Staggering About The Ruins of Doris Wishman’s ‘A Night To Dismember’

Nobody has quite done to film what grindhouse culteur Doris Wishman accomplished in 1983’s A Night To Dismember. Caliginous and schizophrenic, it resides inside the fetid corpse of the slasher movie and attempts, with results that oscillate between unsettling and unnerving, to manipulate the cadaver like a puppeteer. It is a special case, however, and not merely the result of ineptness. So the story goes, during editing Wishman had reels of the film stolen, and so the film had to be stitched together out of the remaining footage and papered over with voiceover and repetition.

The disjointed result is a clear instance of the slasher genre, but not an example. The plot is a recognisable riff on the trope of the ‘recently released former child killer’ plot (Blood Rage, Halloween), and it even has a completely un-telegraphed twist (the killings were actually done by the protagonist’s sister!) but it is impossible to be watched as a narrative. Due to the distance between what is on screen and what the voiceover tells us is on screen, it is unable to achieve requisite unity of action that a narrative film requires; its predominant aesthetic mode is a distended series of stylistic looks, hints, and movements. It recalls moments and themes in other films of its type but operates on its own plane of unlogic. It is recognisable, but never lucid; unclear, but always potent.

It is not without its considerable effects; Wishman’s attempts to force the square peg of her footage into the round hole of a coherent narrative results in a ceaseless, singularly queasy tension. This is, by accident or design, a visceral and often upsetting film, markedly more impactful and memorable than any number of the other sleazy ‘boobs-and-beheadings’ slasher films released in that decade. It is too unselfconscious to be avant-garde but too mannered and deliberate to be a pure genre example; it takes place well beyond the usual markers and codes by which we delineate good art and bad art. Taken strictly as a film, it is an unforgivable piece of the most gutter-low trash that surely ranks as one of the worst films ever made. Viewed as a text, however, it becomes something else.

It makes the most sense, and can be redeemed, when viewed as a theme-piece on trauma and grief. Where horror films usually ‘use’ trauma or expressions of shock as a device of acknowledgement to give shape to the diegetic killings (most often in the cut-away to the lone woman screaming), or even in recent years articulate the terror from within the framework of trauma (Rob Zombie’s works being a fine example of this), A Night To Dismember articulates its trauma from within the shape of the film itself. It is a film that portrays no recognisable human emotions, and yet is as upsetting to watch as someone with a broken leg trying to walk a mile.

When viewed as an attempt by an artist to salvage her vision after it was snatched away from her, the film takes on a lingering, haunted, almost poignant quality. Male filmmakers are seemingly incapable of talking about their films without resorting to either a breakup cliché, or a cuckoldry metaphor, and yet Wishman silently, almost stoically, fronts what remains of her work with no guile or pretension. The result is febrile outsider art, as if Stan Brakhage remade the Evil Dead.

Ultimately a distended auteur piece, A Night To Dismember achieves a tricky artistic validity through the sheer force of Wishman’s will. The re-use of the same shots across the same scene feels more like layering than lazy repetition, like a noise artist playing with textures. The already remarkable gore effects grow more unpleasant through their decontextualization; it is one thing to see someone’s fingers be chopped off, but not being able to parse whose fingers, when, where, and why, heightens the impact of the event and strips it of the mitigating factor context. We will see a reaction shot before we even see the moment of impact; then, after the moment of impact, we return to the reaction shot, culminating in a distressing lopsided rhythm. Characters speak, and then the return dialogue will be in voiceover that doesn’t even attempt to match the lip movements. Even the scenes of nudity contain an unpleasant and seedy undertone, which is perhaps the most surprising thing given Samantha Fox’s adult work.

Is there any worth to watching films like this? The concepts of taste and merit have been debated to death, and we seem to have settled on an understanding that a work doesn’t have to be ‘good’, as long as it is meaningful to people. Reception studies, a current strand of film theory, is founded on the predicate that there is value in how people have assimilate art inasmuch as there is value in the art itself. I’m partial to reception studies, because it seems to break out of the idea of ‘good’ film ad ‘bad’ film. This view of cinema is binary, and like all binaries it locks you into a thought pattern that is restrictive, limiting, and unhelpful.  

So. In my quietly disturbed way, I found this film to be exceedingly meaningful, more so than a lot of prestige films and even other low-grade films of this type. It is a terrible, rotten, unpleasant work, dripping with abrasive textures, coming apart at the seams so forcefully it’s hard to see where the seams might once have been. There is no beauty in the brutality, but there is something incredibly compelling about looking into the black hole where beauty, and craft, and skill might once have been. It engaged me more thoroughly than most of what I’ve seen this year. All throughout A Night To Dismember, Wishman’s original vision peers out from behind the curtain, but never comes into full view.

Is it not true that all tension arises from what is concealed?

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