Sunday, December 12

Some quick thoughts on Deadline (1981)

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An infamous horror scribe, Steven Lessey (Stephen Young), faces a tight deadline for an impending production based on an as-of-yet-unwritten screenplay. That's not the only thing plaguing the beleaguered Lessey. His wife, Elizabeth (Sharon Masters), is descending into haze of booze and coke, while Steven's career pre-occupation is driving his three children further into resentment. During a guest university lecture, the writer's resolve is badly shaken when hecklers condemn his prior work as vile exploitative garbage (after watching this gory clip). Afterward, despite coming up with ever wilder scenarios, Lessey commands himself to stop authoring "schlock" and chooses to quest for the ultimate in horror. Eventually, the unthinkable tragedy of a child's accidental death befalls the family and Lessey discovers what his pen was desperately seeking all along...

Trolling other opinions of Mario Azzopardi's Deadline, I get the feeling many somehow equate its obscurity as a signal of a bad feature. Some even seem annoyed that such a horror film have the gall to even attempt its weighty concept. They can walk off a short bridge with that bullshit. Truth to be told, while this surprisingly bloody yarn of writer's block madness isn't perfect; it's vastly more thought-provoking than the majority of early '80s boredom deservingly landlocked on analog video. The film presents an interesting parable between the horrors of fiction and reality as Lessey's life spirals amidst struggling to put pen to paper.

The screenwriter's ideas are outlandish and played out in snippets for the viewer to see. A showering woman drowns as the water turns into a torrent of blood while another dies giving birth as the fetus decides to "commit suicide" during the process. Two children burn their tied-down grandmother to death, a group of nuns give themselves communion with the ripped out heart of a crucified priest, and a punk rock band is enlisted by a Nazi to hit a tone that makes bodies explode...or something. These scenes could be seen as useless in their gory glee, but juxtapose nicely with the increasing reckless intensity of Lessey's reality.

The sticking point for most negative reaction toward Deadline is how it's nearly impossible to tell what intellectual point Azzopardi is shooting for with this contrast. Given how slashers were booming at the time, even in its native country of Canada, the serious dramatic tone could be seen as a revolt aganist "cheap" ideas in the genre. It's the same thing horror fans complain about to this day and something David Cronenberg was battling without acknowledgment through his art in the Great White North. Azzopardi might be addressing that, just with much less finesse, but it's not too much of a stretch to see the writer/director condemning the horror genre itself. No matter how horrific the images Lessey's mind conjures, they simply can't compete with his family disintegrating through his fingers.

The ammunition for this perspective comes in the unusually solid performances. Sharon Masters as the writer's wife, in the last role in her short career before disappearing, is reminiscent of Sharon Stone in Casino. A woman with a path to opulence through her husband failing to overcome old, destructive habits. The profane venom she hurls is palpable, but Young's Steven isn't entirely innocent. The writer has a snap temper with physically abusive tendencies and a skewered outlook between family man and playing fledgling mogul with his career's business side.

So it's a tough call that's most likely dictated by your personal perspective. On one end, Deadline could be seen as a direct challenge to the cementing norm of easy boobs n' blood that settled in during its decade. Perhaps Azzopardi was one of those near-maniacal old guard diehards who became super pissed over the fall of Universal and Hammer to the likes of Leatherface. On the other end, the feature's heavy-handedness could be a pointed indictment of how fleeting cinematic horror is compared to the rigors of maintaining ho-hum sanity. It's not quite a lost masterpiece, but there's something refreshing and scrappy about Deadline. It's over-the-top, brazen, and creepy in turns even with its stuffy 1981 presentation.

The Tohokushinsha/VAP Video Japanese VHS is a full screen transfer cropped from 2.35:1 like the North American Paragon Video VHS. The cropping, while still evident, actually isn't terribly distracting (everything seems center-composed). The Japanese has a little more image information along the sides and looks better than the Paragon. Both presentations are uncut, but the Japanese naturally has a little optical censoring to the nudity in the shower scene. I'd recommend the Japanese tape, but the thirty-year-old Paragon is acceptable and not too hard-to-find online at a decent price. The U.S. indie video pioneer released the film twice in a rare big box and cardboard slipcover both with unique art. Maybe if Code Red or Scorpion Releasing hang on long enough, they can give Deadline a deserving digital resurrection.
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2 comments:

Ian Miller said...

Nice write-up of one of my favorite obscure titles! I always felt the "horror" scenes had the kind of outlandishness that only an outsider or non-believer could come up with. At the same time, the relationship aspect feels all too real and UGLY.

John said...

This movie always disturbed me right from the choice of back cover images (on the Australian vhs) on down through the film.

...do you dare tread upon the staircase?
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