Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Night to Dismember (1983): or, Necessity is a Mother

In a comment on my recent review of the much-maligned blaxploitation flick The Guy from Harlem, Samuel Wilson of the always informative and entertaining blog Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema offered the following bit of incisive criticism that blew me away with its simple, powerful truth:

Films like this one are folk art (or if you like it more edgy, "outsider art"), like the works of Grandma Moses or Henry Darger. Their failures of perspective, anatomy or narrative logic are excused when they achieve effects that go beyond the conventional.
I'm really glad I had time to digest this nugget of wisdom before my recent viewing of Doris Wishman's 1983 oddity A Night to Dismember, as otherwise I really wouldn't have known what to do with it, other than point and laugh, of course. But with Samuel's words bouncing around my mitre, I was able to experience the film in a completely different way than I would have previously, and as such I'm prepared to pronounce A Night to Dismember not only a culturally important artifact, but a piece of Art with a capital "A."

That you can also point at and laugh.

According to Joseph A. Ziemba of the encyclopedic and endlessly valuable review site Bleeding Skull,Wishman ("the most prolific female exploitation director of all-time"--BSkull) had completed shooting on A Night to Dismember in 1982, hoping to capitalize on the early 80s slasher mania with a gory, sex-laden, documentary-style knock-off. But then "[a] peeved lab worker the bankrupt Movielab destroyed several negatives in a fit of rage", and forty percent of Wishman's completed film was lost forever.

Get Ready...

Rather than throwing her hands up in despair and writing the whole thing off as a loss, however, Wishman rolled up her sleeves and did her best to salvage her movie. She shot new and contextually unrelated footage, spliced and edited filmstock like an epileptic octopus on speed, and added a ponderous, movie-long voice-over track to try and make sense of things for the viewer. (It doesn't.) The result is a glorious failure, an unintentional mind-fuck, a collage piece of "outsider art" that looks nothing like a good movie and yet has its own strange, undeniable power and allure. Or at least it did for me--and it's my site, so nyah.

That voice-over comes to us courtesy Tim O'Malley, a private investigator narrating the events of "Bloody October" in 1986--and yes, that's three years in the future from the date of release. Over lots and lots of stock footage of graveyards, O'Malley informs us that on that bloody night, the families of Phineas and Broderick Kent were all but wiped out in a string of grisly crimes that left only one family member alive.

Next via flashback...or flash-future...or future-back...or SOMETHING--we see Phineas Kent playing solitaire while O'Malley tells us how proud the old man is of his daughters Susan and Bonnie. (We can tell he's the paterfamilias by his powder-gray helmet-wig.) Justifying her father's pride, Bonnie is in the midst of a totally gratuitous bath scene. As appreciative of this as the viewers might be, younger sister Susan is not at all, and expresses her displeasure by hacking Bonnie to death in the bathtub, giving us an awful lot of bathwather gore. Though she's an efficient killer, Susan is also a deadly klutz--turning to flee the scene, she accidentally falls on the axe, killing herself! (I have in my notes at this point "The music here is amazing," but I honestly can't remember it in view of the what follows. Still, I stand by my assessment as the gospel truth.)

Mom told you not to run with sharp things.

Jumping to seemingly a completely different movie, we see Broderick Kent calling Tim O'Malley to report he's found his wife's murdered body. Apparently Lola Kent was taking "her usual afternoon stroll in the garden" (which through flash-wherever we see involves the huge-chested Lola strolling through a sunlit forest with her boobs hanging out) ...and then something else happens and she's dead in a pool of blood. Before you have time to let that percolate, O'Malley reveals that moments/hours/who knows how much later Broderick confessed he hired an ex-con to kill his wife. Unable to stand the guilt, Brod promptly hangs himself in his jail cell, and there's another Kent down.

But wait, there's more! Next we cut to Vicki Kent (70s/80s porn star Samantha Fox), obviously disturbed and hanging out in a graveyard for some reason. When a couple of teen boys chase each other into the boneyard for some gleeful homoerotic wrestling, Vicki pounces and chases them into a subterranean crypt before murdering them both, one with a rather graphic (through FX-challenged) through-the-trachea stab! She's quickly captured by the police and sent to the state mental institution, on account of her being a nutso killer. And so Bloody October comes to a close.


So as you might have gathered from just the last three paragraphs, "disjointed" doesn't even BEGIN to describe this movie's storyline. In fact, I'm pretty sure "storyline" doesn't accurately describe the movie's storyline. "Storysplosion" might be closer to capturing the Jackson Pollack-like snip-drips of plot flung everywhere, hanging together by the thinnest of threads, if at all. As for technical stuff, the cinematography is possibly meant to be documentary style, but just looks gritty and inept, but pleasingly so, like many of the 70s exploitation flicks we all know and love. And I can only assume that the soundtrack was part of the 40% of the movie that got destroyed, as everything is post-dubbed--badly, of course--and occasionally the Foley effects sound like some kids making fart noises in the cafeteria. (Seriously--listen for the sound of tires going through a puddle, and see if you can keep from giggling.)

So five years after Bloody October, Vicki Kent is released from the sanitarium, much against the wishes of her brother Billy and sister Mary. (Remember when O'Malley said all the Kents but one were killed? Well, Wishman didn't either.) Billy thinks Vicki is still dangerous and might kill again; Mary just doesn't like the attention her porn-star sister draws away from Mary's rockin' blonde femullet. Therefore Billy decides they should go all Gaslight on big sis and try to scare her so badly she has to go back to the asylum. You know, for the good of the community. I guess.

Mary: Beautiful Plumage

Meanwhile Vicki hooks up with her old boyfriend Franky (who looks like one of The Wiggles and whose character is played by at least two different actors, I think). Franky's girlfriend complains, and someone kills her...Mary starts imagining ghosts in her house, but for what real purpose I can't quite figure...Franky and Vicki make out by the lake only to be attacked by a SWAMP MONSTER (who turns out to be Billy in disguise, trying to drive Vicki *back* to crazy)...there are a few killings, some more nudity, and less coherence than you'd find in the glossolalia of a schizophrenic ventriloquist whose dummy just became a Pentecostal.

And bear in mind, this is ALL being told through a Robert Stack-esque voice over, from a PI who may or may not survive the movie--I really don't know.

You really CANNOT approach A Night to Dismember narratively--it just doesn't work. It repels any attempt. I can see someone just turning it off in disgust after two minutes...but as for me, I let it wash over my brain and eventually started to feel like I must be hallucinating this movie. Seriously, check out some actual excerpts from my viewing notes:

  • Vicky hears ghostly voices, sees flashing lights
  • This is making me feel like I'm high.
  • holy crap double decap
  • "Only a jealous lover or a crazed, betrayed wife or husband could have perpetrated such a horrendous act!"
Art Class
  • Total beatbox foley
  • Vicky plays leg guitar while PI watches through window
  • Psychadelic sex scene...totally lost now
  • OMG spirograph trip-out
I Know the Feeling

If you can make any sense out of that, you're doing better than I did. And I actually *watched* the movie.

Summing up my reaction to A Night to Dismember, I find myself kind of at a loss. It's bad, but a badness born of necessity and desperation, which is something I can't really hold against it. It's incoherent and inept, but in such a way that, albeit unintentionally, it approaches DADA surrealism. I've seen a lot of bad movies--I mean, a LOT--and yet few have affected me in the way this one did.

To say it's not for everyone would be the understatement of the century--in fact, were I to watch it again under different circumstances, even I might have an entirely different reaction. But if you're fascinated by the trashy and the weird, I'd be willing to bet it doesn't get much trashier or weirder. Restraining my admittedly subjective glee, I'd say it's worth seeing once, even if only as a curiosity. Therefore, I'm giving A Night to Dismember a solid 2 thumb rating--check it out, and then email me and tell me what I saw.

Thanks, Mr. Wilson!


Tenebrous Kate said...

I love the *idea* of Doris Wishman's films so much more than the *reality* of her films. You've really captured lightning in a bottle and managed to verbalize the appeal of her films to those who love them. A very fine review, Vicar!

>>To say it's not for everyone would be the understatement of the century--in fact, were I to watch it again under different circumstances, even I might have an entirely different reaction

I am now adopting the euphemism "under different circumstances" to mean "sober" ;)

The Duke of DVD said...

Kate has the right idea. This movie sounds like one best viewed through the lens of skunkweed smoke, or perhaps one could snort enough cocaine laced with baby laxative to both force your mind to make sense of the movie and to cleanse your lower bowel.

A clean sphincter is a happy sphincter, after all.

(Bravo, as usual dearest Vicar, on a superb review!)

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for the props, Vicar. My hunch is that Homer Simpson inadvertently described this film one time when his family was debating the moral of one of their own episodes. "It's just a bunch of stuff that happened," he concluded. The weird thing about films like these (and I have to take your word on the weirdness) is that they work the same way that "personal" auteur-type films do. They don't allow you the complacent experience of the ideal Hollywood "seamless" narrative with its "invisible" directorial technique. Somehow we respond to extreme style and extreme lack of style (or technique itself) in similar ways, because they are equally deviant from the mundane norm. And that, chilluns, is why we have movie blogs. Thanks for yours.

Erin said...

Wow, I usually think out of outsider art as something invloving Jan Terry and/or Los Angeles public access TV stars, but I never thought of it in the context of otherwise "bad" movies. Great review btw. Much more fun than actually watching the movie.

I shall now be using the outsider art clause to justify about 1/3 of what I watch. Thanks to you and your friend Mr. Wilson.

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