Movies: Nightwish (1989)

Imagine, if you will, a largely forgotten, late 80s psychological horror film with sci-fi and paranormal elements that legitimately feels like a very low-budget, proto-Inception that also tries to dabble in as many different subgenres as possible, containing flavors of Altered States, Alien, From Beyond, A Nightmare on Elm Street, a haunted house tale, a séance and possession movie, a goopy body horror flick, a desert road trip slasher, and a mad scientist story, sprinkled with just a pinch of Lovecraftian something-or-other, and you might come close to imagining the bizarre what-the-fuckery that is 1989’s Nightwish. It’s like the filmic equivalent of one of those trendy stunt milkshakes that blends an entire slice of red velvet cake with a bacon cheeseburger and a fried chicken chaser into coffee-flavored ice cream, then tops the whole thing with a blueberry doughnut, a dill pickle, macadamia nuts, and an edible tin foil swan. Like, bites of it are probably delicious and you can’t help but admire the audacity behind it, but you’re not entirely sure all the parts go together.

I can’t remember exactly why this movie stood out to me as I was scrolling through Tubi looking for films to review; I don’t think I ever saw it back in the day, though I remember spotting the cover occasionally on video store shelves. I probably never rented it because I thought it was a sci-fi movie, or a ripoff of Dreamscape or the aforementioned Altered States. Which it really isn’t, except for the parts where it is.

The film is one of only two directorial credits for Bruce R. Cook, who is actually better known as a writer and editor, apparently. I read a few reviews that mentioned he had done some camera work on Brian Yuzna’s 1989 classic Society, but if that’s the case, he failed to mention it on his IMDb, and he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page; hell, the Wikipedia page for Nightwish itself doesn’t even have a plot synopsis; that’s how under the radar this thing is. It got a nice new Blu-ray transfer from Unearthed Records in 2019, and it’s available on several streaming services nowadays, but it seems like it was pretty obscure for a while there; and although the movie isn’t a masterpiece by any means, it’s actually much better than I was expecting, and deserves a bigger audience for sure, especially if said audience is in the market for a somewhat cheesy, dream-logic narrative that essentially just throws everything into the casserole dish and hopes for the best.

Despite the relative fell-between-the-cracks-itude of Nightwish, it does have recognizable actors in it, and, it must be said, some pretty damn good practical gore effects by horror stalwarts KNB (the other optical effects aren’t as good, but about par for the course for this era and budgetary level). Probably the biggest names in this are Brian Thompson, best known as Night Slasher from the 1986 Sylvester Stallone movie Cobra, and Bozworth from Fright Night Part 2; and Jack Starrett from Blazing Saddles, Race with the Devil, and First Blood. Rounding out the cast are Elizabeth Kaitan (Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood); Alisha Das (ten episodes of the soap opera Santa Barbara); Robert Tessier (The Sidehackers, The Deep, Starcrash); Tom Dugan (Marked for Death, Leprechaun 3, Hellraiser: Bloodline); Artur Cybulski (The Hunt for Red October); and Clayton Rohner (Just One of the Guys, April Fool’s Day, I, Madman, The Relic).

I’ll try to give a breakdown of the plot, but keep in mind that it probably won’t make much sense; just be assured that all of the stuff I’m saying actually does happen in the movie, and I’m not just tripping balls or making stuff up.

We open as a woman we later learn is named Donna (Elizabeth Kaitan) emerges from a fancy party at a mansion at night. Clad in a red formal dress and carrying her red high-heeled shoes, she seems to be looking for something, first coming across a man’s shoe, then a bloody piece of clothing, then a severed hand. As she continues walking, she comes across a dude eating another dude, and starts to run away as the cannibal guy runs after her. She is able to briefly evade the people-eater by standing just to one side of him and counting on his lack of peripheral vision, and also throwing one of her shoes over his head so it makes a noise and distracts him. Because of the ridiculousness of this setup, we’re immediately suspicious that this is a dream sequence, and before Donna can get munched by the cannibal, our supposition is confirmed.

Donna and her perky, wet-t-shirt-encased boobies awaken in a sort of sensory deprivation tank, with electrodes on her head, and we see that she’s actually in a lab setting, with several colleagues in white coats monitoring her progress. It’s established that these are all graduate students in the parapsychology program of whatever college this is, and they’re being overseen by their professor, who I don’t think is ever named, but is very clearly a weirdo.

It seems that the project they’re working on has to do with controlling dreams, and in particular, seeing what will happen if you die in your dream, if it will rid your waking self of all fear of death (or something). Here’s where the homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street comes into play, but this movie is too much of a patchwork crazy quilt of influences to accuse it of just ripping off one thing. The professor seems a little bit miffed at Donna because she woke up before the cannibal could eat her, and there’s a little bit of back and forth about there perhaps being something preventing the students/test subjects from going all the way past the threshold of death in their dreams.

But evidently, all the lab work is just a preamble for this big field experiment they’re setting out on, the details of which are intensely murky. Donna, Jack (Clayton Rohner), and Kim (Alisha Das) are riding in a van driven by a sociopathic chunkhead named Dean (Brian Thompson), who runs over bunny rabbits on purpose, molests Kim at every opportunity (though sometimes she seems to be into it…?), and makes animalistic grunting sounds just to be obnoxious. I’m actually not entirely sure what the point of Dean’s character is, because he could literally be removed from the movie without it making a lick of difference, but I’ll get into that later.

The gang are headed out into the desert, to this long-abandoned cabin/mansion type deal where supposedly every conceivable horror and supernatural trope has happened at some point or another. Not only is there an element of eco-horror—in that there are poisons in the area’s water supply that caused widespread deaths, mutations, and intellectual disabilities—but there have also been reports of UFOs in the area; local legends about ancient aliens; more local legends about monsters emerging from the ground; stories about the house being haunted by the ghost of a little boy who died in an earthquake; the father of said boy being a shitty robber baron type who built the house over a mine that he ran, exploiting the Native workers in the process; and the mine-owning douche also conducting séances and Satanic rituals in the house, which may or may not have summoned a demonic entity or entities. Did I forget anything? Probably.

So a lot of this exposition is laid out as the students are driving to the place in the van; presumably the professor and the remaining student, Bill (Artur Cybulski), got there ahead of them to set everything up. Before the Scooby gang get to the actual cabin/mansion, though, there’s a sort of long scene where they arrive at the gatehouse, only to find that the prof hasn’t left the gate unlocked like he said he would, and Dean has to bust into the gatehouse for the keys, where he meets the mentally challenged man named Wendall (Tom Dugan), who apparently takes care of the house and the farm animals, occasionally throwing them some corn flakes out of a box.

Anyway, the van group finally gets to the main house and sets up their equipment, doing vaguely parapsychological stuff. Dean, who is apparently not one of the grad students, just drops them off at the house and says he’ll be back later to pick them up. Every now and then, as the movie unfolds, there will be a scene of Dean just driving in the van through the desert, listening to the radio, and I’m not entirely sure what purpose this serves. I guess the filmmakers wanted the grad students to get dropped off so there wouldn’t be a vehicle at the place for them to escape in, but I think I could have found some other way around that rather than adding an entire character who doesn’t seem to have any need to be there.

Back at the mansion, the prof leads the students in a séance, which immediately seems to go like gangbusters, as all the cameras and stuff go haywire, the door slams open and closed by itself, and so forth. Then a green glow starts emanating from the fireplace, and shortly afterward, a glowing green CGI snake comes out, seeming interested in Kim particularly; Donna freaks out and hits it with her purse, making it disappear and leave no trace behind.

After everyone is rattled, the professor and Bill reveal that all the stuff with the door and the equipment was faked, because the prof wanted to see how they would react, but he concedes that the “ectoplasm” (the green snake, I’m assuming) was real. But this admission isn’t even entirely solid, because as the evening goes on, the professor makes several references to the entity in the house being able to cause hallucinations, and admonishes the students to not trust one another, and to watch each other for signs of irrational behavior.

It turns out, however, that it’s probably the professor that they need to keep an eye on, because it seems that he’s a wee bit of a lunatic. At one point, he handcuffs all the students (and himself) to the walls and attempts to summon “the entity” with a pentagram drawn on the floor; it sort of works, as a green light tornado emerges from the dirt, but Bill wigs out and screams for the entity to go back, at which point the professor seems to stab Bill to death. It’s also revealed that the prof has another, previously unknown confederate in the form of a hulking but also mentally challenged bald guy named Stanley (Robert Tessier), who serves as the prof’s muscle, and also cuts off one of the fingers on Jack’s right hand (or left in some scenes).

As the movie goes on, the surviving students are chased by Stanley and eventually forced to participate in the professor’s mystifying experiment, the goals of which are not clear. In the attic, Jack and Donna see the ghost of the little boy who died in the earthquake, but he’s never mentioned again. The supposedly dead Bill returns to life at one point, but maybe not, because he might be just housing some gooey alien babies, and maybe the professor is also an alien who is using the students’ bodies to incubate extraterrestrial offspring. There’s a scene very much like that sequence from Alien where Ripley finds all the humans attached to the walls and covered with slime. Bill’s skull cracks open and bugs come out. Jack seemingly appears in two places at once, and in one of those places, he encases Donna’s head in a clear plastic box that’s filled with tarantulas. Dean eventually returns to pick up the students, finding Wendell dead in the gatehouse on the way, but once arriving, has his arms and legs removed and the rest of his body covered with alien boils.

Kim is the only one who ends up escaping, even though she appears to have totally lost it and seemingly believes everyone else has been taken over by aliens. She hops in Dean’s van and speeds away, only to have the green ectoplasm snake twine itself around her limbs, causing her to drive the van off a cliff.

I’m sure it will surprise no one that, just like at the beginning of the movie, the whole thing was a dream, as Kim wakes up in the same sensory deprivation tank as Donna did before, and everyone is standing in the lab alive and well, including Stanley (who’s a janitor), and the other peripheral characters, who all have other roles in “reality.” This ending is also something of a fakeout, though, because Kim immediately starts to suspect that she’s still dreaming, and is acting all paranoid; she opens the door out of the lab, but there’s another door behind it just like the first one, and then another one, and then she sees the green shafts of light and Donna strung up and Stanley menacing her, so I assume we’re meant to conclude that because Kim had finally “died” by going off the cliff in the van in her dream (because I guess the whole movie was a dream…or was it?), she’s now stuck in a nightmare forever…? At least that’s how I read it, but Nightwish seems like the kind of movie where arguments could be made for pretty much any potential interpretation you’d care to invent; it really is that batshit.

Although I did feel that the whole “is it a dream or not” narrative was mostly used to justify tossing a bunch of cool but random tropes into the pot and to paper over inconsistencies in the script, I can’t deny that the movie was actually pretty entertaining, even though I’d be lying if I said I had the faintest idea what the hell was going on most of the time. The effects, especially the body horror and alien stuff, were really good, and a lot of the cinematography and shot compositions were way better than they had any right to be; there was also plenty of gratuitous nudity, if you’re into that. The acting was pretty uneven and I could have done without the Dean character, because he was an annoying chode whose presence was completely superfluous, but overall, this was a fun (if baffling) slice of late-80s weirdness that absolutely could not have been made in any other era. Recommended if you dig the work of Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna, Wes Craven, and maybe Ken Russell, and don’t mind a story that makes absolutely no sense.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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