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Nightstream 2020: ‘Deadline’ Review: A Riveting ‘80s Horror Written in Blood

Vinegar Syndrome and the American Genre Film Archive

Life imitates art is a common saying, but likely not one that is reassuring to hear if your art is graphic horror stories. But for Steven Lessey, the terrors of his life are far worse than any gruesome scene he might imagine. 

Part of Nightstream Film Festival’s Retro series, Deadline, a flashy Canadian horror film from Mario Philip Azzopardi, makes its restoration world premiere. Professor-turned-writer Steven (Stephen Young) is an extremely prolific and extremely egotistical writer of horror novels and screenplays. Yet, while he has had immense commercial success, nothing is quite enough. He is harangued by incessant urges and worries about producing his next masterpiece (or cash cow). We see flashes of the hauntings of his mind as moments from his stories and horror films are interspersed with scenes of his domestic life.

Vinegar Syndrome and the American Genre Film Archive

Showers of blood, demonic goats, grandmothers burned alive… these outbursts of gore are almost cartoonish. Yet they provide a strange sort of respite from the other terrors Steven faces: his failings as a husband and father. “You work too hard, Daddy,” his daughter tells him, and his wife physically collapses due to the exhaustion of being neglected and humiliated by Steven’s workaholic tendencies.

This horror is as much a scary story as it is a cautionary tale about the man-eating and soul-devouring Hollywood film industry. Though beloved by the studio for the money he brings in, Steven gets little respect from the scholarly community. When he is presented with an award at his former university, students confront him for “selling sickness” and peddling and exploiting horror, and they criticize him for “polluting” them.

It seems a little far-fetched that such young students would be so scandalized by some of Steven’s stories like “The Executioner” and “Anatomy of a Horror” — it’s not like he’s showing them anything Hollywood hasn’t been selling for decades. Furthermore, some of the melodrama he faces at school and home is a bit canned in the over-the-top acting performances. But perhaps all of these unrealistic moments are manifestations of a haunted conscience or evidence of a madman on the rise.

Vinegar Syndrome and the American Genre Film Archive

As Steven struggles to write his script and capture the “ultimate terror,” his impending deadline threatens to be the death of him. The film gets plenty of bang (and blood) for its limited buck, with grainy clips of flashy and trashy gore bursting through the frame. As much as Steven suffers from writer’s block, Deadline has no shortage of wild ideas — from booze-fueled debauchery to satanic nuns to punk music that makes listeners literally spill their guts. The anthology structure can feel fragmented and the statement this film is ultimately trying to make on the horror genre gets buried under all the severed limbs. But while it doesn’t all cohere or make perfect sense, it doesn’t have to — we’re here for blood, and we certainly receive a healthy infusion.

Resurrected in this restoration and risen from its grave, the demented Deadline can finally see the light of day and be seen by more rabid viewers. As Steven says, the best books function like “keys to the soul,” and the best horror movies are unafraid of exposing the soul’s darkest corners.

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