Sure, Bob Clark did A Christmas Story. And he did Porky’s. But man, did he make some dark films along the way, like Black Christmas and this one, which totally grabbed me by the throat and kept me thrilled from start to finish.
Andy Brooks has been killed by a sniper in Vietnam. Yet as he dies, he hears his mother’s voice say, “Andy, you’ll come back. You’ve got to. You promised.”
While Andy’s father Charles (John Marley, who woke up to a horse’s head in his bed in The Godfather and starred alongside his wife in this film, Lynn Carlin, in John Cassavetes’ Faces) and sister Cathy go through the five stages of grief, his mother is stuck in denial.
Yet her unwillingness to accept the truth is rewarded when Andy comes back to their home unharmed.
Andy isn’t Andy any longer though. He’s withdrawn and rarely speaks, spending his days sitting motionless inside the house. Stranger still, the police are looking for a hitchhiking soldier who killed a trucker and drained his blood.
Andy’s death and rebirth rip open long-festering wounds between husband and wife — Charles never gave his son love, only authority. Christine made him too sensitive. And what of Andy? Oh, he’s just attacking a neighborhood kid and killing a dog during the day, then becoming more alive at night, when he goes to the cemetery.
Meanwhile, Dr. Phillip, a family friend, tells Charles that he’s suspicious of the similarities between Andy’s return and the murder of the truck driver. Andy visits the doctor late and night and demands a checkup before killing the doctor and injecting his blood into his body.
Christine sets Andy up on a double date with Joanne, his high school girlfriend. In a harrowing scene, she explains how she wrote to Andy but felt like he was gone before he even died, that Vietnam had taken him. As she speaks to him, he starts to decay before her eyes before killing the girl and her friend, then running over someone else as he escapes from the drive-in.
Returning home, Christine protects her son from his father’s wrath. The man gives up and kills himself as his mother helps him escape the police. Finally, as the police corner them in the graveyard that Andy spends his evenings haunting, they discover his decayed corpse in a shallow grave, his tombstone carved by his undead hand as his mother throws dirt to cover her son.
The film takes many of its beats from the W.W. Jacobs story The Monkey’s Paw, yet shows the struggles of PTSD at a time that few were able to articulate how the Vietnam War would impact not only soldiers but their families. And thanks to the acting chops of Marley and Carlin, as well as Richard Backus, who played Andy, the film feels incredibly real, despite the unreality of its premise. And it also includes the very first FX work by Tom Savini, a Vietnam vet himself.