“Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” (1977) is one of those forgotten pieces of cinematic history that almost never saw the light of day. It came as a product of passion by director George Barry, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi. When you hear Barry’s story, it’s easy to see the comparisons: Both Michigan-based filmmakers were fans of classic horror films, which inspired them to make their own low-budget scary opus. Raimi and company crafted “The Evil Dead,” which became a cult classic and allowed them to continue making movies, which built a fervent fan base. Likewise Barry made “Death Bed,” which sat unreleased for decades and was almost completely lost to history until the age of the Internet.
Gwenyfar Rohler teamed up with Big Dawg Productions’ artistic director Steve Vernon to tell the story of George Barry, Wilmington’s own Jock Brandis and the tangled comedy/tragedy of the film in its stage version, appropriately named “Death Bed: The Play That Bites.” The production closes Big Dawg’s month-long Halloween Horror Theatre Festival.
No one sets out to make a bad movie on purpose; except Michael Bay maybe. Most people who have undergone the extremely stressful project of putting together a film do so because they are setting out to make something worthwhile, artistic or entertaining. George Barry’s idea for “Death Bed” was a strange one: A bed cursed by demon’s blood feeds on poor souls who chose to catch 50 winks in its presence.
Playwright Rohler has a unique perspective on “Death Bed,” as her significant other is Brandis (founder of Full Belly Project). Brandis helped engineer this piece of obscure cinematic history. He was the brave soul who, with Barry and his team, pulled off a shoestring-budget feature, using film-crew skills, charm and a great deal of quick thinking. John Wolfe plays young Brandis and manages to capture an impressive amount of his trademark charisma and character traits. Anyone who has met Brandis knows he is a unique personality, so I give a lot of props to Wolfe for diving so deep into the character.
The story tackles “Death Bed” from two angles. In the first act, the show gives audiences the behind-the-scenes treatment, detailing the history of how this obscure little movie came into existence. Before the story starts, the audience receives insight from Rohler, who takes the stage in bare feet to explain how she first heard about the film from Brandis, and how her love for those anecdotes led her to Vernon. Together they hatched this idea.
From there the play introduces George Barry (Hal Cosec) and his girlfriend (Susan Auten). They journey to Toronto with some embezzled film society funds to make the film. There, they find Brandis, who becomes a willing partner.
There’s a lot of good interplay between Cosec and Wolfe: Cosec plays Barry as a a wild dreamer detached from reality, while Wolfe plays Brandis as a pragmatic realist who soldiers forth under any circumstances. The heart of the first act comes from their connectiop. Each represents two diverse sides of the creative spirit: the incurable dreamer and the unbridled optimist. The highlight of the first act is a dream sequence, wherein Barry begins to spiral into doubt about his film.
The Death Bed itself almost walks away with the show. Voiced by Anthony Lawson, the show gets to an additional level of crazy as the bed begins to talk to Barry in his Barry White voice nonetheless. It’s almost the central set piece of the show: a three-dimensional metaphor for this horrific idea. It manages to entertain every time it gobbles up someone.
However, there are a couple squeaky springs in “Death Bed.” While I’m a fan of Rohler, I thought the concept of including herself and director Vernon in the show—albeit briefly—felt like an unnecessary layer. The second act, where the actors recreate the film, is consistently amusing but feels like a gag that goes on too long. Whereas the first act is infinitely interesting and gives humor and insight, the second seems like an extended comedy sketch. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more time spent between Cosec and Wolfe—the bookends of the story. For Barry “Death Bed” was his only movie, while Brandis went on to a much longer film career before chasing more altruistic pursuits.
I prefer more of the first act: the camaraderie of the broke artist and the tragedy of the broken spirit when the realized dream is disappointing. The indomitable Brandis, who sees this film get made to the best of his ability, while dealing with wayward feelings for Barry’s girlfriend.
Rohler has made it clear she wanted to make something accurate. She felt an obligation not to delve into cheap melodrama for the sake of theatrical license, but I kept wanting more Brandis, Barry and friction.
What does work is a very spry cast, some inspired set design and faithfully bringing the audience into the feeling of making a low-budget movie. There’s an earnestness to “Death Bed: The Play That Bites,” which the film never achieved.
Overall, “Death Bed: The Play That Bites” is a funny, engaging show with some good performances and a unique look into the making of a cult classic.
Death Bed: The Play that Bites
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Wed.-Fri., Oct. 29-31, 8 p.m.