Question her talent. Question her sanity. Say whatever you want about the late Doris Wishman. Like it or not, this eccentric old lady was a true trailblazer. A pioneering force in exploitation cinema, Wishman was one of the only women making nudie films in the 1960s, one of the only women making hardcore porn features in the 1970s and even became one of the first women (at nearly 70 years of age!) to make a post-HALLOWEEN slasher flick. Shot in 1979, A Night to Dismember - made in response to Carpenter's successful trend-setter according to the director herself - had a very troubled production history. In fact, never before has a troubled production history been so evident in the finished product! Thoroughly inept from start to finish, yet in such a bizarre and fascinating way, this one's so uniquely awful that it has managed to earn itself a cult following over the years. Lots of stories have circulated around about what exactly happened here. For years, sources claimed that most of the footage was destroyed in a lab fire and Wishman pieced together what was left. However, as revealed in a later Wishman interview, that wasn't quite the case.
According to Wikipedia, "The film was nearly finished and being processed when the processing lab declared bankruptcy. A disgruntled employee destroyed footage from several films, including more than half the footage from A Night to Dismember." So why didn't she just count her losses? Wiki continues, "Wishman had pre-sold the film to distributors and was therefore forced to finish the movie. She re-wrote and even re-shot parts of the film with new actors. In 1983, the film was finally released." Not only did poor Doris have to re-shoot some of this, but she was also reduced to using outtakes and scrapped footage originally rejected from her first cut, couldn't get back the original actors so she had to hire new ones to play the same roles and had to further pad things out with footage from completely unrelated films she'd made!
The resulting mess is a delirious, jaw-dropping collection of gory murder set pieces set mostly to grocery store music and edited in a dizzying quick-cut fashion that renders nearly every single scrap of salvaged footage senseless and incomprehensible. Either this was filmed without sound or the sound was destroyed at the processing lab too, so on occasion voices were poorly dubbed in to provide bits of dialogue here and there or screaming. The majority of the story, however, is told via voice over from an off-screen narrator, who tries to rush through his lines to sync up with the fragmented scenes. "I'm Tim O'Malley. I'm a detective. The story I am going to tell you happened in October 1986 in Woodmire Lake; a small town in the Midwest." What follows is a series of bloody murders used to illustrate the madness that seems to run in the Kent family.
Susan Kent chops up her sister Bonnie in the bathtub then falls on the axe and kills herself. Broderick Kent hires a convict to kill his wife Lola (also in the bathtub) for the insurance money, then hangs himself later in prison. The next flashback reveals that Vicki Kent (porno actress Samantha Fox) butchered two neighborhood boys in a graveyard. Despite the severity of the crime, Vicki is released from the Brandt Hospital for the Criminally Insane after serving just five years. She goes to live with her father Adam (Saul Meth, from Wishman's Chesty Morgan double feature Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73), mother Blanche (Miriam Meth), sister Mary (Diane Cummins) and brother Billy (William Szarka). Needless to say, things don't go so smoothly.
Billy doesn't want Vicki around because he's afraid she's going to kill again. Mary doesn't want her around either because while she was away the parents doted on her and she was able to steal Vicki's former boyfriend Frankie (Frankie Sabat) away. Both siblings take it upon themselves to drive her crazy so she'll be taken back to the nuthouse. Vicki gets bad headaches, sees flashing lights, hears voices calling her name, refuses to use silverware at dinner (and eats like an obnoxious pig), threatens to stab her dad with a fork then cackles, imagines (or does she?) bloody hands are groping her and shows other signs of slipping. Soon, someone goes around butchering everyone in sight, starting with Frankie and another of his girlfriends; who are both decapitated while having sex. After speaking ill of their family, Uncle Sebastian ("Norman Main" / Larry Hunter) and his wife Ann (Mary Lomay) are next to go. The killer hides in the backseat of their car, axes Sebastian in the face then thrusts his/her hand through the seat into his chest to rip out his heart. The psycho then runs over Ann's head with the car and chops off her fingers with an axe. For an encore, Bea Smith (Rita Rogers), an aunt in for a visit, gets her head lopped off.
While taking a peaceful walk, Vicki is attacked by a mud-covered man who rises out of the lake and chases her around. She later sees her brother washing mud off his face and discussing going to a costume shop with Mary. Speaking of Mary, the killer seems to be wearing the same clothes she wears... except it's mentioned that Vicki often wears her clothes. Not too horribly bothered by any of this, Vicki decides to treat the detective / narrator who shows up asking questions to a strip show, which is followed by a sex fantasy sequence of blurry bodies rolling around while the screen is tinted purple, blue and orange. Mary has her own orgiastic nightmare, where Billy and her parents stab her repeatedly and chop her with an axe while she moans in pleasure. Finally, the psycho decides to make his / her identity known to the rest of the family... by slaughtering them, of course. An ice pick is shoved all the way through a throat, a head is smashed in with a rock, someone is chopped up with an axe (after falling to the ground and covering their body up with a sheet for no real reason!) and another is buried alive. The final twenty minutes of people walking around in a barely lit house and in the woods getting bumped off seems to last about three hours. The detective finally informs us, "If you were wondering how I came upon all these intimate details, the Kent family had one thing in common: they all kept diaries."
Fans of strange and desperate filmmaking are likely going to get something enjoyable out of this train wreck. Some may even go so far as to spin it to be some surreal, accidental accomplishment. Others beware. There are frequent jumps in the picture and on the soundtrack. The generic, light stock music is incidentally inserted in regardless of the tone of the scene. Lips frequently move and nothing comes out. The narrator is constantly pointing out the most mundane of things, like that characters are reading newspapers and walking to the park even though we can see this with our own eyes. Several different actors play the exact same part (particularly noticeable with the brother and sister characters). Seemingly random shots of things that have nothing to do with that particular scene are inserted throughout. Parts are put in negative, shots are repeated, shots are put in slow motion and Wishman inserted footage from several of her other films to pad it out further (the full run time is just 69 minutes). There are psychedelic swirls and frequent shots of lightning, tombstones, blank walls and feet walking around. Wishman even makes time to plug one of her own films; a poster for The Immoral Three (1977) can be spotted in the basement.
Even this film's credits are completely fucked up. Listed in the cast are Chris Smith playing Sam Kent and Dee Cummins playing Vicki Todd, though neither of those characters are actually in this film. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that both of them filled in for the characters of Billy and Mary during the re-shoot. "Norman Main" (Larry Hunter) is listed as playing Larry Todd, though he actually plays Sebastian Kent and Alexandria Cass (who - like Fox - is a hardcore porn actress) is listed as playing Nancy when she played Bonnie Kent. Other actors are credited for playing characters named Nina, Timmy, Marty, and John, though none of them are actually anywhere to be seen in this movie.
Gorgon issued a VHS in the late 80s and in 2001 a DVD release came from Elite Entertainment, which contains a commentary track from the director (who is a total kook!) and cameraman C. Davis Smith that's well worth listening to.