June 20: Junesploitation’s topic of the day — as suggested by F This Movie— is regional horror! We’re excited to tackle a different genre every day, so check back and see what’s next.
When I first saw Death Bed in the wild — 1989, I think, and at a Uni-Mart convenience store back in those magical days when every single retailer was renting VHS — I know that I wasn’t ready for it. I remember a friend showing me and laughing about it, saying that it had to be bad. I had not yet arrived at the place where I believe that there is no such thing as so bad it’s good. Today, I don’t feel right laughing at a movie because of its faults. I’d rather celebrate them and enjoy how happy they make me.
I’m glad I waited to watch this movie.
There’s no reason why Death Bed is as good as it is. It was shot between 1972 and 1977 for $30,000 around the Gar Wood mansion on Keelson Island in Detroit. Built in 1924 by designer, industrialist, inventor of the hydraulic lift and the modern garbage truck, and champion speedboat racer GarWood, this 43-room mansion had — at one time — the world’s largest pipe organ and a basement swimming pool. By the late 60s, it was a counter-culture commune thanks to Mark Hoover, who moved into the mansion after 15 years of it being vacant. He threw rent parties where the house band Stonefront would often jam with Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer and Leon Russell. By the next decade, a riotous party by the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, a drug bust and a lightning strike-assisted fire destroyed what was left of the once impressive manor.
Anyways, how do we get a bed that eats people?
Centuries ago, a demon fell in love with a woman and created the bed upon which they would consummate their love. Yet human bodies weren’t made for demonic lovemaking and she died, causing him to weep tears of blood which gave life to the bed. Every ten years, the demon awakens and the bed is able to satisfy its hunger by eating a human. Only one person — artist Aubrey Beardsley — has been spared, if you can call it that, by being trapped forever inside a painting that must watch the bed forever.
Beardsley is, of course, a real artist who was a leading figure in the aesthetic movement along with Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler. He was also a significant member of the Art Nouveau despite dying at just 25 years old from tuberculosis. He would once say, “I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing.” He was also rumored to have father a stillborn child with his sister, which there’s no proof of, but there is plenty of evidence of his genius work as an erotic artist. His work is so incendiary that it was still causing raids and obscenity charges seventy years after his death.
Wait — this is a regional horror movie?
The story is broken into meals for the bed, such as Breakfast, a time when a young couple trespasses into the mansion and use the bed for their own desires. As they start their horizontal dance, the bed does what it does and devours them as the artist makes fun of it. In response, the bed telekinetically tears the house apart and blows my mind mere minutes into this movie.
Three women discover the bed: Suzan (Julie Ritter, who went on to become a composer), Diane (Demene Hall) and Sharon (Rosa Luxemburg). Minutes after disrobing on the cursed mattress, Suzan is swallowed in the Lunch part of the story, soon to be followed by Diane. Only Sharon survives because her eyes remind the bed of the woman whose death created it. She’s also saved in the Dinner chapter by her brother, whose hands are eaten when he tries to stab the bed. He sits there, his flesh and blood digits replaced with crumbling skeletal fingers.
Finally, as the demon goes back to sleep, the artist reaches out to the mind of Suzan and helps her complete a ritual that will destroy the bed. It teleports it from its room and revives the dead mother of the bed at the cost of Suzan’s life. The mother and Suzan’s brother immediately do what you think they should — have sex on the evil bed — which sets it on fire and allows the artist to die.
Me telling you all of this should in no way spoil anything for you in a movie where we watch amber liquid dissolve body parts, a bed eat an apple, an orgy turn into an orgy of death and strange voiceovers in the place of dialogue. It’s also a movie where a bed drinks Pepto Bismol.
Creator George Barry — originally only his name was on the film — didn’t even release the movie other than showing it to a Los Angeles-based distributor to hopefully release the film on VHS in the UK. The distributor offered to pay Barry $1000 for a VHS release if he could supply them with a print of the film, complete with credits. Those credits would have cost $3000, so Barry declined and got his print back.
That’s how a British VHS label called Portland got the film, which they released as a bootleg. I have no idea how a copy ended up in a gas station in a southwestern PA mill town. Yet another mystery!
Somehow, Barry was making this movie in the woods at the same time as Royal Oak, MI — they shared the same hometown — horror icon Sam Raimi was making Within the Woods, which was the proof of concept for Evil Dead.
In 2014, Gwenyfar Rohler and Jock Brandis (who was a gaffer, did special effects and played the minister; he also worked on Serial Mom, Blue Velvet and four Cronenberg movies) created a two-act play that starts with how the movie was made and then has an on-stage adaption of the movie.
Barry sadly never made another movie and opened a bookstore instead.
What he did create is an absolutely deranged piece of film that would in no way pass through a Hollywood so-called idea factory. That’s why regional horror is such a vast resource, a place where anything can happen, plot is fluid and magic is everywhere.
Here’s one more insane Michigan regional classic to check out: The Carrier.
You can download this film at the Internet Archive.