Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Census Flashback: Female Directors

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

This week we’re anticipating the 70’s horror remake The Beguiled, because Transformers 5 has opted to premiere midweek, blissfully opening up the weekend to a crop of smaller titles. The Beguiled was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, so today’s slasher boasts the same, highly unusual, distinction of being both written and directed by women: A Night to Dismember.

Year: 1983
Director: Doris Wishman
Cast: Samantha Fox, Diane Cummins, Saul Meth 
Run Time: 1 hour 9 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

A good title is worth a thousand ticket sales, and Doris Wishman’s A Night to Dismember has a great one. Unfortunately, it’s attached to something that’s not even a movie. According to legend, a great deal of the negative was destroyed by a disgruntled film technician, forcing the movie to be a Frankensteinian assemblage of surviving dailies with a new voiceover track papered over the whole affair to make the story make sense.

Now, as much as I love to see a female name above the line in slasher movie credits, let alone two (the film was written by Judy J. Kushner), that doesn’t mean I’m inclined to go easy on them. Women can be just as good (the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy) or just as bad (Home Sweet Home) as male directors. Or in this case – if the stories are true – just as up a creek without a paddle.


So, here’s the plot. As recapped by an investigator in voiceover, drawing from the apparently very extensive, incriminating diaries kept by all involved, the Kent family comes across a spot of bad luck on October 15th, 1986 (making this a science fiction movie). Daughter Vicki Kent (Samantha Fox) has just returned from a five year stint in a mental institution, to the jealousy of her attention-seeking siblings Mary (Diane Cummins) and Billy (William Szarka, director of future Census Bloodbath entry Phantom Brother). These people are all adults so we can watch them have sex, but they pretty much exclusively act like children.

They conspire to drive Vicki back to the asylum, and the massively extended Kent family begins to fall prey to what I’m convinced is the exact same shot of the shadow of an axe on the wall, repeated ad infinitum.

They really gotta drive this point home.

A Night to Dismember is a shambles, no two ways about it. But if it had been completed as envisioned, it probably would have only been slightly less of a shambles. It’s just a string of slasher murders barely connected by the faintest wisp of a plot. OK granted, that’s pretty much true of all slashers, but presentation is key.

Snippets of catalogue music from the Greatest Hits of the Home Shopping Network collection jerk to a start and abruptly leap between tracks, cheerily underscoring the endless parade of cut-rate softcore porn and unfocused, jittery murder sequences. It’s like the celluloid itself chugged a gallon of coffee and is practically leaping out of the projector.

It’s just so manic, hopping from one bloody lily pad to the next without pausing to take a breath. And even brimming with this energy and boasting a run time so slight it’s barely visible to the naked eye, A Night to Dismember is incredibly, catastrophically boring. It’s poorly shot, packed with grainy close-ups, and the miles of plot it relentlessly spools through have no emotional anchor. It’s more like watching a PowerPoint presentation of slasher murders than an actual plot with recognizable characters,

Hell, that’s probably being unfair to the entertainment value of PowerPoint.

There is at least one interesting thing about A Night to Dismember, though "interesting” isn’t even in the same ZIP code as “good.” With its jagged motion and half-assed dubbing, it feels like an old silent film, only with 80’s hairstyles. The acting is pitched to the back row, and the shards of scenes are glued together by a monologue that might as well be a set of title cards. It feels like some surviving scrap of an ancient artifact, despite the anachronistic modernity of is setting. For that it’s kind of fascinating, but its worth as a curio does not extend beyond about a quarter of an hour.

And hell, I’ll come up with something nice to say. Why not? The film’s construction is dreamlike enough that some of the attempts at horror genuinely land. Out-of-context uncanny imagery like hands groping at Vicki in the dark or a “Halloween mask” played by a scaly old man will send a tingle or two down the spine. And the effects makeup on the kills is mostly OK, wallowing in a 70’s grindhouse vibe during its gorier sequences.

But let’s not pretend this movie is anything but a tedious, poorly acted, incoherently edited monstrosity. A teaspoon of interesting imagery can’t cover up that sour taste. If Ken Burns made a documentary where he read the phone book aloud over photos of severed fingers while elevator music droned in the background, I would still rather check that out than watch A Night to Dismember again.

Yes, I understand that this film was FUBAR behind the scenes. But still… They didn’t have to release it.

Killer: Mary Kent (Diane Cummins)
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Mary literally rips her uncle’s heart right out of his chest.
Sign of the Times: Anybody allowed this movie to happen, because slashers were still profitable.
Scariest Moment: A muddy man rises from the lake and chases Vicki.
Weirdest Moment: the finale sees Mary pack her axe in a briefcase and take off into the woods.
Champion Dialogue: “Susan had accidentally fallen on her axe. She was dead.”
Body Count: 16
  1. Bonnie is axed to death.
  2. Susan falls on her own axe. She is dead.
  3. Lola is stabbed.
  4. Broderick hangs himself.
  5. Boy #1 is stabbed through the back of the neck.
  6. Boy 2 is stabbed through the back of the neck.
  7. Frankie is decapitated with a machete.
  8. Sandy is decapitated with a machete.
  9. Uncle Sebastian is axed in the head.
  10. Auntie Ann is run over with a car.
  11. Bea Smith is axed in the neck.
  12. Adam gets a needle through his neck.
  13. Blanche is axed to death.
  14. Billy is buried alive.
  15. Vicki is strangled.
  16. Taxi Driver is axed to death.
TL;DR: A Night to Dismember is a catastrophically compromised slasher film.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1086

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