Monday, October 24, 2016

"Only One Way to Find Out!" - Night of the Demon (1980) - Part 3 of 3

This is Part 3 of our discussion of Night of the Demon. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

At this point in the story, Crazy Wanda has finished her recall under hypnosis of the events leading to the birth of her baby, fathered by bigfoot, and its unfortunate demise at the hands of her father Reverend McGinty.

Nugent and the students wonder if the baby really was the deformed offspring of a human and a bigfoot, and whether McGinty really killed it. "Well," says Nugent, "there's only one way to find out."

Of course, the group uses a shovel to dig up the baby's grave.

When they open the coffin, the remains appear to be a cow skull, but Nugent takes it as evidence the baby was deformed and the father truly was bigfoot.

Speaking of which, bigfoot leaps at them and chases them to the cabin, where they run inside and barricade the door. A student tries to shoot it through the window, but Wanda ruins his aim.

Night falls suddenly.

Wanda shows the group the presents the bigfoot brings to her door--a Coke can, a knife, some jewelry, a gold miner's pan. Like the townspeople, Crazy Wanda is more than happy to explain everything about her life. She admits that she was the one who burned her father to death because he killed her baby.

Bigfoot's next present is Pete's mutilated body, tied up on the porch.

The gripping finale sees bigfoot smash his way into the cabin. He peers around curiously. Then, in slow motion, he murders one of the women by choking her and one of the men by throwing him against a tree saw, afterward reaching into the man's abdomen, pulling out his guts, and swinging them around the room like a weapon.

Bigfoot holds Nugent's face to the hot stove, mutilating it.

Nugent recalls wandering through the forest, then waking up in the hospital room.

Nugent pleads with the doctors to search the forest and find the beast before it kills again. The doctors sedate him and discuss his case. The students have not been found. There is only one thing to do: keep him in the psychiatric ward.

"Unless his concept of reality changes," says the psychiatrist, "my first diagnosis will stand. I have no alternative but to certify this man as criminally insane." He checks off a box on his clipboard and the doctors and the sheriff depart.

As other great movies do, Night of the Demon plays with our expectations, confirming them at some points and confounding them at others. For example, cinematic flashbacks often play to the expectation that at least one character in the current timeline witnessed the events of the past (ridiculous tripe like Saving Private Ryan [1998] notwithstanding). Night of the Demon ignores this convention, to its credit, allowing the viewer to see a wider range of the monster's destructive rampage than would otherwise be possible. Another convention is the punishment of city folk defiling the wilderness, which occurs in many rural horror films. Night of the Demon confirms this convention in some cases--the couple having sex in the van, the motorcyclist smoking and urinating in the woods--but in most cases the victims were not harming or disrespecting nature at all.

The exposition near the beginning, with the townspeople explaining the history of Crazy Wanda and the creature to any stranger who would listen, is also a confounding of expectations, not only in the subversion of the cliche that small town dwellers are tight-lipped but also in setting up the twist ending. The viewer's expectations are set up to expect the worst--that Wanda's baby did not die and that the bigfoot creature is the monstrous grown baby, or that McGinty himself, Wanda's father, was also the father of the baby. The actual "twist" is simply that bigfoot was the father of the baby--certainly not as shocking as other possibilities the viewer might consider.

Another confounding of expectations is the lengths to which Nugent and his students go in order to satisfy their curiosity about bigfoot. Forcing their way into Wanda's secret room, hypnotizing her without her consent, and stealing her firearms are violation enough of the social contract, but digging up her baby's grave without her consent and opening the coffin far exceed the bounds of decency. Perhaps the filmmakers meant these transgressions as a subtle satire on imperialism, with the professor of (presumably) anthropology imposing his narrow values onto a culture he does not understand. If intended as such, it is a powerful statement indeed.

Finally, it is fascinating to compare Night of the Demon with its predecessor, Shriek of the Mutilated. While the earlier film was a clever attempt to combine a Scooby Doo episode with cannibal cultists, Night of the Demon is an equally clever attempt to merge a bigfoot film with the slasher films so popular in 1980. The filmmakers deserve kudos for identifying their market and targeting it so efficiently, and their ingenious portrayal of the timeless myth of the Sasquatch as a serial killer has brought us joy and chills for many, many years.