N: Nightwish (1989)

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If a lifetime of watching horror movies teaches you anything, it’s that if a movie opens with a sequence that seems like a fully-contained and realized horror movie in itself, it is either going to be a) a dream, or b) somebody else making a movie with an impossibly complex series of continuing shots. Yes, I am still bitter about Frankenstein 1970.

In the case of Nightwish, it is the former, as a debutante leaves some sort of prom night party and finds first a single shoe, then a bloody sock, then a severed hand, then some ghoul eating a corpse. A chase scene ensues, ending with her being cornered outside a locked trailer and screaming.

Let’s get our exploitation out of the way right off the… top…

But, as mentioned, this is all the dream of Donna (Elizabeth Kaitan), who wakes up inside an isolation tank. This is all part of the graduate program under the slightly sinister Professor No Name (Jack Starrett), who is conducting experiments in “guided dreaming”, with the intent of his students experiencing their death in a dream to toughen them up for what they have to face. The trouble is, every one of them has awakened before that moment.

But never mind that, let’s have some credits and then get on with our movie, as the students drive toward their first field exercise. We have Donna, Kim (Alisha Das), Jack (Clayton Rohner) and Kim’s rather disagreeable boyfriend Dean (Brian Thompson). They’re headed through the desert to a mining magnate’s abandoned home, perched atop an equally abandoned mine in an area known for earthquakes, mutants, and UFOs. Already at the house with the Professor is Bill (Artur Cybulski), the last of our graduate troupe.

The house is also known to be haunted, and Satanists were frequent visitors. After an attempt at a high-tech seance à la The Legend of Hell House involving an ectoplasmic tentacle, things generally go to hell, as we find out the Professor is a genuinely mad scientist with a brutish and sadistic assistant (Robert Tessier, of course) intent on raising a demon from hell. On the other hand, all the weirdness seems to be alien invaders needing human bodies to host their larva. On the other other hand, all these may be hallucinations created by the tentacle-wielding “Entity” to increase paranoia and dissension among the students. On the other³ hand…

Oh, hell, SPOILER ALERT FOR A 30 YEAR OLD MOVIE. This is, as you figured out three minutes after the opening credits, Kim’s guided dream, and she actually manages to make it to her own death. In the isolation tank lab, everybody congratulates her on her fine work, but Kim isn’t sure she’s actually awakened. In a nicely Bava-esque closer, it seems that she hasn’t, and may not.

As a movie that tries very hard to be a nightmare put to film, Nightwish should be a lot more interesting. It tries to hit every horror setup you might be able to think of, from Texas Chainsaw Massacre torture dungeons to ghosts to Alien body horror, and yet somehow makes so much of that tedious. There are a lot of other mixmaster movies that don’t even achieve this level of competence – Spookies comes to mind – but more than once I had to hit the fast forward because okay, okay, I get it, move on. It’s to the movie’s credit that I didn’t do it more than twice.

The actors are a game lot, but the script does them no favors. Brian Thompson’s career was just starting to take off, and he manages to take the one note he’s given and turn it into at least an interesting rock riff. Robert Tessier could do the Menacing Hulk role in his sleep. All the others have varied careers, and it’s worth noting that none of them are one-movie johnnies, which is the case in most of these forgotten flicks. KNB (Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, for all you non-Fango readers) handle the special effects, but don’t really get to strut their stuff until the last half-hour.

Information about the making of Nightwish is very scarce. We know that it was shot in 1988 but not released until 1990 – both Starrett and Tessier had passed away by then – and then it was direct to video. These were the dark days of VHS, which means every copy out there – I’ve yet to see any mention of a letterboxed version – is open matte to 4:3, so the boom mike should have been given an onscreen credit. That’s not the fault of the director or the boom operator – that’s the fault of people allergic to black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. They are the real monsters.

Writer/director Bruce R. Cook worked his way up the ladder from camera & electrical to the director’s chair on two flicks – this one and The Census Taker. Nightwish can’t be described as a gem in the rough, it’s more like a semi-precious stone. Worth a look, if you like semi-precious stones.

It’s okay. I wear turquoise.

Hey… it’s available in October!