Studio: Scream Factory
Director: Jeffrey Delman
Writer: Jeffrey Delman, Charles F. Shelton, J. Edward Kiernan
Producer: Bill Paul
Stars: Scott Valentine, Nicole Picard, Matt Mitler, Kathy Fleig, Phyllis Craig, Michael Mesmer, Brian DePersia, Cathryn de Prume, Melissa Leo
To lull his nephew to sleep, an uncle tells three twisted takes on classic fairy tales involving witches, wolves, and murderers.
Being upfront at the outset, this positive review of “Deadtime Stories” is influenced heavily by nostalgia. Any positive review written in the 21st-century has to be.
If I were rating this anthology in its release year of 1986 as the sometimes-cynical critic I currently am, I’d be dishing out snark like mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. The film’s spectacularly spotty acting (particularly the little boy in the wraparound), corner-cutting production value, and outrageously schizophrenic tone (ranging from semi-serious period piece to demented Three Stooges farce) make it ridiculously ripe for the picking. At the same time, it is precisely this dated grade of retro cinema style, with its pedestrian pop rock soundtrack and makeup effects that are concurrently cringe-worthy and cool, that makes the movie a terrific time capsule of everything endearing about cheesy 1980s horror.
I distinctly remember the “Deadtime Stories” box sitting right below eye level in the first column of the ‘Horror’ section at my neighborhood video store way back when. I was certain I’d even rented it on possibly more than one occasion. With money not easy to come by at age 11, my hand would have been eager to take home an anthology offering three horror stories plus a wraparound for the price of one feature.
But watching the film 30+ years since that foggy recollection first formed, I can’t be completely sure I ever saw it at all. As soon as the opening theme song (pure gold, by the way) hit its chorus (“it’s no wonder why I turned out like I did, remembering my bedtime tales as a kid”), I mentally exclaimed, “ah yeah!” That was the last time I felt a flash of familiarity as the movie moved forward with not one other thing ringing a bell.
I’m inclined to conclude maybe I made up that memory of “Deadtime Stories” being a choice chiller from childhood. Even at a young age, I can’t imagine I wouldn’t have sniffed out the dual allusions to both “Halloween” (first-person stalking shot to start the movie) and “Creepshow” (setup of an angry adult storming into a child’s bedroom) in the first scene, though I definitely recognize them now.
Brian can’t sleep because he believes an imaginary monster is readying to strike. Uncle Mike wants to watch the ‘Miss Nude Bayonne’ competition on Cablevision, but babysitting duties require the slovenly sleaze to placate his nephew with a bedtime story. Brian has a whole host of classic fairy tales to choose from, and Uncle Mike puts a twist on each one by tossing in teen sex, psychotic serial killers with psychic powers, and more than one unhappy ending for the ‘good guys.’
“Peter and the Witches” sets the ball spinning. Star Scott Valentine is the main draw, as he was peaking in popularity as Mallory’s dimwitted boyfriend Nick on “Family Ties” at the time. Valentine is about as dimwitted here, playing a slave to two witches trying to resurrect their dead sister.
The standout of this segment is a solid sequence where the witch’s corpse reconstitutes its flesh, with sinewy tendrils moving like snakes as they reattach to bones. It may read rough in retrospect, but this is an outstanding effect from makeup master Ed French. If you want to see what makes passionate practical FX look amazing in spite of limitations, here is a 1980s example worth studying.
In its own way, “Little Red Runninghood” is a clever modernization of the oft-told fable. Things start with the behind-the-camera cliché of a high-schooler played by a woman whose actual age probably puts her closer to her ten-year reunion than it does to graduation. An accidental switcheroo at the drugstore swaps her grandmother’s meds with pills a man needs to avoid becoming a werewolf. While Red hits the woods with her horny boyfriend, the wolfman hits up grandma’s house. Sex and slaughter ensues. This second story highlights the scattered production value and acting mentioned earlier, but packs enough charm to be a fairly fun mini-fright flick.
“Deadtime Stories” winds down with “Goldi Lox and the Three Baers,” notable now for featuring Oscar-winner Melissa Leo as the matriarch of a serial killing family fresh from the insane asylum. A full-length review could be written on this segment alone and it still wouldn’t cover all of the insanity included within. Goldi is a batty black widow who uses telekinesis to collect corpses she keeps in the Baer family home (located in Amityville no less). Dueling lawmen then assemble two teams of Barney Fifes to take down all four killers in a finale that might as well include a laugh track with every dropped body.
Initial instincts demand to hate “Goldi Lox and the Three Baers” for its overly amplified nuttiness. Then its astonishing absurdity hits a point where even though it is on another track riding in a different direction than the rest of the movie, it’s hard not to be swept into its sinisterly silly sensibility.
“Deadtime Stories” brings to mind “Tales from the Darkside,” a TV show I loved and still love greatly, in more ways than one. That’s likely a chief reason why it hits my sweet spot for throwback terror tales, and a reminder to bear its origin era in mind before diving in. As cheeky as it is cheesy, and uncomplicated at only 82 minutes, “Deadtime Stories” is a horror movie whose quirks might have induced squirms in 1986, but they mostly inspire entertained smirks now.
Review Score: 80
Scream Factory Special Edition: Scream Factory’s hi-def transfer comes directly from the original camera negative. This means the cliché goes without saying, yet I’m saying it anyway, “Deadtime Stories” has naturally never looked better. Special Features are all loaded on the Blu-ray, but a second disc includes a DVD version of the film.
Audio Commentary with Director Jeffrey Delman: For a supplemental audio track by one person, Delman dishes a lot of interesting anecdotes to keep his commentary engaging. Among odder bits of trivia disclosed are the facts that the werewolf head in “Little Red Runninghood” was built using a discarded Dick Smith prop from “Starman,” and the corpse of one of Goldi Lox’s boyfriends was played by the future drummer for White Zombie. Talk about random.
I Like the Grotesque – A Conversation with Co-Writer/Director Jef Delman: This extended interview with the filmmaker falls into the familiar trap of repeating topics already covered in his commentary track, or vice versa depending on which you watch first.
A Band of Gypsies – The Making of Deadtime Stories: Considering that Melissa Leo now has an Oscar and Scott Valentine is well-known for being featured on “Family Ties,” you wouldn’t necessarily expect the two biggest names of “Deadtime Stories” to return 30 years later to revisit their work on a low-budget horror movie. Yet it turns out Leo and Valentine are longtime friends of director Jeffrey Delman, Melissa Leo was even his housemate for a time, and they appear pleased as punch to offer sentimental reflections in this “Making Of.”
Catherine de Prume is the only other actor who appears here. But over the course of everyone’s separate interviews, the strong community vibe they seemingly shared on set really comes across in fond and frank recollections.
The Black Forest: The “Peter and the Witches” segment of “Deadtime Stories,” which was filmed over three years, was at one time considered for development into a standalone feature. Delman goes into detail about this particular project’s origins throughout the Special Features and audio commentary. The gist of it is that a much longer cut called “The Black Forest” was created and it is presented here, albeit in rough-cut resolution.
Deleted Scenes: There are only two inclusions here. The first is an alternate opening to “Little Red Runninghood” where Rachel argues with her mother through the door about picking up grandma’s prescription. The second is a still frame montage of security camera footage from the bank robbery of “Goldi Lox and the Three Baers.” It didn’t make it into the final cut because someone originally misplaced the photos. Each deleted scene is about a minute, give or take, and ultimately inconsequential.
Additional Special Features: Rounding out the Bonus menu options are theatrical trailers and a photo gallery.