|Night of Horror (1981)|
|Writers:||Rebecca Bach, Tony Malanowski, and Gae Schmitt|
|Starring:||Steve Sandkuhler, Gae Schmitt, Rebecca Bach, Jeff Canfield, and Tony Malanowski.|
Night of Horror is a genuine anomaly of a film. It is honestly hard to describe a movie where literally nothing happens for several solid minutes. Character development, characterizations, Drama, storytelling, Suspense… All of these words together seem to denote some sort of compelling actions amid the adventure which fuels any story. In the case of Night of Horror, none of these words prove practical or effective for a good cinematic experience. Even when a character does start to change, it’s done so badly it makes you wish they stayed the same.
Night of Horror is a movie where nothing happens at all. Dialogue gets exchanged, the characters drive on, the soundtrack plays the theme song again, a relentless internal monologue drones on about the most infinitesimal of events and topics… I’ve seen few films that have felt more useless in comparison to this master of audience fatigue: Chooper, The Prey, Battle Beyond the Sun, The Silent Hill movie… these and Night of Horror are the kind of movies that left me in a state of hair pulling frustration as I asked desperately and vainly at the screen ‘what was the point?’ Because despite what little talent happened to sneak in underneath the lamebrains behind this operation (the director and/or screen writer), there is literally no valid point to the movie. Part of this lengthy review is a broken man desperately trying to make sense of this dreck; I can find only one good genuine thing about this 90 min. trek through ineptitude.
One may accuse another of labeling or pigeon holing, but sometimes categorizing a title in media brings a sense of organization and general order to something that makes fewer sense. However, I can’t accurately describe what genre Night of Horror falls under. It FAILS to deliver the Horror aspect. There’s no atmosphere, build-up, tension… this movie is a complete mellow-out. Even the threat of Supernatural suspense or drama is thwarted by crappy delivery: the characters are so dull they’re hard to care for and the ghosts come across more as annoying than menacing (kind of like the Ju-On ghosts only lacking artistic direction).
There is some very minor drama, but nothing ground breaking or heart wrenching. Steve starts to get a crush on his brother’s wife Colleen, and the psychic connection she holds with the ghosts messes with Steve’s head and heart a little bit, but that’s it. There’s no conflict here! Jeff is oblivious to his mangy half-brother eye-fucking his wife throughout the whole RV trip, the ghosts don’t want to take Colleen away or put a curse on anyone, and Steve does nothing but sit back and observe everything around him. This is the film’s excuse for story telling and it persists for about seventy minutes!!
The cinematography is truly headache inducing, though not entirely because of bad camera work. Long before the needless shaky-cam method of film, courtesy of directors like Jonathan Liebsman and Gary Ross, there existed such a thing as lazy-cam. Yes, otherwise basic, but competent and stable camera work is crippled by sheer, inexcusable laziness. It’s hard to blame who is really responsible for this sometimes: the cameraman, the director, or the editor, but when a camera stays on a bad shot for too long, someone’s being lazy and it’s hard to care who.
The opening scene should be the viewer’s first indication of this, as the camera stays on Steve and Chris’ backs through the whole scene. The master shot outlasts what few badly lit close-ups the scene has to offer. Through most of the movie though, we’re treated to driving footage. After watching the core center of this film, I actually missed the badly lit household bar scene. We get exteriors of the RV driving from almost every angle except an aerial view, interiors of the RV (clearly parked for filming), and night time exterior shots. It’s all incredibly dull with very little artistic depth or creativity to it. That’s not even getting to the flashback music montage which at this point is a flashback within one very long flashback still being narrated.
Said flashback music montage consists of Civil War reenactment footage that is only one step over the likes of Time Chasers. To it’s credit, the reenactment does match the film stock, so it’s doubtful that the footage was taken off a shelf and edited in, but that just makes the movie worse. That’s not even as bad as the last ten minutes of the film where the characters wander out into literal darkness just to slowly dig around in the dirt.
The daylight and nighttime exteriors suffer from over exposure, and the lighting switches in the nighttime from being too bright to actually be night and sometimes it switches to day-for night. The scene with the ghosts are the worst, as they consist of confederate and apparently union soldiers standing around in randomly-spotted lighting with fog. Sometimes the human figure of the ghosts are too bright and lucid to be scary and sometimes all we can see are the butts of their guns.
I will say the interior RV shots are so warmly colored, claustrophobic, and blurry, that it does kind of add a hot romance feel to the scenes of Steve flirting with Colleen. I think the only interesting scene in the entire movie is where Colleen first starts communicating with the ghosts. The scene consists of close-ups of Colleen talking to herself with shots of tree trunks and branches at different angles illuminated in the darkness. This is the one golden moment where the blurry nighttime lighting actually works, as Colleen actually appears ghostly and radiant. It’s kind of a crazy scene and it made me think for a brief blessed minute that the movie would start getting good and scary. The scene lasts about two and a half minutes though, and as soon as it was over, my hopes fell into the all too familiar void of disinterest. The whole movie just looks like vacation footage.
The dialogue is too much. It’s never annoying, immature, pretentious, or even badly written… it’s just too much. We get exposition and information about characters, events and ghosts that are either too irrelevant or too dull. Thankfully, the recording and sound are so bad that it makes listening to the dialogue hard to do; I honestly wish the same people who made Monster A Go-Go recorded this film so that we couldn’t hear the dialogue at all! The sound of the ghosts whispering self-echoes is so high pitched, and ends on so many question marks, that it’s both hard to listen to and hard to understand. Hell, these ghosts have one of the best opening lines in any film about communicating with the dead that I have ever seen, and it is completely ruined because of the bad sound recording!
The acting is sub-par with a few average performances. The female leads are actually the better performers of the five people in the movie and that’s not just because Colleen is the only one with an interesting backstory. Every male character in this movie is poorly acted on a variety of levels. Jeff Canfield (who plays Jeff) carries the most charisma of the actors, but has poor/emotionally inappropriate line delivery. Not that this is an entirely bad thing: as it made him the most interesting male of the lot, and the only person remotely chuckle-worthy. If you pitched that guy in a movie with the annoying werewolf and the mummy from Orgy of the Dead, it’d be a lot better than this film, believe me! The director shows up as the briefly introduced Chris and he’s actually not too bad in regards to performance and line delivery, but he’s barely in the movie enough for it to matter. Steve Sandkuhler (who plays Steve), our main performer… ugh. Where the Hell do I even start? The man is dull, playing a dull character. When he really has to emote, he does it all right, but he does it for the most mind numbing of scenes, like when Steve starts running in the darkness from what he thinks may be ghosts following him. The ultra-shaggy-yet-willowy look doesn’t help the image either, but he’s the main character and we see him all the time! I’ve seen worse protagonists, I guess, but most of their characters were doing a lot more than Steve the mopey, mop-headed drifter (By the way: Marin County is pronounced ‘Ma-rin’, not ‘Merrin’ yeh jerk)!
I’ll stick my neck out and protect at least one thing about the movie: the soundtrack. Before anyone who has seen this movie lays into me (I’m guessing, what, eight people?), let me inform you full-well I know how goddamn repetitive the score is. The movie has exactly two songs. They consist of an instrumental piano piece and the four minute long lyrical number that it comes from. The instrumental song is played exactly eight times throughout the movie, and it gets old after the second time its played. The lyrical piece is sung only once, but it’s so badly performed that it gets old after the first chorus. However, I must contest that there is some good found in both songs, apparently written by one-time composer Jim Ball and his apparent band called Off the Wall.
The instrumental piece is genuinely pretty-sounding and is very well structured. The first time I heard it, I honestly thought I was in for a treat because I’m so used to Italian and American Horror/Exploitation films having strangely peaceful soundtracks despite being so violent or graphic. Peaceful music and super violent Horror media; it’s a damn fine combination! The instrumental theme to Night of Horror can genuinely work in an actual Horror movie or a dark and depressing moment in film like a scene of rape or torture or at the very least character development. I can all ready imagine a character’s shift in personality from innocence to corruption reflected by the peaceful tone but somber lyrics of the full song.
The lyrical number to the movie is, as I said before, very badly sung. It’s like two good-old boys got drunk, wrote two different sheets – each with their own take on the song – got high and performed it all in one dazed, smelly, cross-faded take. This may explain the bizarre moaning that can be heard during the end of the chorus which drowns out almost an entire bar. Yet, I still can’t help but admire the piece. The lyrics, when intelligible, tell a very sad tale of war and the loss of a friend. The chorus bears enough power in their words to warrant a mention: “One more soldier… How many more?” The song itself reflects an anti-war message in its lyrics, and based on this movie’s visuals and tone I can only assume that was the original case.
Apparently, the movie was shot in 1978, but didn’t leave the shelf for three years, and it carries the vibe of that particular culture. The non-existent plot gives us a peaceful setting and characters conflicted only by the loss of a loved one which reflects the ghosts who suffered from a violent war that continues to haunt them. Also, as a poet, I can appreciate its structure and verse for its Folk Song nature. I can honestly see a Post Hardcore band doing a cover of the main song, say a band like the often politically focused rock musings of Silverstein or even August Burns Red.
Now, after praising the notably flawed soundtrack to Night of Horror, I must ask: does the soundtrack save the movie? NO. Night of Horror is almost the equivalent of Hellcats, 1967: It’s a boring, lagging, amateur hippy movie where the music is the only good thing about it (but even Hellcats was mildly entertaining, even if you were sober). Much like that movie, I wouldn’t mind owning the soundtrack, even if it means shelling out hundreds of dollars for a rare LP; that’s how much I love the music. It’s just that the soundtrack either gets too much attention or is poorly performed lyrically.
Here’s the biggest stinker to this film: I figured it out. It took me months to see the connection, but I finally got it. Night of Horror is an ART FILM. Think about it: The almost purposefully failed promise of Horror, the tenuous but present metaphoric themes of losing family or brotherhood, loss of loved ones through seemingly needless wars, the long stretch of pointless driving and milling around or the spanning, relaxing landscapes. Some film student wanted to make a movie based on the concept of ghostly Civil War soldiers being spotted in Virginia and analogize it to his own personal problems and current, cultural themes. This is like if Terrance Malik made a Horror film, but did it on a $4000 budget. Hell, there’s a scene in the movie where a character mentions Edgar Allen Poe and the listener’s response is “I hope it’s not one of his Horror stories.” How the Hell can you even imagine asking for a grant to fuel this movie??
How can I honestly recommend this movie? This boring debacle of a film? If you’re interested in the soundtrack, find it online; they’ll be in video format, but it won’t count as long as you don’t actually watch the movie. Maybe if you want to watch one of the worst movies in existence? Something that makes Manos seem better than it already is? I honestly don’t think this is the worst of them though. No I mean, it sucks: Night of Horror is a TERRIBLE movie, yet its tiny saving graces make it just a tiny bit easier to handle than the likes of, say, Birth of a Nation or The Silent Hill movie *. I truly can’t think of which is worse: This, The Prey or Chooper. At least with this I can do other things as it is playing, idle into a few minutes worth of tunes and lie to myself thinking it was made with some kind of artistic merit that vanished due to a low budget or lack of experience. The Prey was painful to watch and listen to, but at least I fell asleep to it, and Chooper… I refuse to think about. If I could rate this as 0.1 or ‘CRAP Hiding a Wheat Penny,’ I would, but I can’t because Night of Horror is still…
“Just try not to expect too much too soon.”
*: There are so far only two movies that ever caused me physical pain while watching them in public screenings. I take it extremely personal when I’m so publicly embarrassed by a movie that my own ass starts aching because I refused to walk out on the movie.