “I considered him then an absolute genius,” said Limb, who had been recommended to the psychiatrist for treatment.

Limb couldn’t remember much about the treatment, except being roused to stumble to the toilet using the walls to hold him up because he was so woozy.

Another nurse said of the real Dr. Bailey: “He really did believe in it.”

The Easybeats split and went on to form Flash N The Pan. Here’s their song Hey St. Peter!
The ward inside the clinic in Dead Sleep (1990) where patients die from being treated
Singer Stevie Wright never fully recovered

Linda Blair’s ‘worm’ of a boyfriend tells her that “I’ve quit drugs, I’m going into this rehab programme” and he checks into Elysian Fields to avoid a possible jail sentence for a drug arrest.

I’m blurring the movie with the real accounts of actual events and another victim of Dr Bailey was singer Stevie Wright (1947-2015 pneumonia) of the band The Easybeats, who tried to cure himself of drug addiction by going to Chelmsford. His life was marred by his stay at the clinic. It certainly didn’t cure any of his problems and he died a man broken by drug and alcohol addiction.

“We keep the sedation patients under without calling him (Dr Heckett) every ten minutes,” says matron and Blair is officious to outsiders questioning the practice as she too at first believes in the integrity of the hospital… and the psychiatrist in charge. She doesn’t quite know yet the extent of the evil goings on at Elysian Fields.

“This lady has a psychotic history,” says Dr Heckett in dismissing the so-called ravings of a former female patient about the overprescribing of medication which seems to be killing people – others die suddenly without explanation. Is what is written on the death certificate true? No one is listening in Dead Sleep as no one did in reality.

“That’s the plight of us healers Maggie…,” says Dr Heckett charmingly to Blair. “We have to help them in spite of themselves.” And we see that Dr. Heckett is some sort of split personality or a deluded psychopath.

The writer of the screenplay for Dead Sleep was Michael Rymer (1963-), who tried to delve more sincerely into the plight of the mentally ill with his movie Angel Baby (1995), which ultimately said there was really no hope for people with schizophrenia in its depressing finale and that they’re better off just doing bird calls and jumping off the local bridge. How touching! Hopefully, the future will see a more positive option and attempt to solve the problem instead of just the hopelessness of over-medication.

Dead Sleep (1990) screenwriter Michael Rymer
Role models… If only the characters in this film celebrated their anniversary

Rymer also directed the singer and actress Aaliyah’s (1979-2001 light plane crash) last movie Queen of the Damned (2002) and reportedly contributed, tellingly, to American Horror Story’s Asylum chapter (2012). His screenplay for Dead Sleep shows intelligence although the movie scores an average of less than five on the IMDb.

The ward where the patients under deep sleep therapy in Dead Sleep is lit with a purplish hue, as opposed to what was really a darkened room with the smell of patients lying in their own faeces. This ultra-violet ward seems to be inspired by the Michael Crichton (1942-2008 lymphoma) directed medical thriller Coma (1978) which is an exceptionally good and obviously influential thriller. But Dead Sleep is low-budget fare which went straight to VHS tape which was the DVD of the day.

The life of Linda Blair’s character starts to blur with that of the patients in the hospital when her ex-boyfriend is admitted and following his release from the hospital after the treatment, he then commits suicide. There is also the suggestion that Dr Heckett’s bedside manner crosses the line with patients and nurses as he becomes some sort of God-player and lover.

A scene from Coma (1978) which seems to have inspired some moments in Dead Sleep (1990)

“At least she’s getting some,” complains one nurse to another, who reacts by snapping her diaphragm case shut and walking off. Spice it up with a bit of sex talk and you have an exploitation movie with a social conscience.

Then there’s Brian May’s (1934-97 heart attack) music which is a bit different from his usual compositions but otherwise unremarkable. I interviewed him once at his unit at the Gold Coast… but I’m name dropping… Just like the real Dr Bailey was known for name-dropping, as he said his deep sleep treatment was legitimate because it was based on the work of English Dr William Sargant (1907-88) and his ‘pioneering’ use of deep sleep therapy and other mind cleansing alternatives. Perhaps Bailey had delusions of grandeur with his perverted form of the treatment as Sargent’s deep sleep therapy was rumoured to be related to mind control experiments sanctioned by the CIA.

“Whatever you manage in this field, I thought of it first,” Britain’s Dr. Sargant wrote in a note to Canadian Donald Ewen Cameron (1901-67 heart attack), who also experimented in deep sleep therapy. Conspiracy theories and the CIA be damned, Dr Bailey in Australia was killing people with an extreme and unsanctioned form of Sargent’s treatment. At least Sargent woke his patients for meals while Bailey had them fed through a nasal tube to the stomach and kept them under for a fortnight’s duration.

A book by British sleep therapy pioneer Dr. William Sargant. Bailey seemed to emulate Sargant’s charm as well as his medical procedures.
The reality of Dr Sargant’s treatments in Britain…

My elderly neighbour who lived in the United States for many years said she knew about such treatments and they were hardly dangerous as it was commonly used to treat obesity. She even thought I should try it! Put a patient under for a week or two and that’s a way to skip a whole lot of calories. Not thanks, I’ll remain fat and an involuntary celibate like Joker.

Actress and singer Toni Lamond (1932-), who was the half-sister of Helen Reddy (1941-2020 Addison’s disease and dementia), said in her memoirs that when she got the treatment in 1970, she had a semi-private room and “thought nothing of it at the time” about Dr Bailey’s idea to cure her of her addiction to prescription drugs. She and Dr. Bailey also thought it was great that she had lost some weight at the end of the treatment. But at the Chelmsford Clinic the unlucky patients were getting almost nightly shock treatments with their calorie reduction and some didn’t respond or were treated as well as celebrities Limb and Lamond.

Toni Lamond (left) with half-sister Helen Reddy
Entertainer Bobby Limb suffered a bout of anxiety…
The results at the clinic were enough to send more than shivers down Linda Blair’s spine in Dead Sleep (1990)

Dead Sleep shows how the Department of Health in New South Wales failed to look properly into the reported deaths at Chelmsford and Linda Blair’s nurse is frustrated by bureaucracy as she tries to reveal the truth to the authorities. The moral responsibility of the government had been negligent for many years in terms of regulating this aspect of the medical industry.

“Sounds too good to be true,” says a patient about to face treatment and the drama of Dead Sleep takes off as our heroine becomes “too dangerous” because she has witnessed a patient die because of “negligence”.

The movie isn’t particularly well directed by British cinematographer Alec Mills (1932-) but it’s better than usual compared to other direct to video dreck. I’ve only got an old VHS and it may look better in widescreen.

One real survivor of the treatment at the clinic said: “I was sedated for two weeks, had pains in my chest, I was vomiting blood, and my legs began to swell”. Transferred to another hospital, he had double pneumonia, pleurisy, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism and ectopic brain damage. And he was one of the lucky ones!

The best part of Dead Sleep is its climax which has Blair and Dr. Heckett face off after she gives the “zombie” patients a placebo and they start to rouse from their comas.

“I thought it all through …,” the good doctor tells himself as his megalomania begins to take on a new dimension of dementedness. “…They’re just not getting enough sleep!” And he thinks that Blair would “benefit from some sleep therapy” herself…

The original 60 Minutes report on the Chelmsford scandal
And the book…
Yes, it did happen. Patients were almost chosen to die and their death certificates allegedly falsified.

There are a couple of other Coma influenced moments and, in the end, Dr. Heckett drives off a cliff after being discredited. He even speaks the exact words from the real Dr. Bailey’s interview in the climax of the movie in which he said people with mental illness should be shot…

In reality, Dr. Bailey was reportedly given a dose of his own treatment when he unknowingly got admitted to Chelmsford hospital and was given deep sleep therapy along with ECT as there were others involved in these happenings. This is apparently true and the ultimate in what goes around comes around. As a result, he went to a secluded dirt track and took an overdose of alcohol and sleeping tablets in 1985. He left a note: “I’ve had enough… always remember that the forces of evil are greater than the forces of good.” It was the Church of Scientology, of all organisations, which first pushed for an investigation into the goings on which led finally to the revelations on 60 Minutes.

The Chelmsford Royal Commission into the tragedy happened in 1988-90 and finished deliberations around the time the movie was made. It found that 25 patients died at the clinic in the 1960s and 70s while just as many had committed suicide as a result of their treatment often due to a subsequent addiction to tranquilisers.

Linda Blair liked her experience in Australia and followed it up by returning and making Fatal Bond (1991). It is a far sexier role for the actress as it questions the wisdom of adventurous young women picking up bad boys in bars for sexual liaisons and dreaming of a happy ending at the altar. Perhaps it’s that old complex where they hope to tame or cure them of their wicked ways as an alternative to deep sleep therapy or prison?

Advertising for Fatal Bond (1991) gives Donal Gibson star treatment
Producer and screenwriter Phil Avalon (from left), Linda Blair and Jerome Ehlers behind the scenes of Fatal Bond (1991)

Fatal Bond was one of six low-budget features to be made by producer-writer Phil Avalon (no info) between 1988 and 1995. He has been described as a kind of auteur by one critic. The film was directed by Vincent Monton (no info) who was the cinematographer on such classics as Newsfront (1978), Long Weekend (1978) and Roadgames (1981). Monton also directed the cult movie Windrider (1986) which features Nicole Kidman (1967-) in an early role. The star opposite Blair is Jerome Ehlers (1958-2014 cancer) who gives a kind of Robert Mitchum (1917-97 lung cancer) noir performance as the bad boy who may or may not be a serial killer.

The film is a bit of a vintage car lover’s dream, with the appearance of a 1962 Valiant S series driven by Ehlers and a 1960s Citroen ‘Goddess’ also making an appearance in the climax. But they are only minor flourishes along the way with good use of an abandoned drive-in as a location.

“What? Don’t you like my car?,” Linda asks Ehlers about her Japanese sedan when she decides to take him home after he headbutts one of her girlfriend’s lovers over nothing in particular. And later she says seductively to him as an invitation up to her apartment: “I have a few friends I’d like you to meet.”

There are not too many films which have Blair astride a man while reaching a noisy orgasmic climax with one of her breasts hanging out… The deadly seriousness of Dead Sleep is dropped for an adventure of a different kind as Blair’s lover definitely “speaks Italian” and she doesn’t want to let him go. It’s a case of following him to the ends of the Earth.

Linda picks up bad boys in bars in Fatal Bond (1991)
Except this one could be a serial killer…

“Did you know, I’ve won several hairdressing awards?,” says Blair as she tries to impress Ehlers. We know she’s a good girl at heart when she buys him dinner at an expensive restaurant… but she’s hooked and can’t let go. Ehlers’s character’s name is the possibly alias of Joe T. Martinez and Linda wants to know what the ‘T’ stands for… Does she really want-tuh know?

Meanwhile a young girl is murdered as a part of the plot and Blair and Ehlers travel along the coast as the police try and solve the murder. Is Ehlers the killer? He was photographed watching the girl while wearing creepy sunglasses. Then there’s the murdered girl’s just as creepy Christian father who is all fire and brimstone and obsessed with promiscuity.

Fatal Bond has a rare appearance by Mel Gibson’s (1956-) younger brother Donal (1958-) and it is reported that he was given the role over Russell Crowe (1964-) due to studio interference but it seems unlikely. It might have been a favour for Mel. You see, Mel Gibson did appear in Phil Avalon’s Summer City (1977) which has Mel as one of a bunch of passionate and committed surfers who, while sitting in the backseat of a car on his way to the beach, gives fellow surfer Steve Bisley (1951-) an incredibly asexual butterfly smack on the lips in some sort of spontaneous show of brotherly love and affection. It’s a joke.

A poster for Phil Avalon’s Summer City (1977)

Another actor who appears in Fatal Bond is former heavyweight boxer Joe Bugner (1950-) and he makes an impression with his strong-arm tactics in his attempt to kill Ehlers. Fatal Bond has a coda which says that Linda Blair went on to have seven children… It’s not a great movie but is of interest to those Blair lovers who are unaware of her work in Australia.

As for Blair herself, she never topped her Oscar nominated turn in The Exorcist (1973) which has been a source topic of too many interviews for her when, really, she has had an interesting b-grade film career. There were rumours she had a breakdown after making The Exorcist but she won’t talk about it.

She followed The Exorcist with her portrayal in Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975). Once again do you want-tuh know what the “T’ stands for? This tv movie shows how lousy the world can seem from an early age for its protagonist when you’ve got a dysfunctional family and a fondness of draining glasses of spirits in one or two gulps.

Sarah T – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975 tv movie) poster
Linda in a scene from Born Innocent (1974 tv movie)
Linda Blair’s drug arrest in 1977 blighted her career… briefly

The previous year Blair had made a controversial appearance in Born Innocent (1974 tv movie) which had her raped in the showers by other teenage girls in her reform school using a blunt instrument. The film was apparently advertised or confused with wildlife movie Born Free (1966) which made conservative viewers think they were going to watch a family movie. Anyway, it went down like a lead balloon and to add further fuel to the situation, there was a copycat rape by teenagers in San Francisco shortly after the tv screening. It led to the film being cut for obscenity and Lesbian and Gay rights campaigners then complained about how they were portrayed. Born Innocent led to the movement to clean up tv in the mid-70s in terms of sex and violence and the violent cop show Starsky & Hutch (1975-79) which was loved by so many children was never the same again along with many other television series at the time. How times have changed once more, as anything goes, except when it’s not politically correct on such platforms as Netflix and Foxtel today.

Linda Blair because of her association with satanism, lesbian rape and alcoholism didn’t win any awards and instead earned disparagement as it was possibly assumed or rumoured her private life showed the same lack of discipline, and her performances were judged as invalid as a result. To further complicate her career and reputation woes, she was arrested in 1977 for drug possession and conspiracy to sell drugs. She was found with cocaine and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

Things picked up when she made Roller Boogie (1979) as a spoiled rich girl which was a hit and followed this up with the enjoyable exploitation films Hell Night (1981), Chained Heat (1983) and Savage Streets (1984). Blair always had a hardcore audience despite the fact she was heaped with Raspberry Award nominations for her work by so-called serious critics. The party crowd and teenagers loved her for not being a hypocrite in real life.

The song Babe by Styx
Linda Blair (from left) with Styx musician Tommy Shaw and her roommate
Linda with lover Rick James

She dated Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw (1953-) around the time of their greatest hit Babe and dated singer songwriter Rick James (1948-2004 heart failure) whose early death was caused by cocaine and other drug abuse.

James got to know Blair during a spell together at the Chateau Marmont and wrote in his autobiography that “Linda was incredible. A free spirit. A beautiful mind. A mind-blowing body. She liked getting high and getting down as much as I did… We didn’t care…. It was a love affair that I hope would last. It didn’t.” There was a reported abortion which James felt bitter and betrayed over.

Linda didn’t go down the path of self-destruction like Rick James and has spoken about the dangers of drugs to young people in recent years. She also has a great love of dogs and in 2004 founded the Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation which serves to rescue animals. She has no children.

She said in an interview during one Texas Frightmare weekend in 2009: “The animals are your family and if they’re not, then you shouldn’t have them in the first place….” She said of her experience in Australia: “I’m sad to think of when enough people go to Australia, it’s gonna become more like what we’ve done to America. America is a very special place, but many people have ruined it. Many people have said: ‘What can you guys do for me?’ It’s about what can I do for my country. I’ve been serving and I want others to do the same.

Linda at Texas Frightmare in 2009 where she gave an interview
Linda with some rescue dogs…
Linda undergoes treatment for being heretical in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Blair in Dead Sleep… further social reform is needed to prevent suicides and the lack of true caring by jaded and cynical psychiatrists

Blair continued: “Australia was one of my favourite places because it is similar to what I know America was 50 years ago…. You weren’t stabbed in the back and shot.”

And Linda finished with this flourish: “Give something back to our communities… Plant a tree. Do something…. It’s not about materialism. It isn’t. It’s about giving in your community, and you and your family will feel better…. Pick what you like… Give back… You must give back.”

The young girl with the spinning head who vomited pea soup had grown from teenage substance abuser into almost a pillar of society and this social awareness awakening perhaps came from her appearance in the movie Dead Sleep back in 1990. It was the first bit of social reality since she played the alcoholic Sarah T before her drug arrest. Blair also felt relaxed enough Down Under to follow it the next year with what was possibly her first and last on-screen orgasm. Settling down eventually saw her survive the possible train wreck of a personal life dominated by drug abuse and high-profile boyfriends. She finally gave back for all the bad karma and bad luck associated with The Exorcist and its reported accidents during production. Let Jesus … love you!

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