I first saw Death Bed: The Bed That Eats in 1988: a friend had discovered it whilst browsing at a cheap video sale and decided to spring the film on me. I was smitten by its weird aura right there and then, and mystified too. Who on Earth made it? What was the director playing at? How did such a movie get made? Death Bed, with its cheesy cover and `you're kidding me' title, was devoid of any credits, save for the words "(c) George Barry 1977." The mystery of Death Bed's origins was intensified as the film gathered momentum, from creepy comedy to poetic folk-tale to surreal horror: its mood ricocheted between registers in a way that defied categorisation, either as mind-warped outsider art, insane student project, or exploitation film gone awry. There was a streak of comedy, but the film wasn't just a cheap laugh: instead there was a loose, wayward dreaminess which gave Death Bed an impact all its own. I remember thinking `I must find out who made this!'. But no-one knew anything about Death Bed: the video label had disappeared, the name `George Barry' was anonymous enough to belong to a hundred thousand Americans. And so the trail went cold...
In 2002 I began work on a book about maverick American directors and my desire to find out more about Death Bed was re-ignited. Through the auspices of film researcher Marc Morris and a British web-site, Lightsfade, I finally had the chance to talk to George Barry and hear the full Death Bed story...
George Barry was born in 1949 and raised in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit where he still lives today. He began making films whilst studying at University, and in 1972 - after working on a few b/w 16mm shorts - he decided to go for broke with a colour 16mm feature film to be blown up for theatrical release. Using $10,000 of his own money he began filming Death Bed, a project that would eventually span five years and cost around $30,000. Barry decided to weave a story around a dream he'd had - about an engulfing, possibly carnivorous bed...
With cameraman Robert Fresco, he headed for the Gar Wood Mansion outside Detroit, commencing the shoot in late Spring 1972. The core of the movie was then filmed over three weeks in the spring and summer. Assembled during 1976 by experienced Detroit TV editor Ron Medico, Death Bed's 16mm answer print was finally struck in '77.
Unfortunately, Barry's problems were only just beginning. Over the next few years he travelled to L.A. and New York several times, making the rounds of the small distributors. But with slasher films on the rise, Death Bed was always going to be a hard sell. Those who did show interest were put off by the blow-up costs, or were offering virtually no return.
The next convolution in the Death Bed saga would lead to the film at last reaching a few devoted fans: although it all came as a great surprise to Barry himself. In the early 1980s he'd sent the answer print, which was still without credits at the time, to a small LA company interested in obtaining video rights. He was offered $1000 for a finished video master. But Barry was chronically short of cash and unable to shoot the missing credits. Time passed, and the answer print was eventually returned.
What he didn't know was that the `interested party' had unscrupulously pirated a copy of Death Bed before sending it back. It was this version that snuck out onto tape in Great Britain in the late-1980s, on the supremely obscure `Portland' label.
Those who did notice it were tuned not to the noisy gore frequencies of the nasties but to a stranger, more elusive bandwidth. Death Bed is not a gorehound movie - viewers are required to spin their mental wireless to the space between stations, where the shipping forecasts, foreign signals and dream-voices live.
Eventually, In 2002, Daniel Craddock of the British website Lightsfade published an on-line review of the film, which at last alerted its director to the existence of the pirated version.
"Death Bed came from a dream and, to begin with, I wrote the story as more a fairy tale than a horror film. We shot the story as possibly more horror film than fairy tale, then in the editing process Death Bed tried to return to its fairy tale origins."
The best movies leave something elusive behind, a lingering impression that drifts through the mind like Haven Gillespie's "haunting refrain": a special something that seems to dance out of reach when you try and look directly. There are skilled directors whose work, for all its craft, will never possess this quality, which is a dream quality and far from common. And there are films built on such uncommon lines that they're steeped in this strange pleasure even when their conventional limitations are readily obvious. It's in this way that a cheaply produced film, made at the very fringes of the industry, can stay with you after a major production has hurried faceless out of your memory.
The lines crossed by Death Bed are an index of its quality. Set in the twilight between genres - between comedy and horror, art and artless, mundane and insane - it draws on energies lost to more sensible films.
"People not only forget their dreams, they often forget about their dreams. They forget about the process of dreaming.", says Barry. If this is true, how great it is to see this DVD release, a dream thought lost and forgotten, now magically recalled in miraculous detail. Here's to the unique and lingering spell of Death Bed!
Stephen Thrower (this is a condensed extract from my forthcoming book Nightmare, USA, in preparation from FAB Press).