Saturday, September 12, 2009

Movie Review: Nightbeast (1982)

Don Dohler
Written by:
Don Dohler
Tom Griffith
Jamie Zemarel
Karin Kardian
George Stover

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Ahh, Nightbeast! As bad as this film is, it holds a special place in my heart. I vividly recall, aged nine, raking through the rental VHS boxes in the dingy depths of the local independent video rental store (a magical, and now long-gone, cave of obscure delights that played no small part in making me the big kid I am today), gazing with wonder at the lurid artwork on the outsized rental clamshell cases of the kinds of weird horror and cult movies of the like my young mind had never imagined. Movies with titles like Body Melt, Flesh Gordon, R.O.T.O.R, Troll, Monster in the Closet, The Brain and Zombie Creeping Flesh. And Nightbeast.

For some reason, the latter stuck in my mental drainpipe more firmly than the others. Perhaps it was the glassy-eyed, reptilian beast, devoid of context, snarling at me from the cover photo. Perhaps it was the basic, unambitious plot description - a small town is terrorised by a flesh eating monster from the stars - jabbing at the psyche of a young sci-fi loving kid with an all-consuming fascination for, and terror of, all things extraterrestrial. Or perhaps it was just the tagline that tickled my morbid sense of humour: "If you've got the guts... he wants them!"

Regardless, it was one of the great tragedies of my youth that I never got to see Nightbeast while I was still a child. The film was, of course, rated 18 and I wouldn't ask my mum to rent it for me because I knew that she'd then want to watch it too, and I was afraid there might be some boobies or sex scenes in it, which is always embarrassing when you're a kid and watching a film with your parents (I made a good call on that one, it turns out). In one sense that's a pity, because, had I seen it aged nine, I'd probably have found it easier to look past all the vast chasms in logic and embarrassingly clumsy moments in the film and just enjoyed it at face value, just as my mainstream-oriented friends enjoyed the likes of Power Rangers without raising so much as an ironic eyebrow at all the on-screen silliness. Today, watching Nightbeast as a 25-year-old, the ironic eyebrow is required attire. Don't get me wrong, it's still a real blast with a few beers and a mate or two, but the version of Nightbeast I constructed in my childish imagination was, naturally, a lot scarier, slicker and smarter than the film I watched this morning.

The film opens on a promising note: funky 1980s energy-bolts flash across the screen, heralding the film's title card. Then, as is standard protocol for sci-fi movies of the era, the credits play out to ominous music over a cold backdrop of stars before - whoosh! - a strange interstellar vehicle darts out of the blackness. The spacecraft zips through the solar system, blasting a path through the rings of Saturn, soaring past Jupiter and Mars before making a bee-line for Earth (am I the only one who noticed that showing the planets in this sequence seems to suggest that the alien is from... Uranus?). As it skims the outer edge of our atmosphere, the UFO has a cosmic fender-bender with a piece of space debris, sending it plummeting towards the surface. It comes down in the hills near a small town rural middle-America - as all spacecraft have a tendency to do in these films. A shadowy figure emerges from the vehicle and lumbers off into the surrounding woods just before the spacecraft disintegrates in a fiery explosion.

The blaze is witnessed by some good old boys out hunting in the forest, and from afar by local cop, Sheriff Cinder (a moustachioed white guy with a big salt-and-pepper afro), who reckons it's "some kind of plane crash". In the space of the next ten minutes, the hunters get zapped into oblivion by a heat ray, some mischievous kids are menaced by the toothsome Nightbeast, their creepy old Uncle Dave gets his face mauled (complete with dangling eyeball), a man with a 1970s bouffant has his guts ripped out, and the local cops are sent packing by a hail of laser fire.

You can call Nightbeast a lot of things, but at least you can't call it boring.

The general progression of events from here will be familiar to anyone who's seen Jaws: cop wants to close the bea... err, evacuate the town; a local official is planning on holding a pool party for the governor and tries to obstruct the evacuation; and a motley crew of locals and cops team up to kill the monster. There are also a few other odd threads thrown in, including a somewhat embarrassing love affair between the middle-aged Sheriff and his female deputy, and an utterly unrelated domestic violence/love triangle/revenge subplot involving new deputy Jamie Lambert, local thug Drago, and nubile young thing Suzie. None of this is particularly gripping or exciting, but in spite of all the weird tangents (or maybe because of them) the story never gets bogged down and director Don Dohler, to his credit, keeps things moving at a fair clip.

Like most zero-budget film-makers, Dohler was known for using friends and family as actors in his movies. In Nightbeast, this works well in a couple of cases - Jamie Zemarel is believable and likeable in his one-and-only film role as Sheriff Cinder's civilian sidekick; Dohler regular Don Leifert is acceptably nasty as biker-bastard Drago; and (amusingly) Eleanor Herman as the Mayor's drunken floozy Mary-Jane, who acts like a drunk person would act if you asked them to act drunk - but, overall, the acting is perfunctory at best. Tom Griffith as the Sheriff, supposedly the main character, is a barely passable thespian and Dohler wisely sticks a pair of shades on him for most of his screen time to help hide this fact. Most of the remaining cast are even less impressive and wander through the film with an expression of "Look! I'm acting in a real honest-to-God movie!" plastered over their faces. But it's quite endearing, to be honest; no one in this film is truly painful to watch.

Which is more than I can say for the "sex" scene. I'll spare you the gory details, but you've heard of ebony and ivory... well, this is more like chalk on cheese. That is, if chalk had a salt-and-pepper afro and moustache and cheese felt self-conscious about its tanlines. Yeeeuch!

Direction-wise, the film is, to be honest, a bit amateurish. It's not Beast Creatures amateurish, but Kubrick Dohler ain't. I'm not sure if it's a budget issue or not, but for much of the movie, the Nightbeast is not shown in the same shot as the human characters. You'll see the creature turn and fire it's weapon, then a separate shot of characters running for cover while laser bolts zap across the screen. The viewer sees a close-up the monster, and a close-up of the victim, but no establishing shot to determine where the exactly two characters are standing relative to each other. The creature might be two inches off the left-hand side of the screen, or half-a-mile-away. Maybe this is intended to help the suspense, but it's awkward and makes it bit confusing trying to understand what's going on in some of the action scenes.

In one particular sequence, when the beast enters a basement where two scientists are holding out, this issue is taken to a bemusing extreme. The cellar is shown to be a small, rectangular room with stone walls. The characters "hide" by crouching against a wall, and then the creature is seen walking along in extreme close up (apparently down the middle of the same room). The monster does not see the humans despite the fact that they seem to be fully exposed, and it just carries on walking. Are they hiding around a corner, out of sight? Apparently not, as their eyes seem to follow the beast's movements, suggesting that it stands within line of sight, but we have no way of knowing for sure - for all the visual information we are given, they could even be in altogether different rooms. Then, when the male scientist skuttles across to the right-hand side of the room in an attempt to set a trap for the Nightbeast, it gets even weirder: the Creature stands, apparently looking in his direction, somehow completely oblivious to his presence. The man in the lab coat loudly rips an electrical cable from the wall... the creature looks pensive... the man turns on a faucet... and suddenly the monster turns to the left (which seems to be in the OPPOSITE direction to its victim) growls and runs off to attack him. Then the Nightbeast is shown rushing at the guy from LEFT-TO-RIGHT. It's difficult to explain in writing why this is so confusing, but here's a link to the scene on dailymotion, watch it and you'll see what I mean.

The monster itself is, nonetheless, an interesting-looking beastie. Fair enough, it's just a man in a rubber mask and a silver disco suit with 1980s shoulderpads, but considering the entire film was made by a gang of youthful Baltimoreans with very little filmmaking experience and even less money, the creature design is surprisingly detailed and imaginative. With its rippled, articulated lips, jagged toothsome jaws, opaque eyes and leathery-textured flesh, the Nightbeast is one of the more memorable-looking screen monsters from the 80s. Yes, that's partly because in daylight it looks like an evil extraterrestrial Donald Duck with crocodilian horror fangs, but at least its an organic-looking physical object inhabiting real space; some spotty art student or geeky kid spent many hours crafting that alien mask in their garage/basement, you can really see the love that went into it. That alone makes the alien more impressive than a thousand of AVP2's crappy CGI Predaliens.

But wait - before we get all warm and fuzzy - I'm not done bashing stuff yet. So the alien itself is fun to look at, and even manages to be kinda scary in its early scenes as it crashes through the woods, growling and disemboweling in the dead of night... but the question is: why does it do what it does? What is its motivation? This is a perfect example of something that wouldn't even have been an issue to me when I was nine, but I struggle to look past today.

Now, I wasn't expecting method acting from a rubber ghoulie, but if this creature is from an extraterrestrial civilisation advanced enough to possess interstellar travel, futuristic weaponry and silver space suits, what is he/she/it doing lumbering around a hick town like an angry gorilla, chasing stupid screaming humans around basements, lopping off people's arms and picking fights with armed posses for absolutely no dicernable reason? He did crash his spaceship, so it's understandable that he's a little ticked off, but now that he's stuck here you'd think he'd want to make the best of it. You know, make peaceful contact with the human race, maybe try and work out a plan to get home... Nope! The first humans he sees get zapped, the next one is torn to shreds, and he carries on like this until the end of the film. At least Predator was based around the premise that the creature itself was an intergalactic trophy killer, come specifically to hunt the dangerous, warlike humans. Nightbeast, on the other hand, is here because of his own stupidity - because he drove into a freaking rock - and now he's just taking out his anger on the town. He's nothing but an extraterrestrial yob who can't even shoot straight.

Perhaps that was the reason for the inclusion of the Drago character; maybe Dohler was trying to draw some interesting comparisons and make some kind of profound statement about the human condition. Probably not, though.

And it's not just the creature's actions that don't ring true, either. You've really got to admire the spirit in which the locals accept the fact that something from beyond the stars is terrorising their close-knit community. What does the sheriff do, having encountered the unstoppable might of this superior extraterrestrial warrior? Does he, on realising that we are truly not alone in the universe, find himself wrestling with the deep philosophical implications of his dramatically-changed worldview? Does he try to call the President, the Army, the Air Force, the Marines, NASA, Area 51 and the FBI to quarantine the town and investigate the most monumental event of mankind's history - contact with other intelligent life? NO! He tells the mayor to cancel his pool party and rounds up a handful of guys in flannel shirts to help him catch and/or kill it, like a rabid dog on the loose, or troublesome bear that keeps stealing picnic baskets. It's ridiculous.

But of course it's ridiculous. If movies like this made perfect sense, they wouldn't be nearly so much fun. In spite of all its faults, Nightbeast is just that - fun. The cast and crew clearly had a blast trying to imitate the sci-fi, monster-on-the-loose films of the 1950s, and that sense of enjoyment is infectious. Certainly, I shook my head a lot during this film, I even scratched it a few times, but at no point did I want to bash it off a wall. It entertained me and it didn't outstay its welcome, to expect anything else of the movie would have been foolish. It's far from a classic, it isn't even very coherent, but with a just few thousand dollars Dohler made a movie that was much more entertaining and enjoyable than a lot of $100 million sci-fi movies I've seen.

So yeah, watch it. If you hate it, it's only 80 minutes long. Go in to it with your Expectation Switch set to "Saturday Morning Cartoon" and you might get a kick out of it too.

Click here for trailer


When Nightbeast was first released in the UK, it was distributed by those cads at Vipco, complete with awesomely tasteless cover art. It was then re-released by Troma in the mid-90s, and it was their version I coveted so much in my youth. Unfortunately, it remains unreleased on DVD in the United Kingdom.

In the USA the film came at the tail end of the drive-in/grindhouse era and managed to secure a brief theatrical release. Later, it was available in various VHS, Beta and DVD incarnations, before Troma came out with the definitive 2-disc release on R1 shiny, which includes a fascinating documentary on the works of Don Dohler: Blood, Boobs and Beast. The set is almost worth purchasing for this alone.

Sadly, Don Dohler himself passed away in December 2006.

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