From among the Video Nasties

In 1957, director Jacques Tourneur gave the world Night of the Demon, widely agreed to be one of the finest works ever made by that horror-poetry master. It's a magnificently atmospheric film about an American scientist running into a demon cult in Britain, made with an almost unbelievable level of care, talent and craftsmanship given what was certainly not a huge budget; genuinely creepy when it's not hypnotically beautiful, it's easily one of the finest horror films produced anywhere in the world in the 1950s.

It is not, however, the Night of the Demon that ended up on the Video Nasties list. That Night of the Demon is the 1980 film where Bigfoot rips a guy's dick off.

Not, of course, that I went into this expecting the Tourneur film; no sir, I knew, and knew well, that the Nasty Night of the Demon was the one where Bigfoot rips a guy's dick off. But it is one thing to know in your head that there is a movie in which Bigfoot rips a guy's dick off, and another altogether to actually see the movie in which Bigfoot rips a guys dick off, and believe it or not, it's actually kind of hard to sit up in your seat afterwards, and think to yourself, "wow, I sure am happy that I just did that". Here's a thought problem: imagine that you are at a party, and someone asks what you did that afternoon, and your answer is "I watched a movie where Bigfoot tears a man's cock off while the man is taking a leak on the roadside". Is there even a tiny part of you that feels anything proud in that moment? Thus it is, that a little voice in my head has been very sulkily observing (whining, more like) for a while now, "Well, you could have watched the Tourneur picture, and written about that; but OH NO, you had to watch a fucking Bigfoot movie, where Bigfoot rips a man's fucking pecker off. Christ, you make me sick." That little voice ain't half wrong; but it can't be helped now.

Ay, indeed, Night of the Demon is not at all a film to be proud of seeing, to say nothing of being the poor bastards who made it; if I were given just one word to describe it, that word would almost have to be "sleazy". Give me another, and I'd use "bad". "Sleazy and bad" - sounds like a swell date night, n'est-ce pas? And if you gave me a third, that should be "mind-numbingly dull", which is of course not one word (it's not even two words, depending on how you define hyphenated compounds), but "boring" doesn't do the film justice. Its stultifying tediousness cannot be hemmed in by such a narrow adjective. Much as a star in the night sky looks brightest when you look a bit to the side of it, but it dims when you look straight on; so does Night of the Demon only fully grab your attention when you're not paying strict attention to it - for the more you dedicate yourself to watching it and nothing but, the more it is certain that you shall fall asleep from the aggressive lack of incident, punctuated only by blasts of incredibly eager violence. This alone is more than enough to tell us the film's whole and entire raison d'être, though I don't imagine that was much in doubt.

Things begin promisingly enough, with a foleyed-in dripping noise that complete dominates every inch of our attention, as we look at an IV bag. No sedate "drp, drp" is this; nor a "plunk, plonk" something a bit showier so that we're aware that a heightened soundscape is going to be the order of the day. Nossir, this is a full-on "BLORP, BLORP", a bit like the sound Mario makes in the water levels of the first Super Mario Bros. It does, however, set the tone of the movie well enough, for one of the most immediately obvious traits of Night of the Demon is its ghastly sound mix, a wandering mixture of horribly mismatched sound effects and dialogue that seems to to come from another hemisphere than the footage it accompanies. It seems easy enough to assume that, like the Italian films of the '60s and '70s, it was filmed without sync-sound, and everything was just overdubbed later, although I can't quite credit that explanation; but it doesn't matter. When a woman sounds, in the space of one sentence, like she's just taken a step two feet closer to microphone and taken a big gulp of water, we're past the point of examining "whys" and standing in dumbfounded amazement at the "whats".

That IV bag is connected to a certain Professor Nugent (Michael J. Cutt), whose mouth and neck are swaddled in thick bandages as he talks with a policeman and a psychiatrist (it's best not to worry about who played who - the credits are full of the names of people who never really did much of anything else, and it's effort beyond worth to match names and faces) about the terrible event that has befallen him of late. Since he's basically mummified, you'd expect that he would probably be at least slightly speech-impaired. But that just goes to show how much you know. In fact, Nugent speaks of the hideous trauma that left a number of his students dead and he fighting for his life in a hospital in the measured tones that a lesser mortal might use to read aloud the instructions for completing the 1040-EZ. All three of the actors in this scene are pretty dreadful, actually - all of the actors in the movie, now that I'm being honest about it, but the cop in this scene is a special kind of incompetent, reading his lines with an awe-inspiring lack of inflection that would have left Paul Marco, beloved for his woodenness as Officer Kelton in no less than three Ed Wood movies, stunned into disbelief.

Nugent's hideously clumsy exposition segues, of course, into a totally unrelated scene of a man getting his arm torn off at the roots by a creature who stomps around in what I came to think of as DemonVision®. This consists of bog-standard "killer's POV" footage, framed by a red circle. I should point out that our first glimpse of gore does not disappoint; not if the reason we're here is to indulge in wildly over-the-top but lovingly realistic death and dismemberment (and if that's not the reason you're here, by this point in the film you've probably gotten to wondering, what the hell Jacques Tourneur was thinking, and you're going to have a rough 90 minutes). Director James C. Wasson lingers over the stump from a number of different angles, and captures with the quiet intensity of a lover the blood pooling into a depression in the earth - a depression in the shape of a big foot. Zounds!!

BOOM comes another seemingly disconnected plot, but this one pulls everything together. Turns out that this poor unarmed man was the father of one of Nugent's anthropology students, and some years after that death, he trots her up in front of the class to explain her constant waking hell as proof that his pet theory (which we might define as "Bigfoot exists, and the government is involved in a conspiracy to destroy all evidence") is true. His evidence is compelling - showing a 16mm film dismissed by many as a hoax, he presents the unanswerable argument that, "A hoax? Come on!", and this inspires not just the orphaned girl but a handful of other students to take a trip into the backwoods to find a specific Bigfoot that has, according to some rumours, been murdering people with abandon for quite a while now.

And with that, you pretty much have the plot for almost the whole movie, which alternates between "Nugent and his students hike and canoe into the wild" scenes and "Nugent tells a story of how this place reminds him of the one insanely grisly murder committed by the creature they're hunting, replete with flashbacks, because otherwise, it would be about an hour between gory bits" scenes. In town - which town does not matter, nor how far away it is from any other point (between a day and two weeks, from the available evidence) - they learn about Crazy Wanda McGinty, who may have had a run-in with the sasquatch, and may have been raped, and may have given birth to a half-sasquatch, half-human baby, and incredibly, the film almost seems to want to keep this a secret for a good half of the running time, despite how blatantly it's being telegraphed. So the bulk of the trip is actually to find Wanda's cabin, miles and miles from anything.

Allegedly, the better part of this is an almost beat-for-beat rip-off of another "killer Bigfoot" movie that I haven't seen, Shriek of the Mutilated; according to most people who have bothered to form an opinion, that earlier film is much the worst of the two, lacking anything remotely like hellzapoppin' extravagances of gore. And to be completely fair, a gore-free version of Night of the Demon would have been enough to put me into a boredom coma. I will point out that the plot is also almost beat-for-beat the same as Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues, so it could just be that the "killer Bigfoot" genre is just as beholden to well-established tropes as the slasher film. I also know that becoming a "killer Bigfoot" movie expert would the saddest thing I could possibly do with a life that already includes regularly writing 2000-word analyses of godawful exploitation pictures, so this line of thought ends now.

For a very, very, very long time, the A-plot action of Night of the Demon is gratuitously dull, marred by dialogue that marries the worst of overstated exposition with the most tortured syntax and plain old inscrutability (the dead man's daughter expresses, very mildly, that she recognises the place where the old fellow got ripped apart like a ragdoll), and marred even worse by what is, all exaggeration aside, one of the worst casts, top-to-bottom, that I've ever seen assembled. It's really kind of a holy experience; and in the presence of friends, with plenty of booze and maybe something a touch stronger, I can imagine Night of the Demon passing by as a breezy lark, one of the most gloriously, outrageously bad movies that one could ever hope to see. Alone in my apartment with a notepad, the movie left me gasping for air, trapped in a sea of grinding awfulness.

All that gets us through the first 60 minutes or so, then, are Nugent's not-infrequent daydreams about people getting slaughtered by Bigfoot. Whether it's the twentysomething Girl Scouts being forced to stab each other to death, or the camper being impaled on a branch, the film makes up for in sheer gutsy tastelessness what it otherwise lacks in interest. Culminating in, yes, the bit where a motorcyclist stops to relieve himself in a ditch where Bigfoot happens to be hiding, which drives the enraged cryptid to wrench the man's genitals right off. If I were a shallow type, given to tawdry joking, I'd here comment, "Talk about jerking off, amiright?" and chortle loudly. Thankfully, I am shallow and tawdry, and therefore am pleased to have done just that.

All of this is filmed with a shocking amount of stage blood; and convincing, too. Plainly, Wasson cared more about the gore effects than the rest of the movie put together, and from a financial standpoint, it's hard to blame him. No two ways about it, Night of the Demon is a kick in the pants - but part of it feels so blissed-out about its own tastelessness, it left me feeling a mite sour.

The fact of the matter is, Wasson's not that bad of a director. This was his only movie, and it's honestly not hard to imagine him growing up into a really top-notch horror filmmaker if he'd so chosen. Some of the compositions have a certain flair for drama that we don't expect at all, and even in the crappiest scenes of exposition-heavy dialogue, he finds interesting things to do with camera movement that keep it from being quite the unmitigated wreck that I've suggested. There's always visual energy about the film, though Wasson doesn't seem hugely keen on doing anything with that energy - certainly, it doesn't salvage the narrative at all. And that's what I was driving at: you've got this clearly talented kid, consistently taking the easiest route of shocking the audience just for the hell of it. Not everybody can depict a penile stump with quite the élan that Wasson does, but anybody can depict a penile stump in general. And while the director is certainly responsible for most of the film's sick verve, and I'm not one to dismiss a film with some high-class sickness to it, it feels a bit... bratty.

At any rate, all bets are off when the team finally arrives at the great Wanda McGinty's shack deep in the woods, and finds that yes indeed, she is a crazy person whose half-human baby was killed by her Bible-thumping cult-leader father after she was raped by the local Bigfoot. A set of reveals whose juvenile enthusiasm honestly does make up, almost, for how programmatically disgusting its meant to be. Then everybody dies in a positive geyser of blood, and the audience is free to wonder How did Nugent's face heal so quickly? and, Wait, I thought there were Satanists in these woods? But mostly, to talk about how feckin' kewl the scene where he whips the guy with his own intestines was.

Pure, unbridled raunch has its place; and the raunchiness of Night of the Demon is something to behold, alright. Do I wish that the film surrounding that raunchiness with so fuckawfully slow and wretchedly made? Yes, I certainly do, but in those precious moments that it's operating all-out, the movie is kitschy enough in its virulence that you can at least see the outlines of a justification for the whole damn thing.

By the way, whatever home video company released the original version of this one? The version that has the fake Oscar in the bottom corner, indicating perhaps to the unwary or the fucking stupid that Night of the Demon is some kind of prestige horror film? Classy.

Body Count: 14 on-screen (and nearly all of them quite blood-soaked), with another three that take place juuuust offscreen, for an altogether slashery total of 17.

Nastiness Rating: 4/5, pretty damn Nasty. I've got to hand it to the DPP this time: castration-by-sasquatch, a missing link-on-teenager rape scene, and the most nauseatingly real gore effects that no money can buy; "deprave and corrupt" maybe not, but "disgust and degrade", without a doubt.