“A Night To Dismember” : Needs Must When Doris Wishman Drives

Posted: April 18, 2010 in movies
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"A Night To Dismember" Opening Titles

What would you do if you had a completed film “in the can,” so to speak, but a disgruntled lab worker at the processing facility where it was being developed set fire to the place and destroyed 40% of your movie, leaving you with just over an hour of usable footage, all from various unrelated segments of your flick?

And what if, by an even more cruel twist of fate, it turned out that the destroyed 40% was some of the most crucial material, and what you had left made little to no sense without its inclusion?

Imagine, for instance, you had a ten-minute short film about a couple who have an argument in the park that results in their breakup. You had six minutes of footage left relatively unscathed, but it was the six minutes showing them going to the park and leaving, with the crucial four minutes of argument and breakup material gone, leaving you with a “story” that looks, for all intents and purposes, like two people just walking to the park and then leaving under much the same circumstances as they arrived.

Would you just shoot the thing over? I guess that would make the most sense. But what if you were broke, since all your money was used up on the production of your little indie opus, the print itself was uninsured, so you couldn’t recoup any of your losses,  and it was due to play at a local short festival in a week or so?

Well, that’s what happened to B-movie auteur Doris Wishman in 1982, only on an even larger scale.

Despite being a key player in the exploitation movie business for nearly three decades at the time, Wishman had never actually made a proper horror flick before, with most of her efforts being sexploitationers like Nude on the Moon, Deadly Weapons, Double Agent 73, and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist — but in the early 80s, spurred on by the success of films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, slashers were all the rage, and Wishman, ever the savvy low-rent businesswoman, wasn’t about to let that gravy train pass her by.

And can you blame her? A genre that requires no big-name actors, no expensive sets, and has a guaranteed built-in audience at grindhouses and drive-ins all across the country was something no B-movie maker could really afford to pass on. As long as people were getting killed, audiences were happy, and if you made movies literally to pay your rent or make your mortgage payment, this was just too good a deal not to get in on. A license to print money!

Wishman began her first and only voyage into slasherdom the way she began all her productions — with a title, in this case the rather catchy A Night To Dismember. Then she filmed a roughly five-minute trailer, another staple ingredient in her filmmaking stew. With no completed script, no actual cast in place, and no idea where or when the movie itself would be shot, she then would shop these trailers around to potential investors in a bid to secure what she billed as “completion funds.” The movie’s budget would be whatever she was able to raise using this rather unconventional, but usually marginally successful, sales “technique.”

With these “completion funds” in place, she would then finish a script, get a cast in place, secure some filming locations (as often as not utilizing her own house as the primary scene of the action), and shoot a movie that often bore little to no resemblance to the trailer she’d shot earlier.

That’s putting it all on the line for you art, my friends, which is why I’ll always say, despite all physical evidence to the contrary, that Wishman had more balls than most of her male contemporaries.

Anyway, it’s 1982 and our lady Doris has just followed the MO outlined above to make this cheap little slasher flick, A Night To Dismember. She shot it over the course of a couple of weeks, mostly in and around her own house (in, I believe, New Jersey), the only “star” of note whose services she could secure on her budget was late-70s/early-80s second-tier porn actress Samantha Fox (not to be confused with the British topless “Page 3 Girl”/wannabe-pop starlet of the same name who would come along a few years later) who was looking to break into the “legitimate” film business, and the script was a fairly bog-standard little extra-gory murder mystery about a seriously dysfunctional family.

In short, a girl gets sent to an insane asylum as a teenager, gets out in her (supposedly) late 20s, and upon her release her brother and sister enact a devious little scheme to send her back to the bughouse because they don’t want her cutting in on daddy’s affections and, more importantly, his money. They figure they’ll subject her to all kinds of taunting and nightmare visions to make her question her own sanity, and hey, if that doesn’t work, they’ll maybe even kill some people and try to make it look like crazy sis must have done it. That ought to get her out of the picture.

Wishman, as ever, recorded the film without sound and shot it from a safe enough distance in most sequences so that audiences wouldn’t notice the shitty quality of the dubbed-in audio track later. When close-ups were required, she focused on eyes, foreheads, necks, nearby inanimate objects — literally anything but the actors’ mouths, just in case the sound and the images didn’t quite synch up — which they usually didn’t.

So, the movie’s done. And what’s more, it’s been sold. It’s set to play the bottom half of double-bills in various regional markets in early 1983, and as the prints make their rounds up and down 42nd street and around to various rural drive-ins, Wishman is sure to make enough to recoup her investors’ costs as well as line her pockets with at least a little bit of the change left over. After all, she’d done this  dozens of times in the past. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, if you’re an astute reader — hell, even just a reader with an attention span lasting longer than oh, say, five minutes — you’ll already know what went wrong. Wishman sent her print to a company called Movielab to be developed. Movielab was having some financial troubles. The paychecks for many of their workers bounced. And one particularly enterprising employee decided he wasn’t going to take this lying down — so he literally set fire to the place.

If the movie doesn't make any sense, why would a caption?

Wishman had never insured a print in her life, and didn’t do so in this case, either. So what she had left after the Movielab fire was 60% of her footage, for which no sound had yet been added, and no money to go back and try to do things over. And her movie was due to open in a couple of months.  This is when true B-movie makers bring their “A” game.

Doris went to work. First up, she edited what she had left into as close to a sensible order as humanly possible, even though, as mentioned before, a lot of the most crucial stuff was gone. Then she spliced in some footage from her promotional trailer, even though the “story” depicted there didn’t much resemble the movie she’d made (if you’ve read rather than skimmed this review, I’m assuming you’ll understand why that statement makes sense). She added in some outtake footage from other movies she’d made to pad out the run time. And she wrote and then laid out a feature-length narration track over the whole thing so that this discombobulated series of scenes, where one sequence would have absolutely nothing to do with what was on the screen right before it, would maybe, sort of, almost make something resembling, you know, sense.

Was it a successful effort? Hell no, how could it be? When you’ve got someone walking outside followed by people sitting in a room talking followed by someone getting an axe through their head, there’s only so much you can do. But the voice-over, provided by a supposed “private investigator” named Tim O’Malley, does at least put the completely unrelated events in some kind of plausible sequential order. He relates the events of “Bloody October” in 1986 (yes, the film was released in ’83, but I think Wishman was giving herself a little extra time in case the whole thing didn’t come together for a few more years — she may not have had any actual physical insurance, but narrative insurance is free) in the only way possible given what we see unfolding/haphazardly landing on the screen, the film clocks in at 68 minutes — the bare minimum to get feature distribution — and hey, Wishman got it out in enough time to ride the slasher gravy train before it petered out.

How much of a "plot" do you really need to understand what's happening here?

I’m not going to claim that Wishman accidentally found greatness with the end product here,  that dire circumstances proved to be an act of serendipity that resulted in an unheralded horror masterpiece. There’s a reason A Night to Dismember isn’t regarded as a slasher classic — it’s just not very good. But it certainly should be seen by any true B-movie aficionado. The fact that it even exists is a testament to Doris Wishman’s sheer determination and/or desperation — probably both. It exists because it has to, and in that sense it’s probably just about the most honest movie you’ll ever see.

"A Night To Dismember" DVD from Elite Entertainment

A Night To Dismember is available on DVD from Elite Entertainment. It’s a heck of a little package, considering the source, and features not only, surprisingly, a 16×9 widescreen transfer of the film, but also the promotional trailer footage (again, shot before the movie itself was actually made) and a feature-length commentary from Doris Wishman herself, recorded shortly before her death in 2002, and her longtime cinematographer Chuck Smith. This commentary is, as you might imagine, absolutely invaluable in terms of trying to actually understand the flick itself, and furthermore it’s a lot of fun with Wishman and Smith engaged in some fun bickering banter throughout (well, to be honest, Wishman bickers, Smith just sort of takes it all in good humor — but you can picture his eyes rolling almost non-stop throughout). To be honest, the movie’s a lot better with the commentary track on than it is on its own — but it definitely helps to watch it without it first, then to put it on in order to understand just what the fuck it is you’ve witnessed.

A Night To Dismember is an exercise in pure cinematic necessity. It resembles, most closely, a piece of “outsider art” or surrealism, although it certainly wasn’t intended to. It just is the way it is because it literally can’t be any other way. But here’s the irony — if somebody like David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky (n0 offense intended to either of those two truly outstanding filmmakers, I invoke their names merely because it makes sense for reasons of comparison)  set out to make a movie like this on purpose, it would be heralded as an artistic triumph. Doris Wishman makes a movie like this because it’s the only thing she can do with what she’s got and everyone says it’s a piece of crap.

Go figure.

Comments
  1. Adolfo says:

    Isn’t that third photo from “Pieces?”

    • trashfilmguru says:

      It looks a lot like on of the murders in “Pieces,” but the still is definitely from “A Night to Dismember.” Trust me when I say that the gore is “Pieces” looks positively Oscar-worthy compared to this film!

  2. Ben says:

    I’ve been hunting for a VHS copy of this movie for ages. If anyone has one they’d be willing to sell, please email me at benruffett@hotmail.com

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