Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Best of the ‘worst’: Local writer gives new life to cult classic ‘Death Bed’

Panned as one of the worst movies ever made, the cult classic "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats" is the subject of local playwright Gwenyfar Rohler's upcoming production. Photo courtesy George Barry.
Panned as one of the worst movies ever made, the cult classic ‘Death Bed: The Bed That Eats’ is the subject of local playwright Gwenyfar Rohler’s upcoming production. Photo courtesy George Barry.

Truth, as the old saying goes, is stranger than fiction.

When that fiction is the 1977 low-budget horror film, “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats,” you can just imagine how strange the truth is going to be.

The true story behind what has been named “The Worst Movie Ever Made” by NPR film critic Bob Mondello includes tales of smuggling a human skeleton across international borders and carefully skirting Hells Angels while on set, of buying up all the yellow food coloring in Detroit and getting tossed out of a brothel for trying to borrow a Gideon Bible.

While the previously overloooked and under-appreciated B movie continues its creeping slow crawl to cult-classic status, it is being given new life locally by writer Gwenyfar Rohler.

With the help of longtime partner Jock Brandis–founder of the Full Belly Project and former film industry whiz who worked on “Death Bed”–Rohler has put together a two-act stage adaptation that captures, with loving humor, the movie’s absurdity, both on screen and behind the scenes.

‘Death Bed’: The Movie

The name says it all.

The brainchild of George Barry, “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats”–the only movie Barry ever made–is, indeed, about a demon-possessed bed that devours its victims in its acidic underbelly while, inexplicably, making chomping noises.

In fact, the first few minutes of the film is nothing but those chomping noises coming through on an entirely black screen, devoid of opening credits–a sure first sign that arthouse cinema, “Death Bed” is not.

“There was supposed to be stuff added in there,” Brandis said.

Rohler, who runs Old Books on Front Street, was inspired by her relationship with Jock Brandis to write a stage adaptation of the movie. Brandis worked as a gaffer on 'Death Bed.' Photo by Hilary Snow.
Rohler, who runs Old Books on Front Street, was inspired by her relationship with Jock Brandis to write a stage adaptation of the movie. Brandis worked as a gaffer on ‘Death Bed.’ Photo by Hilary Snow.

There’s a lot missing from “Death Bed,” Brandis and Rohler noted–a basic story arc, for starters. Most of the movie is told through the dubbed-in inner thoughts of its characters, including a David Bowie-esque ghost who is trapped behind a painting.

As surreal as the movie is, its journey is even harder to fathom.

“No one believed my stories until they saw the movie,” Brandis said.

It was 1973. Brandis was 26, living in Canada and hoping to break into the film industry when Barry knocked on his door late one night and asked if he wanted to make a movie.

Barry, who lived in Detroit, needed to assemble a cheap crew to avoid paying union wages. So, he, Brandis and a van-full of Canadians sneaked over the border–sans work visas and with a human skeleton in tow–for a two-week shoot at a historic Detroit mansion where, it turns out, a group of Hells Angels were renting.

“The stupid things you do when you’re young,” Brandis said, laughing.

Brandis’ job on the movie was to make the bed “eat,” a feat that wasn’t easy to accomplish with his $300 budget.

Resourceful and inventive, Brandis stacked three air mattresses on top of each other and, when the plug was pulled, it appeared the actors were being slowly sucked into the bed to be eventually dissolved by a bubbling acid–really a combination of yellow food coloring and glycerine.

“I bought every bottle of yellow food coloring in the city of Detroit,” Brandis boasted.

The contraption actually landed Brandis a small part in the film. When he wanted to demonstrate to the actors how the bed worked, Barry didn’t want to waste the film so he told Brandis to suit up in a priest’s costume to play one of the bed’s early victims.

“And that’s how I ended up getting kicked out of a whorehouse for asking to borrow a Gideon Bible,” Brandis said. “I didn’t know it was a whorehouse. It was a nice establishment; I mean, they had Bibles in the rooms.”

In fact, most of the crew made appearances in the film, as did Barry’s grandmother and a rather enthusiastic caterer, who offered to provide free meals–provided he would be given a role.

It took only two weeks to film “Death Bed” but it would be another four years before the editing was complete. Not surprisingly, no one picked up the movie and it sat–shelved and unreleased–for decades.

Unbeknownst to Barry, a pirated copy had, in the 80s, made its way through Europe, where it became a well-loved cult classic.

It wasn’t until 2004 that “Death Bed” was officially released on DVD. It then got the attention of comedian Patton Oswalt, who helped, in an indirect way, promote the movie when he included it in one of his albums, “Werewolves and Lollipops.” Since that time, the movie has gained a loyal following of fans endeared to a movie so bad it has to be good.

‘Death Bed’: The Play

While Rohler and Brandis have been a couple for more than a decade, she didn’t see “Death Bed” until last year.

“Jock has so many ‘Big Fish’ stories…but watching the movie, I was able to see a lot of dots connected. I don’t have children but I imagine it’s an awful lot like watching your kid hit a home run in T-ball.”

With that spirit, Rohler set out to write a play based on “Death Bed” for Big Dawg Productions’ upcoming Halloween Horror Theatre Festival.

In a style a la Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” Act One covers all the stranger-than-fiction stories behind “Death Bed.” Act Two is a straight adaptation of the movie.

“I counted and there was only something like 20 minutes of actual dialogue in the whole movie, so I couldn’t stretch that out into a whole play,” Rohler said.

It’s unique subject matter for a first-time playwright, and Rohler admits it hasn’t been easy.

Brandis was the man responsible for making the demon-possessed bed, seen here, 'eat' in the movie. He is also heading up the design of a similar bed for Rohler's set. Photo courtesy George Barry.
Brandis was the man responsible for making the demon-possessed bed, seen here, ‘eat’ in the movie. He is also heading up the design of a similar bed for Rohler’s set. Photo courtesy George Barry.

“I have probably watched that movie 200 times since December. I’ve written nine different drafts. I’ve done five different readings with actors,” she said. “To start with something like ‘Death Bed,’ where you are adapting someone else’s work and stories–there’s a great responsibility that comes with that.”

Rohler has Barry’s permission and blessing on the play. In fact, Barry is planning to attend the Oct. 31 production.

“George rather basks in his new notoriety,” Brandis said.

And that’s been an unexpected and pleasant consequence of Rohler’s creative endeavors–reuniting Brandis, Barry and others from the “Death Bed” cast and crew and getting to hear all their tales, hard to believe as they may be.

“Jock is reconnecting with people he hasn’t talked to in 40 years. They’re reconnecting and sharing stories,” she said. “I guess it’s kind of like the Bible–everything in it is true and some of it actually happened.”

“George Barry’s Death Bed: The Play” premieres at 8 p.m. on Oct. 23 at Cape Fear Playhouse. Click here for more information.

You can watch the movie in its entirety here.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com

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