Probably known by most as the subject of comedian Patton Oswalt's "Rape Stove" monologue than actually seen – despite its official DVD release in 2004 – DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS gets a high definition makeover courtesy of Cult Epics.
On the grounds of a derelict estate lies a brick shack the houses an ornate canopy bed and the spirit of Victorian artist Aubrey Beardsley (music critic Dave Marsh, voiced by sound mixer Patrick Spence-Thomas) – not actually named as such but examples of his artwork are Beardsley's – trapped behind a painting of the titular bed (patterned after Beardsley). Created by a demon (writer/director George Barry) to seduce a maiden (Linda Bond) and given life by drops of blood shed in her inadvertent death, the stationary demon spawn must wait for its slumbering meals and has developed a rather sadistic sense of humor in response. The artist – rejected by the bed either because of his diseased flesh (he died of consumption) or out of a need for literate company – has born witness to its feedings over the last century and only has limited opportunities to communicate with its potential victims. The bed's strange reaction to bisexual Diane (Demene Hall, THE TEMP), runaway Sharon (Rosa Luxemburg) whose brother (William Russ, TV's BOY MEETS WORLD) is searching for her, and third wheel Susan (Julie Ritter) – vacationing on the ruined estate and having found no trace of the house since it has been decimated by bed in its impotent rage – offers the artist insight into the bed's motivations, fears, and weaknesses as well as a possible way to destroy it.
Truly one of the most bizarre regional horror films, the Detroit-lensed DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS was the almost literal fever dream of film novice George Barry, shot on 16mm using industrial filmmaking equipment between 1973 and 1974 and followed by a protracted four years of post-production before unsuccessful attempts at theatrical distribution in the late 1970s and failed video distribution deals in the early 1980s. Alternately horrific, morbidly poetic, comic, and absurd, the film feels less like an underground film (it was not mounted as such) than a work of French fantastique in the vein of Jean Rollin (particularly REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE), including a plot "device" just as easily at home in some of the bargain basement surreal American and European pornographic works of the period (although here, sex only figures into three or four of the vignettes involving the bed); but even in that context there is no film entirely like it. The narration and largely post-synchronized dialogue also contribute to a disconnected feel that feels less dreamlike and more like a dubbed import (had I seen this film first in a French-dubbed version, I might have believed it to be a foreign film). Barry manages to make the concept of a bed that eats people less not less absurd but less of a distraction as the film progresses and a more somber tone envelops the latter half of the film.
Cult Epics' has distributed a handful of Blu-ray (usually with lossy audio) in the last few years – a few Tinto Brass and Radley Metzger titles as well as IN A GLASS CAGE – but they announced a partnership with Olive Films to distribute their future Blu-ray starting with DEATH BED; however, that seems to have fallen through and this title has been distributed by CAV Distribution (who also distribute Severin Films' releases). Cult Epics' 2014 Blu-ray features a brand new HD transfer in 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC (framed like the DVD at 1.33:1). Transferred from the only surviving 16mm elements, DEATH BED seems cleaner than the DVD but never entirely free of damage (even if they could find any of the foreign 35mm blow-ups, it is doubtful they would look any better). Colors are strong (particularly the reds) while contrasts can be a bit harsh in the daytime and day-for-night exteriors but that's the limitation of the original cinematography and the positive print, while shots that looked soft on the DVD are revealed here to have been out of focus. It looks like what it is: a 1970s regional horror film shot by a cinematographer less conscientious about the limitations of the 16mm gauge than, say, Daniel Pearl on THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. The disc can be viewed with either a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upmix or the original mono track (in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0) that are subject to the limitations of the original mix as well as the preservation of the 16mm source. Given the literary narration and other voiceovers, it is unfortunate that Cult Epics did not include optional subtitles.
The film can be viewed with a choice of two introductions. The first is by Barry – recorded for the 2003 release (its only extra) – in which he recalls shopping the film around to distributors (most of whom found the 35mm blow-up costs a turnoff) and then later to video companies. He did not realize that anyone had seen it until he found a post on the Scarlet Street forums by French cineaste Jean-Claude Michel asking if anyone knew the title of the film he had seen years ago (screened by Jess Franco collaborator Alain Petit) and a link to an English-language review of the film. He then discovered from Stephen Thrower that the film had been distributed in the UK, New Zealand, and Spain in bootleg copies. The second introduction is by Thrower (3:38) recorded in 2013 in which he discusses the difficulty of classifying the film as horror (or even horror comedy) as well as his introduction to it as a UK bootleg tape.
Also new to the package is an audio commentary with Barry and moderated by Thrower in which the director describes the film's origins in a dream as well as his feelings that dreams should not clarify things (in the analytical way in which dream sequences are usually utilized in film, especially post-Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND). He discusses the Garwood Mansion location and how he wished that he had utilized it more, as well as the prophetic element of the script in destroying the house since it would be vandalized by a biker's convention and then torn down a few years later. Thrower tries to ferret out Barry's thought processes about the film's more surreal touches, and learns mainly that the sometimes naïve execution of effects and workarounds had more to do with "making do" than referencing underground works. He also describes some cut scenes, including the introductions to the three female characters (two of which more firmly establishes Diane's bisexuality) with the new introduction via voice-over as a post-production workaround when the scenes were cut (Barry regards the bed as the main character and ran into problems in editing whenever the film moved away from it). He concedes to an over reliance on narration for linkage, but he wishes that he had done all of the sound post-synch from the start rather than trying to get live sound for some scenes. Barry cites his filming education as being at the drive-in and references inspirations in art films and Eurotrash exploitation, as well as artists like Beardsley and the symbolists. He also discusses the film's protracted shooting and post-production periods (indeed, the film's 1977 completion date might give the impression on IMDb that any of the cast who would become working actors had earlier credits when it was actually their screen debuts in 1973).
In the featurette "Behind the Scenes of DEATH BED in Detroit" (7:54), Barry and Thrower visit the derelict studio location for the film, the condition of which allows Barry to indicate from the outside where the room in which the bedroom set was built as well as the lower floor where the leaky tank for the digestions shots was situated. They also visit Phoenicea, the restaurant belonging to Samir Eid (who played the gangster in one of the flashbacks). At the time a member of a Lebanese folk dancing troupe, he was not nervous about acting in front of the camera. He had a restaurant in Highland Park not far from the studio, and art director Maureen Petrucci (who also plays a nurse in the film) designed a mural for it. He has fond memories of shooting the film, and relates his mystified reaction when he finally saw the film a few years ago on DVD. Video and audio quality is amateur, but the latter half of the featurette is charming and amusing.
"Nightmare USA" (15:00), described as "a conversation between Stephen Thrower and George Barry on horror films of the 1970's and 1980's" is actually a featurette with Barry and his grown son and daughter at a diner quizzing Thrower about his book NIGHTMARE USA and the forthcoming sequel (co-written with Julian Granger) and the in-the-works Jess Franco tome SADOMANIA (Thrower has contributed video featurettes on Mondo Macabro's Jess Franco DVD releases) as well as a discussion of the director's OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES (the Franco film with which the Barrys are most familiar) before they are interrupted by an either overly friendly or blindly drunk girl in scrubs. Video and audio is rough, but it's an amusing account of Thrower's welcome to the colonies. When the 16mm element was transferred to SD in 2003 for screening purposes, a new opening and closing credits theme was composed by Thrower and Ossian Brown (formerly of the band Coil) – actually an existing cue from the due that was modified by Thrower for the film – and that has been included on the Blu-ray transfer (as well as the video generated end credits). Mike McKay's original 1973 title theme has been included as an extra (1:53). Purists may balk at the revision (although many viewers have probably only seen it with this revision), but the 2003 theme music is believably and effectively "1970s" (rather than retro). (Eric Cotenas)
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