Monday, October 17, 2016

Night of the Demon (1980) - Part 1 of 3

Our next film is Night of the Demon (1980), an impressively subversive backwoods horror film featuring a rampaging bigfoot. It is not to be confused with 1957's Curse of the Demon, whose original British title was Night of the Demon, or with 1988's Night of the Demons or 2009's Night of the Demons. These films, unlike Night of the Demon, have demons in them.

In my Universe-Prime, Night of the Demon is a touchstone of rural horror in the 1980s. In your universe, it is not as well regarded. Brett Galman of Oh, The Horror! compares this film to other bigfoot and nature run amok movies, writing, "This is a bad movie like all of these movies generally are, with its poor acting, numerous botched line readings, and overall cheapness. It looks like it could have easily been a TV movie." Tim Brayton writes, "'boring' doesn't do the film justice. Its stultifying tediousness cannot be hemmed in by such a narrow adjective." About the acting in the film, Luis Joaquin Gonzalez writes, "it’s not like they’re bad actors trying to look good; they just aren’t any kind of actors at all." These confounding and inaccurate statements must be countered with a more objective, rational opinion--mine.

The film begins in a hospital room, with doctors discussing an unconscious patient, Professor Nugent. His face has been horribly mutilated. He has been telling the doctors what happened to him and his five students. Inspector Slack from the Sheriff's Department wants to ask him some questions when he regains consciousness, which he immediately does.

"Perhaps it would be in everyone's best interest, Professor, if you would begin at the beginning of your story," suggests one of the doctors.

Nugent begins telling the story of a fisherman whose body was found horribly mutilated. (Note the use of the word "mutilated" twice in the first two minutes of the film, clearly a reference to 1974's Shriek of the Mutilated, covered on this site--see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

Although no survivor witnessed the event, Nugent's words allow us to flash back to the fisherman's encounter with a creature in the woods. The fisherman sits by a campfire admiring his fishing lures. The creature's point of view is represented by a red circle in the camera frame.

Against the canvas of his tent, we see in silhouette the creature rip off the fisherman's right arm. He falls to the ground and the blood from his wound drains into the mud as the main titles begin. The filmmakers cleverly have the blood pool in a footprint in the mud, hinting that Night of the Demon will be a movie about bigfoot.

Indeed, bigfoot is the topic of a lecture Professor Nugent gives to his class at his university in southern California. He shows a home movie of a bigfoot attack three years earlier--the footage was found but the people were not. His class is suitably horrified by the footage. Then he introduces Carla, the daughter of the fisherman, who gets up in front of the class to bemoan the fact that bigfoot attacks are constantly dismissed as hoaxes and accidents.

Additionally, though Carla does not mention it, dates had been set for city elections.

Carla goes on to relate another bigfoot encounter that nobody but the victims witnessed--another flashback within a flashback, a story within a story. Carla says, "A young girl saw her boyfriend brutally murdered. They were in a van parked in an isolated road." We see the young woman and her boyfriend having sex in the back of the van, though the adjective "young" is certainly inaccurate--but forgivable, as Carla was not present for the events transpiring.

The van doors suddenly open and a creature that moans like the Frankenstein monster drags the man out into the forest. The woman screams as brutal sounds hammer the top of the van. Then blood runs down the windshield and the man's body follows, slipping down the glass. The woman continues to scream for several minutes.

After the flashback, we cut to Professor Nugent returning home to his wife, explaining that he still plans to go on his expedition tomorrow with a few students. "Are you sure it's not just an excuse to be alone in the woods with some student femme fatale?" his wife asks. He replies, "A student femme fatale? That would be more of an anthropological find than bigfoot." His wife laughs, her worries assuaged.

The next day, a boat takes the class, along with the professor and Carla, to a remote forest. It is not made clear at this point why, if they are investigating the same area as the reported bigfoot attacks, they did not drive here using the paved road where the van was parked.

After tying the boat to a small dock, they find the cabin of a man named Luke Carlson. They knock but nobody answers. One of the girls looks through a window and is startled that someone is in the cabin. She warns the others. Here the filmmakers introduce some ambiguity. It is not clear why she is surprised to see someone in the cabin while the others are knocking on the front door, clearly expecting someone to be home.

Eventually Carlson opens the door. He has a rifle. He does not want to talk to Nugent and the students so he walks off into the woods to go hunting. Nugent and his students pitch their tents in Carlson's yard, reasoning that Carlson will be back before nightfall.

While they wait for Carlson, the students see someone else inside his cabin. They assume Carlson returned secretly, but in fact Carlson walks up behind them and dismisses them again, returning to his house for the night.

As the sun rises, we see a new character sleeping in a sleeping bag in the woods. He is unpleasantly awakened by bigfoot grabbing his sleeping bag and swinging him around and around, then launching him into the air. He flies into a pile of sharp tree branches, on which he is impaled.

It is night again in Carlson's yard. One of the students, Roy, ingratiates himself with Carlson by giving him a bottle of whiskey. As the two converse, Roy dismisses bigfoot as a legend and Carlson immediately corrects him. Carlson knows of someone called Crazy Wanda who lives in the woods and has even seen bigfoot. She can't talk, which has something to do with her bigfoot encounter. Roy returns to the tents and tells the others. What should they do now? "Well, the next logical thing would be to go to Herb's General Store," says Professor Nugent.

The next day, they find the general store, then split up to find out all they can about Crazy Wanda. Fortunately for them, Herb, contradicting the stereotype of the rural shopkeeper, is a fountain of information about Wanda. In his New England accent, he says that nobody can find Wanda's home. McGinty, her late father and a minister, saw to that. Herb also tells the professor that Wanda's muteness was caused when she gave birth.

The rest of the townspeople seem even more open to sharing local secrets than Herb. The students find out that some of the late Reverend McGinty's followers live in the forest and help Crazy Wanda out, that Wanda's baby was born deformed but died soon after birth, that McGinty committed suicide by setting himself on fire because he believed the baby was a sign of the devil, and that his followers perform human sacrifices and practice cannibalism.

Nugent and his class take their boat upriver into the wilderness. They reach the end of the river near sundown. "Well, here we are," one of the girls says, "wherever this is."

The expedition has finally gone into the deep, dark wilderness. Will they find bigfoot? The answer is yes. Will there be more flashbacks? The answer is most certainly yes. Stay tuned for Part 2. Until then, farewell!