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Friday, July 25, 2014

DVD Review: Dream Deceivers



Dream Deceivers is a truly interesting and at times unsettling documentary about the two young men who entered a suicide pact, and the resulting lawsuit against the rock band Judas Priest. It was released in 1992, but is now finally getting a DVD release, thanks to First Run Features.

The film opens with the 9-1-1 call about the shooting and footage of the scene. A title card gives us a bit of information on the images: “Just before Christmas 1985 James Vance and Ray Belknap shot themselves with a 12-gauge shotgun. Their families blamed heavy-metal band Judas Priest, claiming a recorded subliminal command – “Do it” – had mesmerized their sons.” The documentary focuses on the trial which took place in 1990, and on the families of the two men (Ray Belknap died, while James Vance survived the suicide attempt). There are interviews with members of both families, as well as interviews with members of Judas Priest. And what comes across is a really sad story, a depressing environment and quite a lot of denial.

Through this film, we especially get to know the Vance family. We’re introduced to Phyllis Vance in church, with the congregation singing a lively Jesus song. It’s an interesting introduction, because right away we get a sense of the religious perspective from which she is coming to this case. But it's also interesting because of the music, the fact that she clearly enjoys music as well as her, though a different type of music. Phyllis says of her son James, “I don’t know when I lost him.” And that’s when we’re introduced to James himself, whose face was left seriously disfigured by the attempted suicide. The footage of him is unsettling. Perhaps even more unsettling is the footage of him at home, where his mother talks about how there are lots of things he can no longer eat because he doesn’t have enough teeth.

At the beginning of the court case, the judge says: “Just to make sure that we’re together, there is nothing in the music, in the sound effects, or the lyrics that is actionable…What is on trial is whether there are subliminal messages present, and if so if they have an effect upon the listener.” It’s obviously an important trial regarding freedom of expression, but through this trial, we also really a get a disturbing look at the troubles that many teens suffer.

One of the most interesting moments from the trial footage is when the song “Better By You Better Than Me” is played slowly. It does actually sound like it might possibly say “Do it.” What’s great is the band’s reaction – clearly they hadn’t heard it before. Rob Halford actually sings the song on the stand. There are interviews with Judas Priest members Glenn Tipton, Rob Halford and K.K. Downing. Halford talks about how the band tackles subjects other than love in their music, and relates some childhood memories of walking by an iron works factory.

There are also interviews with several fans of the band, who talk rather candidly as a group about their own lives. And it seems to me that when James Vance talks about the music, he is still very much a fan.

What I find most interesting is the perspectives and reactions of the families. Mrs. Vance excuses her husband’s drinking problem, his gambling problem, and his earlier abuse toward her, and somehow fixes on Judas Priest as being the reason for her son’s attempted suicide. The footage of Mr. and Mrs. Vance ag home arguing is incredible. Mrs. Vance gets upset because she feels everyone blames her for everything. And in court both mothers are forced to talk about the trouble their sons got into early on in their lives. But perhaps the moment that hits hardest is when Rita Skulason, Ray’s sister, takes the stand, and is asked if she listened to heavy metal music on either of the two occasions when she herself attempted suicide. She admits, “No.”

It’s a really good documentary, though I would have liked more on just what the prosecution hoped to prove. Perhaps a little more trial footage, and some interviews with the prosecuting attorneys would have added greatly to this film. By the way, the title of the documentary comes from the title of  a Judas Priest song.

Special Features

The DVD contains approximately twenty-five minutes of footage from two interviews with director David Van Taylor – one conducted in 1992, the other in 2011. He talks about meeting the families and his approach to dealing with them. In the 1992 interview, he talks about his changing feelings on the issues, and why it was important to include footage of James. He also mentions screening the film for the Vance family. In the 2011 interview he talks about the powerlessness of the people in the film, both the kids and their parents, and about his own reactions upon seeing the movie now. In both interviews he talks about the band.

Dream Deceivers was directed by David Van Taylor, and is scheduled to be released on DVD on August 5, 2014 through First Run Features.

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