A Night to Dismember (1983)

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Doris Wishman is primarily known for her work in sexploitation cinema, building her career as a low-energy, oddly punk version of Russ Meyer with films like Nude on the Moon, and Another Day, Another Man. Once you get into the back half of her career, however, there are plenty of weird genre outliers that complicate that reputation, like the killer breasts espionage thriller Deadly Weapons. Nothing I’ve seen from Wishman so far, though, Deadly Weapons included, has been comparable to the way out of bounds, dissonant horror cheapie A Night to Dismember. Although the film stars porn actress Samantha Fox and makes occasional use if her nude body, it’s a work that finds Wishman operating far outside her sexploitation comfort zone. A Night to Dismember is a Doris Wishman slasher, purely so. It finds the director shooting gloom & gore the way she usually shoots scantily clad women, following a very strict Halloween/Friday the 13th-style narrative structure to deliver its jarringly violent genre thrills. What makes it notably bizarre beyond Wishman stepping outside her usual genre box is that the film makes no attempt to tell a clearly intelligible story besides mimicking the general feel of a slasher. So sloppy it’s avant garde, A Night to Dismember adheres to a strict “Axe murders for all, coherent plot for none” political platform. Almost unwatchable, yet undeniably entertaining, Wishman’s sole slasher is chaotic outsider art, a watch that’s just as challenging as it is inane.

I can’t say with total confidence that I fully understand the plot of this picture. A young woman is released from a mental institution where she’s imprisoned for supposedly killing two teen boys. Her siblings conspire to have her re-committed by gaslighting her with prankish “hallucinations” and by framing her for a series of axe murders. That’s all I’ve got. Rapid, continuous narration from a detective who worked on this case of violent crimes is the only aspect of A Night to Dismember that affords the film any level of cohesion. There are a few scenes of badly dubbed dialogue that if you squint at them just right feel as if they belong to a proper feature film, but for the most part the movie a jumbled mess of candy red blood, kaleidoscope graphics, and brief flashes of nudity. It’s a full-length exercise in oddly disjointed editing, but I found an enjoyable sense of kinetic energy in that constant, off-kilter disorder. From the opening scene where a woman axe murders her sister in a bathtub to light-hearted elevator music, to the narrator’s instructions to contact authorities with any intel in the whereabouts of the killer over the end credits, A Night to Dismember is a total nuclear meltdown of a mess, but it’s an undeniably entertaining mess. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before, which makes it a valuable work as a cinematic experience, even if some of its most interesting results might be attributable to ineptitude.

Headless necks squirt blood in tidy steams, knives are rhythmically stabbed into victims’ throats, hearts are ripped out by hand, fingers are severed, a skull is crushed under a spinning car tire: Wishman’s horror show features gore galore. Some scenes are much stranger in their visual effects: disembodied hands reach to grope our would-be final girl from all directions, dreams of fratricide are accompanied by orgasmic moans, unexplained skulls & 80s computer graphics overlay the action, lightning strike stock footage straight out of 1930s horror appear to signify dread. Wishman forgoes her duties as a storyteller here to deliver a disorienting montage instead of a proper feature film. She readily supplies the basic components of blood & tits 80s horror, but makes no effort to reign them in as an understandable narrative. A Night to Dismember bluntly delivers the goods with no concern for justifying their presence onscreen. It’s just as blatantly to the point as it is a total mess and I greatly admire the punk energy Wishman finds in that sloppiness even if it is a constant struggle to understand exactly what she’s doing onscreen throughout the experience.

According to Wishman herself, most of the film negative for the original version of A Night to Dismember was destroyed in a lab, which made the constant, overbearing narration necessary to tell a cohesive story. The VHS cover art for the film claims an 80 minute runtime and the original poster credits an entirely different actress than Samantha Fox. It’s widely believed that the original version of the film was intentionally “lost” & re-shot to include Fox, completely ditching the story told in the first version to boost ticket sales with a recognizable actress. Not having seen the lengthier version of the film, which is apparently hosted by a different narrator & follows a more supernatural plotline, I can only report that the short, hour-long version of A Night to Dismember is an entertaining oddity, a fine example of avant garde filmmaking at its trashiest.

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “A Night to Dismember (1983)

  1. Pingback: The Last Horror Film (1982) | Swampflix

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