The raving and remonstrating over subliminal messages in popular music is over. Sure, zealous listeners claim to hear voices of the Illuminati in contemporary hip-hop, but the hoopla is mostly a thing of yesteryear. In David Van Taylor’s 1991 documentary Dream Deceivers, the story of two teenagers who attempted suicide due to the urging of Judas Priest lyrics, we get to relive this wayward time. And boy, is it ugly.
Dream Deceivers opens on a sprawled out body during a dark night in a small suburb of Reno. We expect movement, but there is none. This is the deceased body of 18-year old Ray Belkamp. Soon the hands of an examiner, bloodied by the crime scene, finds a wallet and confirms the young man’s identity. Our next image is of a grotesquely disfigured interviewee – this is James Vance, Ray Belkamp’s best friend. Under the assumption that Judas Priest lyrics promised an paradise in the afterlife, the two boys aimed the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun under their chins and proceeded to pull the trigger. Roy’s mother, Phyllis, is convinced the music is to blame — and is bringing a lawsuit against the band to prove her point. Thus, the documentary seeks to ask: is she onto something?
Dream Deceivers mixes interviews, the infamous court hearing, and archival footage to structure the narrative. We get to penetrate, almost too much so, the private lives of the family, Judas Priest, and Reno’s disaffected youth. While dust has cropped up in the 23 years after the initial release, the film remains entertaining nonetheless. This is mostly due to the subjects and editing. The camera wanders around the scene with the same alluring pace as 70’s epics like The Exorcist and The Deer Hunter. And, much to editor Mona Davis’ sly hand in the editing room, Dream Deceivers has the same pleasing effect on the audience.
The most memorable element of Dream Deceivers is the gruesome imagery. Director David Van Taylor has an eye for capturing discomforting atmosphere. The drama that unfolds throughout the documentary covers viewers in a thick smog morbidity that could be easily mishandled. Thankfully, it is not. Whether it is Ray Belkamp’s blood soaked wallet, James Vance’s disfigured face, or simply the uncouth demeanor of Phyllis Vance, the director is precise with his camera.
Dream Deceivers stumbles at an appropriate moment: objectivity. Viewers will undoubtedly sniff out what side of the court case Van Taylor is standing on. However, this does not mean the empathy will not be felt for one party more than the other. So, is Dream Deceivers a biased documentary? Yes, but it is hard to find fault in the filmmaker’s motive.
Dream Deceivers is now available on DVD from First Run Features.