“They say, on your deathbed, you never wish you spent more time at the office. But I will. Gotta be a lot better than a deathbed. I actually don’t understand deathbeds. I mean, who would buy that?”– Michael Scott, The Office, “Goodbye Michael” (7.21)
On a blistering August weekend in 2009, I sat on the back of a John Deere tractor covered in dust, sweat, and, as it so happens, tears as I cry-laughed through Patton Oswalt’s sophomore comedy record, Werewolves & Lollipops (2007).That was one of many sweltering dawn-to-dusk shifts as a landscaper for my Baptist church that somehow flew by as I listened to Oswalt’s albums over and over and over again.
I absolutely adored Oswalt in those days. I so desperately wanted to emulate even a fraction of his rhetorical bombast with his flawlessly blended Shakespearean affect, comic shop snobbery, and Derridean impulse to deconstruct every cultural artifact that had the misfortune of falling under his scrutiny. Oswalt was peerless in my estimation. He was effortlessly poetic, pop-culturally encyclopedic, and dogmatically niche—committed to pontificating exclusively about the geeky minutia that mattered only, perhaps, to him. And maybe most intoxicating of all was his unmatched skill in talking about the strangeness of the world with both punk rock cynicism and honest-to-God, childlike wonder. He observed, addressed, and critiqued meaning and meaninglessness with equal aplomb. In his eyes, everything was awful and majestic; horrific and sublime. And that compelled me in ways I can’t even begin to describe.
And so, I must say, it’s a bit surreal for me to now be writing on a film that I first learned about from Oswalt exactly 10 years ago this month—Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977). As Providence would have it, my friend and colleague here at GT, Ian Olson, imposed this review on me for our “Summer of Impositions” series. I jumped at the chance to talk about this movie even though, to my shame, I had never seen it before. But now, on this side of it, I find myself (almost) at a loss for words. What once filled me with delight has been the bane of my existence for the past couple weeks!
Death Bed is a film, as Oswalt notes, that lacks any substantive contribution to the canon of horror cinema other than being cannon-fodder for ridicule. His bit revolves around how the movie’s very existence serves as a kind of motivational tool to keep him writing, because nothing…absolutely nothing(!) he could ever conjure up could be worse than this. And maybe that’s true. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe what makes a film like this talked about (still!) after not even having an official release for 30 years. It’s a sad fact, then, that nothing about it works when it very well could have!
But just like Oswalt’s comedy suggests—there is something actually sublime about the absurd; something exhortative in the deconstruction…or maybe that assessment itself is nonsense. It’s hard to say, really. But here we are, nonetheless, trying to make sense, no…trying to survive Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.
Death Bed is a movie that has all the right parts to make an actually enjoyable (read: good?) cult film. It could have been the kind of movie that Rubber (2010) or Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) nostalgically tries to recapture—a surrealist portrait of the absurdity of modern life as mediated through a (usually) inanimate object. But it’s not quite that. It’s just…a bunch of parts with no sum. But certainly, that’s not for a lack of trying. Or maybe it is.
So what works about the film? Well, actually quite a lot!
As far as narrative structure goes, the story is told in four parts: “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” & “Dinner,” with “Just Desserts” as an epilogue. In terms of plot, it has a tragic, and hypothetically terrifying, backstory—a grief-stricken demon curses the bed on which his beloved died, and now that bed devours any future lovers silly enough to come in contact with it. And it’s a film that’s seemingly aware of its sociopolitical moment, featuring a critical depiction of the male gaze while also making its most powerful, if equally unlucky, protagonist—a confident woman of color. Symbolically, it boasts powerful mythic imagery—everything from Eve’s forbidden fruit to Sleeping Beauty’s cursed rest. Even some of the special effects are clever in their own right—the bed’s demonic hunger depicted as the swelling of yellow foam & “interior” shots of its acidic digestion. All of this is to say that Death Bed has enough going for it that it could’ve potentially worked as a schlocky early Troma Entertainment entry in the pantheon of C-grade horror film. So why in the world did the final cut fail so spectacularly?
Because, in my estimation, all those elements exist totally independently of one another. There’s no skilled interweaving of these colorful threads to make them into a coherent cinematic tapestry, even in an ironic sense. What we have is a series of human characters acting inhumanly, and a collection of shots that add little-to-no meaning to each other by juxtaposition. What we have, instead, is a series of bizarre non-sequiturs that cannot even be addressed thematically—only sequentially. And even then, we won’t have much of a movie.
The film opens with two well-into-their-twenties lovers sneaking in to the abandoned house with the Death Bed in order to sleep together. Why people their age would be in this scenario is the least of our worries. Can you imagine breaking into a derelict home, stumbling across a decrepit bed, and then proceeding to even come within 30 feet of it, much less have a picnic/sex on it? It’s as non-sensical as the following shots of the bed devouring their makeshift meal of apples, wine, and a bucket of KFC (shout-out to another, unrelated Oswalt bit, by the way) before shifting its Satanic appetites to them. And just like that the “Breakfast” portion of the film is done.
As we transition to “Lunch,” the only aid we have to make sense of the preceding meal and ones yet to come is the psychic commentary of the trapped-in-his-own-painting ghost of a 19th century artist. We later find out later that he died, diseased, in the Death Bed. And since his sickly flesh caused some kind of hellacious indigestion for the demon mattress, it got revenge by cursing his soul to live in his own painting on the wall—forever witnessing the bed’s angry malevolence. The narrator acts, I guess, as some kind of Greek chorus, helping us understand what surreal horrors we are watching on screen. But the problem is that none of his commentary is particular elucidating. Its mainly a collection of Keats-esque pontifications on the tragic nature of the bed without really offering us any kind of helpful exposition. It’s a completely useless trope. At this point, I’m starting to resent both Patton Oswalt and Ian Olson…
And the main story isn’t much better—three frenemies drive up to the country, for nebulous purposes, to investigate this house, and what it has to offer. What is their plan? What was George Barry’s (the director) plan? Can the ghost narrator help us discern their motivation? The answer to all these questions is met with a shrug. And none of those queries end up mattering! Intercut with their story are flashbacks of past victims of the bed’s insatiable bloodlust—a priest reading a Bible, an old woman reading an “adult” magazine, a couple of gangsters on the run, and a cultic, new-agey orgy. The Death Bed does not discriminate in its infernal pangs. One would think that Susan, the only friend given an internal monologue and despised by her companions for no reason, might be the final girl or, at the very least, some key to understanding this evil, right? The ghost narrator even remarks to himself how Susan reminds the Death Bed of his erstwhile lover—the one who got this whole fiasco started. So naturally she’ll be the last one standing, right? Wrong! She dies almost instantly, and all the narrative and thematic buildup to her unjust treatment by the living and the unrequited love by the bed—all of that means nothing! Shortly after her demise, the strong-willed and confident Diane is next on the plate. After being half eaten by the bed, we watch an excruciatingly long tracking shot of her dragging her bloodied, now immobilized lower half to the door to escape for what seems like four or five minutes. Somehow, the bed captures her from across the room again and finishes his lunch.
That leaves Sharon for “Dinner,” a character that has been totally unremarkable and in the background up to this point. But her older brother shows up just in time to save the day. He attempts to free the other girls from the bed by stabbing and tearing it with a knife. And of course, you know how that goes—the bed clamps down on his hands. The interior shot shows how it is dissolving his flesh while he painlessly struggles to pull free. He finally breaks loose and looks totally dispassionately at his skeletal hands. No pain. No terror. Just observation. Sharon is totally unfazed too. So, after being half devoured by a sentient and carnivorous bed, the pair sit down against the wall, and just… wait. They wait for his bones to start drying up and falling off. Then, with what is supposed to be a tragic and dramatic gesture, he asks Sharon to break off the remnants of his hands. She does in a close up revealing the bolts and screws that keep these props, I’m sorry—bones, together. Then she tosses them, and my last shred of interest in this ““movie”” for that matter, into the fire.
The film ends (the “Just Desserts” segment) with an insane ritual of fire and blood and graves and lovers that destroys the bed and the film’s final survivors too. And that’s it.
So what does it all mean? That’s one for the long-suffering philosophers of low brow culture, I guess. For me, it meant an afternoon with a pot of tea, a notepad, and a sleeping cat right next to me, experiencing a film that almost (and dare I say—rightly) never saw the light of day. If I had the patience or the interest, I might dig into the troubled history of its production; I might try to trace any strands of second-wave feminism in its 80-minute runtime; I might even try to give it a serious theological reading. But in the end, I can only really think about Michael Scott’s misunderstanding of what a deathbed is (“I mean, who would buy that?”) and laugh. Instead, I texted Ian Olson a few curse-laden death threats, to which he laughed. And instead, I put on Oswalt’s Werewolves & Lollipops and reminisced about my life before seeing this movie. I couldn’t find much value in Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, but I survived its vicious assault. And I remembered good days and good friends. And maybe that means more than I ever thought it could.