Stars: Samantha Fox (Vicki Kent), Diane Cummins (Mary Kent), Saul Meth (Adam Kent), Miriam Meth (Blanche Kent), Bill Szarka (Billy Kent), Chris Smith (Sam Kent), Dee Cummins (Vicki Todd)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1983
Only the most ardent exploitation and fringe cinema fanatics would argue that Doris Wishman is a good filmmaker in any sense of the word, but she is nothing if not opportunistic. Having gotten her start in 1960 by jumping on the nudist-exploitation bandwagon early in the cycle with Hideout in the Sun, the self-taught filmmaker became one of the most prolific independent female producer-directors ever, churning out more than 25 low-budget flicks over three decades, several of which starred the infamous Chesty Morgan and her 73-inch bust. However, the turn toward hard-core porno chic in the 1970s caught Wishman off-guard, and her nudist movies and campy thriller-comedies, once so daring, suddenly seemed quaint.
So, always looking for an "in," she decided to take advantage of the popularity of explicit gore pioneered by Herschell Gordon Lewis in the 1960s by making a horror film. Setting out in 1979 to redefine her career by making a psychologically twisted slasher movie with all the bloody drippings, she emerged four years later with A Night to Dismember, an awful, ugly, cheap, and incoherent mess that has, until recently, been largely unseen.
To be fair, the narrative incoherence on the film is not entirely Wishman's fault. As the story goes, the negatives for all the footage she shot was kept in storage at Movielab, and when the company went bankrupt, someone made off with at least half of the film. Thus, having finished principal photography and having no money to go out and reshoot the lost footage, Wishman was forced to essentially cobble together a feature-length narrative out of what remained. Clumsily splicing together scenes and filling in gaps with footage from other movies she had shot, Wishman managed to assemble something that vaguely resembles a story, but only vaguely.
Because of the lack of footage, the story is awkwardly narrated by a private detective who spends most of the movie sitting behind a desk, occasionally answering phone calls. This voice-over narration is at times crucial because it explains what could never be grasped from what is presented on screen, but at other times it is simply redundant, telling us exactly what we see ("Suddenly, a man emerged from the lake...").
The story centers on a woman named Vicki Kent (played by porn star Samantha Fox), who has recently been released from an insane asylum where she has spent the last five years after being accused of brutally slaughtering several people during "Bloody October." Apparently, Vicki's sister, Mary (Diane Cummins), and brother, Billy (Bill Szarka), don't want their crazy sister at home stealing the precious parental affection that had been lavished on them during her five-year incarceration, so they concoct all kinds of weird schemes to make Vicki think she is going crazy again.
It doesn't take more than about 30 seconds of footage from A Night to Dismember to illustrate just how paltry the budget must have been. One of Wishman's favorite cost-saving measures was shooting her films silently and then putting in all the dialogue and sound effects in post-production. However, to avoid the difficulties of synching dialogue with lip movement during looping, she would usually film actors from behind or focus the camera on something else while they were speaking. The result looks positively ludicrous, as the banal, monosyllabic dialogue seems to come from nowhere, and all the actors' voices were dubbed by the same two people with only slight variations.
The postproduction dubbing of sound effects is also atrocious, as sounds are sloppily recorded (when a woman tears up a photograph, you can hear the thwump as someone accidentally bumps the microphone) and sometimes fail to match up with the action on-screen (at one point, a car pulls away from a curb, and a split-second later we hear the sound effect of the car's ignition starting). Perhaps due to the lack of dialogue and workable sound effects, Wishman felt the need to overlay the entire movie with music, most of which is stock stuff that is irritatingly repetitive (sometimes we hear the same music cue three or four times in as many minutes) and almost never matches with what's on screen. It's not that the music provides an ironic counterpoint; rather, it is just aural filler that Wishman seems to have given no thought to whatsoever.
Of course, the main spectacle in A Night to Dismember is the gore, and Wishman lays it on thick and heavy. Where once she focused on naked breasts, now she focuses on headless necks spurting blood. We get a woman hacked up with an axe while in the bathtub; a man and woman are decapitated by a machete and the woman's head (looking decidedly like a wax sculpture) is thrown in a fireplace; another man has his heart ripped out by someone's bare hands and a woman has her head run over by a car and her fingers chopped off with an axe. All of these effects are of the Herschell Gordon Lewis variety: explicit, but so obviously fake and badly edited that they have little lasting impact.
Not surprisingly, Wishman's official web site describes A Night to Dismember as often being cited as her "most unusual, creative, and in a sense, triumphant film! A project made with 'Wishman blood,' as she has frequently stated, the film unfolds as a precedent-setting exercise in organic surrealism, a fragmentary, dream-like ramble through the mind of a disturbed woman ..." "Fragmentary" and "ramble" are certainly apt words to describe this jumbled movie, although "precedent-setting" is hyperbole in the worst sense, not only because the movie's fractured narrative is a result of lost footage, not artistic inspiration, but because filmmakers like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali were making politically charged surrealist films decades earlier, and to suggest that Wishman was somehow developing something new in filmmaking is an insult to their true accomplishments.
In the end, A Night to Dismember is a project that probably should have been abandoned. As a horror movie, it is a complete failure; as an unintentional, deranged comedy, it certainly has its moments. Wishman may have put all of her efforts into it, but the final result is so shoddy, ineffective, and--the worst sin of all--often boring that one wishes she had expended her efforts on a project that wasn't irretrievably doomed.
A Night to Dismember DVD
Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
Audio commentary by director Doris Wishman and director of photography C. Davis Smith
October 30, 2001
Keeping in line with the movie's ultra-low-budget aesthetics, the image quality on this DVD is pretty bad, even though it was digitally transferred in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1). Much of the awfulness of the image can be attributed to the original photography, which is inconsistent in color and lighting and obviously done on cheap, grainy film stock. The film has also not been well stored over the years, as many scenes are extremely scratched up and the whole thing looks quite faded. Of course, in some ways, the deteriorated look of the film only adds to its cheap, salacious appeal, and it is doubtful that anyone could make it look better.
The sound is just about as bad as the image, but again this is owing to the original postproduction recording equipment and ineptness of the sound mixer. The music sounds like it came off old 8-track cassettes, and the transitions between various musical cues, dialogue, and sound effects are abrupt and jarring. There is some barely audible hiss during portions of the movie, but it's not particularly distracting.
The front of the DVD case proclaims that this disc contains "one of the most entertaining commentary tracks ever recorded!". While that statement certainly veers toward hyperbole, the screen-specific audio commentary by director Doris Wishman and her longtime cinematographer, C. Davis Smith (whom she affectionately refers to as "Chuck" when not calling him an idiot, which, in Wishman parlance, is a term of endearment), is definitely entertaining and a helluva lot more enjoyable than the movie itself. Sounding like a parody of a deranged East-Coast grandmother, Wishman cheerfully rambles through the commentary, explaining all the problems she had with A Night to Dismember and constantly correcting Davis, who insists that he saw a completely different version of the movie 15 years earlier. Wishman and Davis spend most of the commentary playfully snapping at each other like an old married couple and debating the merits of the movie, even though they both seem to be all too aware of just how shoddy it is. Fans of Wishman's work and exploitation cinema in general will find this commentary to be a real treat.
The only other supplement on the disc is a four-minute promotional trailer used to advertise the finished movie to distributors, even though the trailer is just about as incoherent as the movie itself.