Suspiria (1977), Hausu (1977), Nekromantik (1987), and Hellraiser (1987), are all films that have notable anniversaries in 2017. Also celebrating its birthday this year is one title a select few hold dear–Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977). The only film from one time director George Barry, for years it was relegated to obscurity, and mainly survived on bootleg VHS tapes catering to the outer fringe. Needless to say, it’s a shame it went unnoticed for so long, as it would have fit perfectly with the midnight movie craze that thrived during the grindhouse era. Regardless of what might have been, Barry’s lost treasure has since achieved a second life and a well deserved following. Cult Epics have recently given it a proper Blu ray release, ensuring that a whole new generation will want to ‘lie down’ with this one.
At times Death Bed is hard to define, let alone find a proper genre to place it in. Resting somewhere in between Avant-garde, art-house, and postmodern horror, it’s best described as a hallucination brought on by a fever dream. Reaching deep into the bizarre, yet taking itself completely seriously, not once does it come close to becoming self aware of its own material. A five-year labor of love for Barry, there’s an underlying appreciation one gets from watching it. Its vision is original, ambitious, and incomparable to anything that’s come before, or since. It’s often misrepresented as a legendary bad movie, but as with any art form, one mans trash is another man’s treasure. Barry himself describes Death Bed as an offbeat story, and it’s certainly one that holds distinction in a class by itself.
Death Bed is comprised of four chapters: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and The Just Desserts. Presented in a fashion reminiscent of a fairy tale, its vignettes are loosely sewn together in a twisted form of loose continuity. Holding the segments together is an artist confined to a painting named Aubrey Billingsley, who provides an enormous amount of exposition dialogue. As the films impromptu narrator, he provides backstory on our mattress-covered antagonist, and drives the movie forward. Continually reoccurring is a ‘conversation’ that the bed and Billingsley have with one another. While the bed has no audible dialogue, Billingsley recounts the beds history, and chastises it repeatedly for having such an insatiable appetite. All that’s heard from the bed is heavy breathing, and the occasional loud chomping noise. Despite this, it still manages to take on a life of its own, and becomes the focal point for which everything takes place.
The film opens with a young couple breaking into the chateau for a rendezvous. As they locate the bed, the two immediately get to work on one another. That is, not before unpacking a lunch consisting of fried chicken and a bottle of wine. As the lovers become distracted, orange foam rises from the mattress, and the bed consumes the meal one might find on a white trash prom night. As the contents sink into the bed, an acidic substance dissolves them in what can only be described as one of the strangest feeding sequences ever conceived. Moments later, the drapes of the bed close on the doomed couple, and they become the newest addition to the beds mealtime ritual.
Lunch, and the other segments that follow more or less rely on a similar pattern—people show up, and the bed finds a way to drag them to the grave beneath the sheets. The vignettes range from the ridiculous to the unintentionally hilarious. Aside from the narration from Billingsley, the majority of the dialogue is displayed through inner monologues and voice-overs. Needless to say, it’s one element in the film that’s overused, and at times becomes tedious. In the lunch segment, three girls break into the chateau, and it doesn’t take long for one of the girls to meet an untimely end. However, not before we’re treated to inner thoughts from our trio. While still maintaining the bizarre nature and atmosphere, it slows down and loses a lot of focus from this point forward. Because Death Bed was a five-year production, it’s quite easy to assume that a lot of conceptual changes were made during that time period. Barry places emphasis on the stories’ imagery, which allows everything to flourish in its own way. Like all films, it has its flaws. In defense of art, one doesn’t go into this film expecting a complex work or a detailed narrative.
It’s also during this segment in which the origin of the bed is revealed. As strange as it is, one has to give Barry credit for conceiving such an elaborate backstory. In a flashback narrated by the artist, (like one third of the film) he tells a story of unrequited love. A demon, which once lived in a tree, fell in love with a woman, became the wind, and created a bed to consummate their relationship. As the woman died in the throes of passion, the demon cried tears of blood, giving the bed unnatural powers as it became possessed. It’s the most ludicrous part of the film—but also another reason why it’s impossible to turn away it. Watching Death Bed is very similar to falling down the rabbit hole. You’re not sure what to expect when it begins, or where you might end up, it’s all about the journey you take to get there.
Amidst the backstory of the bed are more flashbacks. They serve little relevance to the plot, except for one that details the death of Billingsley, and how he was condemned behind his own artwork. The others involve a gangster being swallowed up during a card game, and a group of lovers getting devoured during a Roman orgy. They’re entertaining, but also somewhat out of place. One could make the argument that they’re almost a parody of tropes from other films released around the same time. (IE—The obsession with crime and sex that dominated the landscape in pop culture and in film) Either way, they’re still part and parcel to the overall enjoyment with the viewing experience.
The final chapters of Death Bed feel rushed, but still manage to give the story a proper conclusion. The slow pace that was previously seen dissipates into a finale that ends with very little build up. It also features one of the most unintentionally hilarious sequences. When the brother of one of the girls from the previous chapter shows up, he decides to take revenge on the bed. The brother, portrayed by William Russ of Boy Meets World and American History X (1998), takes a kitchen knife to the possessed piece of furniture. What follows, is the bed stripping the flesh from his hands as they plummet into the mattress. As he pulls them out, he looks at his new pair of skeletal hands and mutters, “Cartilage is decayed.”
The hand sequence sets up the films fourth and final chapter—The Just Desserts. If Dinner felt rushed, then it’s this final piece that seems completely out of left field. The conclusion in Death Bed is one that transcends everything shown previously. While everything more or less relied on a pattern, the final curtain is something no one would have expected to occur. As the brother sits on the floor, attempting to make sense of everything, Billingsley breaks the fourth wall (so to speak) and addresses the girl. He convinces her to take part in a ritual that will destroy the bed, once and for all. The ceremony does succeed, but it also ends up taking her life. The demon’s old lover resurrects herself, and the bed is subsequently destroyed in a ball of flames. The film then abruptly ends.
In the four decades since Barry started his now legendary magnum opus—a lot has changed. The question is, does Death Bed live up to the reputation that precedes it? The answer from me is a resounding yes. For fans of cult cinema, and those who revel in the bizarre, it’s just about everything one could ask for. It also has to be remembered that this was Barry’s first film as a director. Who knows what visions and dreamscapes he might have crafted, had he kept pursuing his craft. For a debut, it’s far from perfect, but its legacy more than speaks for itself. It’s worth a watch, and even more worthwhile to own.