Monday, January 13, 2020

"The Perfect Place for a Psychotic Investigation" - Nightwish (1988) - Film #169

One of the prime periods of creativity in American film was the middle to late eighties, when filmmakers mined the surrealism introduced in Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) to great effect. A fine example of surrealism is Bruce R. Cook's Nightwish (1988), which we discuss today.

Some of your universe's critics are not kind to Nightwish. For example, reviewer mrcool1122, under the headline "Worst Movie Ever," writes, "you'll leave this movie feeling alone and taken advantage of, like a puppy who isn't wanted anymore and is left in a box by the side of the road. Blech." Reviewer paul_haakonsen writes, "I managed to endure an hour of the ordeal before I gave up. By then I had simply lost all interest in the movie and the pointless storyline and the random happenings of events that made little sense." And reviewer WisdomsHammer writes, "The overall story was what did me in. I wasn't invested in any of these characters and the ending was so predictable and lackluster that I groaned."

Read on for the truth about Nightwish...

In the striking opening scene, scored only by a heartbeat, a young woman dressed in red walks out of a huge mansion, only to find an empty shoe on the lawn. Walking along the grass, she finds a bloody sleeve, then a squirming hand. Also, a cannibal eats a dead body, then chases the woman through a slum. After she knees the cannibal in the groin, the woman wakes up in a sensory deprivation tank. The cannibal attack was, perhaps not surprisingly, a dream.

The woman, Donna, wakes up in a pool of water, then interacts with various graduate students and their professor, who explains, “None of you is able to finish his training. Not one of you is able to project his own death.”

 “I became too frightened,” Donna says. “I lost control of my dream. My dream actually began to—“

“—began to control you,” the unnamed professor (played by Jack Starrett, director of 1975’s Race with the Devil) finishes her statement. “The moment you gave up, your fear took over. And you were no use to yourself...or to me.” He tells his students, oddly, they need to welcome death out of curiosity.

In the next scene, the four students drive through the desert in a van to continue their graduate studies. Jack summarizes his feelings: “Frankly, when the doctor asked me to check into UFO sightings in this area, it worried me. I mean, if parapsychology has a bad name now, all’s we have to do is tie in little green men and we’re automatically members of the Erich Von Lunatic Fringe.”

The driver, Dean, is quite obviously a lunatic, as he laughs maniacally and runs over a stray rabbit.

At a fruit stand, Donna tells Jack about her research. “Stuff about monsters coming up from holes in the ground, murdering everyone they find.”

“Yeah,” Jack says, “standard enough.”

At the same time as Donna explains local folklore to Jack, Kim explains recent history to Dean. She says an evil man named Litton, who forced local children to mine minerals for him, built a house on top of the abandoned mine. A few minutes later, they reach the house, where the professor has already arrived.

After revealing he stores a handgun in his van, Dean says about the house, “Looks like a perfect place for a psychotic investigation.”

Donna corrects him: “It’s psychic, Dean, not psychotic.”

Dean drops the others off at the house and drives away in his van. We follow him as he drives along winding roads, and then stops at a gate, where he encounters the gatekeeper named Wendell, who has devolved to the point where he is more Jerry Lewis than man. Dean grabs his keys and opens the gate, driving away.

Meanwhile, at the house, the grad students take readings with their unusual instruments and discover that the house is “riddled” with passages behind the walls. They set up a circle of chairs to hold a seance, which they believe will establish scientific credibility for their research. The professor says, “I believe we have a very good chance of making authentic contact with a psychic entity. But it’s going to take concentration, singleness of purpose, and the ability to withstand projections of your worst fear.”

Bill replies, “Piece of cake.”

After fiddling with some instruments and sitting around silently for a while, their machines pick up some fluctuations. The door begins to bang, though the professor is more interested in temperature readings than obvious signs of supernatural presences. Finally, a Polaroid camera starts taking pictures by itself while rotating back and forth, causing the professor to produce a fairly alarming smile.

After a moment, a green ectoplasmic snake appears from the chimney and climbs up Kim’s leg, at which point Donna destroys it by hitting it with her handbag.

“That last part came as a surprise,” Bill says. “How did you do that, doctor?”

“Shut up,” replies the professor, though the cat is out of the bag: the psychic experience was a setup to test the grad students. However, the ectoplasm and the Polaroid were not part of the setup.

At lunch, the professor explains they are facing a powerful demonic entity with the ability to project images and to instill paranoia. “I want you all to watch each other very closely for irrational behavior.”

In the attic, Donna and Jack experience irrationality quickly, as they see a young boy sitting in a chair whose blood splatters the floor. They leave the attic quickly. Downstairs, in a move that might be considered alarming but which nobody questions, the professor handcuffs all the graduate students to beams while drawing a chalk pentagram on the floor in order to pull the entity from its other dimension. The professor handcuffs himself to the beams last, and the film cuts away, not allowing us to see how he cuffs his last hand.

After some wind blows the female students’ hair around a little, and Kim smiles lasciviously for no apparent reason, a green tornado (not a housecleaning product) appears in the pentagram, but it quickly vanishes, having caused Bill to urinate in his pants. The professor intones, in a masterpiece of sentence construction, “Through weakness, we have just lost, possibly forever, a chance to be eminent among scientists.” (Or perhaps he uses the word “imminent,” in which case I’m not sure what he means.) Then he punches Jack in the face.

During the aftermath, Bill reveals that the doctor was kicked out of two previous universities because of his nontraditional parapsychology methods. Kim makes the point that they are all behaving in a paranoid fashion, possibly because of the entity. The professor refuses to let the students out of the handcuffs and reveals he has been working with a formerly unseen cohort named Stanley, a large bald man who resembles Tor Johnson.

“A stooge to run the special effects while you frighten poor Jack to death?” Donna says.

But the professor is committed to his project. Bill tries to resign from the university’s parapsychology program, but the professor stabs Bill in the stomach. When Bill slumps over, he quips, “Resignation accepted.”

Stanley drags Bill’s body out of the room, then into a cave that appears to be lined with black garbage bags. Smiling, Stanley drops Bill into a glowing green pit in the mine underneath the mansion.

Stanley also cuts off Jack’s finger as a souvenir before releasing the remaining grad students. The students begin working again, taking readings around the house with their equipment, though now they are guarded by the professor and Stanley.

In a clever ploy, Kim gets away from Stanley by hunching down on a staircase, causing him to trip over her and fall down the stairs. She escapes, finds a phone, and calls Wendell at the gatehouse, though Wendell proves to be comically unhelpful.

Meanwhile, Donna has a vision in which Jack traps her head in a clear plastic cage full of tarantulas. This allows the filmmakers to introduce a POV shot from the back of Donna’s throat as she opens her mouth wide, for some reason.

The vision vanishes quickly.

Elsewhere, Kim escapes the house and is chased by a dog down the driveway. She hides in the cave where Stanley disposed of Bill’s body, where she is discovered by Bill, apparently still alive. He lures her deeper into the mine. Kim develops a theory, which she shares with Bill. “Do you know what we learned about the UFO reports? The magnetism, the mutant animals, the deformed human beings? Well, the doctor may be a scientist, all right, Bill, but his job is to dissect and study human beings. I am sure of it.”

“Remember, Kim, the doctor thinks one side effect of the entity’s summoning is an attack on our reasoning process.”

“Of course he said that. That is the easiest way to get us to believe the evidence is right in front of our noses.”

“What evidence?”

“That the doctor is an alien! For God’s sake, don’t be so thick! The doctor is an alien!”

Bill shows her a room in the mine where dozens of bodies are stuck to the walls with green goop. “Studies and dissection, yes,” Bill explains, “but also breeding.”

Grotesquely, the human bodies (one of which might be mistaken for Jesus or R. J. MacReady) are covered with pulsing sacs filled with alien babies.

Bill picks up a sickle to threaten Kim, but his arm falls off and Kim hits him with her flashlight. Bill’s skull splits open and beetles climb out. At the same time, Kim runs into a wall and knocks herself out—after which the filmmakers show her fondling herself in a foggy cave for about five minutes.

Back at the gatehouse, Dean arrives in his van to pick up the students, only to find Wendell’s body swinging from a noose (and also covered with pulsing sores, which Dean ignores). Dean drives up toward the house, but as he drives a green ectoplasmic tendril creeps into the van.

Meanwhile, Donna and Jack find Kim wandering around. Kim explains that the magnetic anomaly around the mine is a beacon for alien spaceships, and that Bill was half eaten by parasites. Donna asks, “Aren’t parasites one of your greatest fears?” She believes Kim has been seeing hallucinations.

Jack adds helpfully, “This isn’t Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Donna volunteers to be cut so Kim will see she bleeds like a human, not an alien, but Kim is not convinced.

The professor intervenes, forcing them to another pentagram on the floor. The ectoplasmic snake appears again, engulfing everyone except Kim, who climbs out of the mine and back into the house. She finds Dean, but he has been dismembered and covered with alien bugs.

Kim abandons Dean and runs to his van, but the ectoplasmic snake finds her and wraps around her leg, forcing her to push the accelerator and drive over a cliff.

In the surprising finale, the film cuts back to the research lab, where Kim is dreaming in the chamber.

“Yours was the most complex guided dream I’ve ever seen,” the professor tells her. “And dreams within the dreams—beautiful little masterpieces.”

Dean enters the room, as well as Stanley (a security guard) and Wendell (a janitor).

Shaken, Kim walks to the door. “I don’t need a college degree this bad, doctor. You’re just guinea pigs if you stay here.” She opens the door, only to find a final image that implies she might still be dreaming.

Featuring art design by the obscure Robert A. Burns (whose credits include The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Tourist Trap, Don't Go Near the Park, The Howling, and Re-Animator), Nightwish is a beautifully made film with grotesque makeup effects and a story that forces us to ask the question "Is reality merely a dream?" What an original concept for a film! In the end, the viewer is forced to conclude that the answer to the question is "yes." We are all dreaming our reality while we sleep in a tank full of water wearing a white tank top.

Like many fine films, Nightwish begins as a realistic study of the pressures of graduate school, and then somewhere near the halfway mark it veers into Andy Milligan territory as the professor is revealed to be quite mad, even employing a hulking assistant who might be described as mentally defective. But which is reality? Is it the grounded situation in which grad students conduct a parapsychology research project in a haunted house? Or is it the fantastic situation full of mad scientists and alien insects? Who can say? (Of course, given the ending of the film, the correct answer is neither, as the haunted house and the alien insects are all part of Kim's dream--or rather her dream within a dream.)

As usual, we must quibble with the title of the film to some extent. The film has some night, but not much in the way of wishes, though at one point Kim dreams that she sees Donna in a revealing costume, which would most likely count as wish fulfillment for a large segment of the film's audience. In the end, the film itself is wish fulfillment, if the audience's wish is for an entertaining movie about dreams vs. reality. We are forced to conclude, then, that the film's title is perfect, and that Bruce R. Cook has truly fulfilled the cinematic night wish of us all.