Posts Tagged ‘elite entertainment’

"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.

"I Spit On Your Grave" movie poster

"I Spit On Your Grave" movie poster

In the storied annals of exploitation cinema, few films have ever stirred as much controversy as Meir Zarchi’s rape-revenge masterpiece “I Spit On Your Grave.” Originally released in 1978 under the title “Day of the Woman,” which is actually much more appropriate to the movie’s content but far less—shall was say—noticeable, the story of Jenny Hill(played by Camille Keaton, veteran of Italian exploitation fare such as “Tragic Ceremony”), sophisticated but mild-mannered Manhattan author who rents a cabin on the Husatonik river in Connecticut for the summer in the hopes of getting some peace and quiet so she can write her first book only to be descended upon savagely by a gang of four local, and absolutely merciless, it must be said, redneck rapists(played by Erin Tabor, who turns in a fairly solid performance as the group’s ringleader, Richard Pace , who features as the dim-witted virgin buddy who the others are trying to  “get laid” that summer by any means necessary, Gunter Kleeman and Anthony Nichols) before pursuing her own brand of justice, came and went from the drive-in and grindhouse circuit pretty quickly while only kicking up a slight bit of outraged dust from the morality police. When Jerry Gross picked it up for wider distribution a couple years later with a new and more provocative title with an ad campaign to match that played up the film’s subject matter in the most prurient way possible, though, audiences took note. And so did the critics.

It wasn’t just the Jerry Folwells of the world who objected to “I Spit On Your Grave”‘s shockingly brutal sexual violence, or the purported film sophisticates like Pauline Kael who jumped on the supposed exploitation of its audiences most base “urges”—even perfectly mainstream critics like Siskel and Ebert were appalled and outraged by what they deemed on “Sneak Previews” (remember that?) as “the most sexist movie ever made.” The passing of time has cast things in a new, and in this case proper, light, though, and I have to say that your friendly neighborhood TFG agrees with B-movie aficionado par excellence Joe Bob Briggs, who, in his superb commentary on Elite Entertainment’s  “Millennium Edition” DVD of the film released in 2002 declared it, rather, to be quite possibly the most FEMINIST movie ever made. Let’s take a quick look at why I think this is the case and explore why it is that this flick retains its power to shock and disturb even now, over 30 years after its original release.

Things start out pleasnatly enough for Jenny---

Things start out pleasantly enough for Jenny---

The standard feminist line, as I understand it, is that rape is not a crime about sex, but about violence—about power, control, and the objectification and dehumanization of its victim. Seems like a fair enough analysis to me. It’s not anything to do with using violence to to obtain sex, it’s about using sex as a tool of violence. Well, there’s no question that “I Spit On Your Grave” absolutely shows that to be the case—a little too absolutely for most audiences, truth be told. There’s no “rape scene” in “I Spit On Your Grave”—there’s a long, harrowing, maliciously brutal SERIES of rape scenes strung together that take up nearly 45 minutes of the film’s 100-minute run time. It’s well and truly excruciating stuff to sit through and there’s nothing even remotely “kinky” about any of the proceedings. Each is more savage and relentless than the last. And you know what? For the purposes of the story being told here, that’s the way it’s got to be. This isn’t a story about the better angels of human nature. It’s not about love and forgiveness. It’s about a brutally violent crime followed by brutally violent revenge. Given what Jenny does later—freeing her attackers from the bonds of this mortal coil with extreme prejudice—the crime perpetrated upon her needs to be shown in all its repulsive barbarity or else the methods by which she chooses to dispatch these guys is going to seem like some serious overkill. “I Spit On Your Grave” is about the deadly consequences of psyche-and spirit-shattering attack. Skimp out on the details and the story itself loses most of its meaning and all of its power.

---but quickly take a turn for the worse---the FAR worse.

---but quickly take a turn for the worse---the FAR worse.

Unlike the film, though, your humble critic is going to spare you the details of both the attack on Ms. Hill and her vengeance in case you, dear reader, haven’t seen this movie yet and would like to.  Suffice to say neither are pretty, but if you’re a properly-morally-hardwired human being, one will leave you disgusted beyond words while the other will have you high-fiving whoever you’re watching the movie with (assuming they, too, have standard human moral codes—if not, get some new friends. Fast.). Which is where the shock and disgust of the Siskels and Eberts of the world once again come into play. Apparently they stated that when they went to see the movie in the theater, some audience members were literally cheering during the midst of Jenny’s ordeal. I have to admit, that’s sick—really sick. I just don’t see how any honest analysis of the film can lead a person to conclude that was the reaction Zarchi was aiming for in any way, shape, or form, and a director really I can’t help who buys a ticket to see his or her work.  I’m also willing to bet those some assholes were probably sitting there in stunned silence, clutching at their balls to make sure they were still there, when the animals they were whooping and hollering for get their comeuppance. Let’s just say guys out for payment in blood for the wrongs done to them or their families like Charles Bronson (no disrespect to Chuck, TFG loves the guy) could learn a lesson or two from our girl Jenny(apart from her one mistake—she kills the group’s head honcho— a guy, by the way, shown as having a wife and kids, therefore destroying another myth of rape, that it’s perpetrated by masked intruders and not “decent family men,” therefore making another very feminist, and sadly accurate, argument about sexual violence, namely that it can be perpetrated by people in all walks of life for any reason or no reason at all— second, rather than saving him for last—but hey, it’s understandable, you gotta kill these guys in the order you come across them, you may not get a second chance).

Revenge is a dish best served cold---

Revenge is a dish best served cold, even if it's not at the table---

Your host isn’t terribly fond of the idea that cinema, literature, or music can somehow “influence” somebody to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise, and frankly I find the idea that critics of “I Spit On Your Grave” advanced at the time that this film would somehow “inspire” anyone to go out and rape somebody is absurd. Those buffoons that Siskel and Ebert heard cheering obviously had problems to begin with. But in truth this film does nothing to “encourage” them, rather it shows the unbearable ugliness of rape in the coldest and most clinical light possible and shows the rapists themselves as being mindless thugs who get exactly what they deserve. This is movie isn’t told from their point of view, it’s told from hers — it’s quite apparent that in no uncertain terms, as far as Zarchi is concerned, these guys are inhuman monsters.

---just be prepared to clean up the mess afterwards. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

---just be prepared to clean up the mess afterwards. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

The critical reevaluation this film has seen over the years is finally waking some folks up to the fact that they had it wrong the first time around and what we’ve got here is not a prurient piece of irredeemable garbage but, in truth, probably the best entry into the “rape-revenge” subgenre of all time. Sure, classics like “The Last House on the Left” still stand out in this tiny cinematic ouevre, but the crime itself and its aftermath are much more personal, and therefore immediate, in “I Spit On Your Grave.” No family members getting even for what was done to their daughter or wife here. This is a woman settling the score for what was done to HER, personally. It’s not flashy or stylized or in any way “glamorous”(another great point Briggs makes in his DVD commentary is that, sure, there’s some gratuitous nudity early on—it’s an exploitation film, for Christ’s sake—but Zarchi doesn’t dwell on extreme close-ups of Keaton’s naked breasts as one would expect, rather it’s all shown from quite a considerable distance). It’s raw, authentic, and unvarnished. And yeah, that makes it ugly, but it’s an ugly crime — is it even right to portray it in any other way?

Elite Entertainment's "Millennium Edition" DVD Release of "I Spit On Your Grave"

Elite Entertainment's "Millennium Edition" DVD Release of "I Spit On Your Grave"

There have been a few different DVD editions of “I Spit On Your Grave” over the years (and incidentally, this was one of the films on Britain’s infamous “video nasties” list, movies which were literally BANNED by the UK government during the early-80s VHS boom), but the “Millennium Edition” from Elite Entertainment is the way to go here. In addition to the fantastic commentary from Briggs referenced a time or two above, there’s also an insightful commentary track from writer-director Meir Zarchi (who would go on to to make one other film, “Don’t Mess With My Sister,” which also centers on a revenge them—guess he wasn’t too terribly interested in other types of stories. Oh, and he married his leading lady from “I Spit On Your Grave,” Camille Keaton, so I guess she wasn’t too convinced herself that he’d made some “pro-rape” movie here),  a selection of outraged (and outrageous) text reviews from newspapers and magazines from around the time of the film’s release,  and the theatrical trailer and a sampling of TV spots are thrown in for good measure, as well. The digitally-remastered picture and THX sound are great. An essential addition to the home video library of exploitation film fans everywhere.