Sincerity: it’s not always in fashion, and is often pushed aside in favor of cynicism and snide commentary. You know, the easy route—a lack of belief and faith in what one is presenting. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the entertainment industry, where artistry can be overtaken by the bottom line in a quest for first place at the box office. And then you had people like Don Dohler, who created films for the sake of creating them, in order to capture the joy of being a kid in a theater and transported to another time and place. Such is the case with his magnum opus Nightbeast (1982), a spectacular no-budget wonder that encapsulates everything wonderful about the movies, now given fresh life through a terrific new Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome.
Sure, I’m hyperbolin,’ but Nightbeast has everything you could want in a sci-fi/horror/action thriller: a gnarly “man in a suit” creature, laser blasts, screaming victims, idiot policemen, doctors, mayors, and copious gobs of grue.
What it doesn’t possess is good performances, a decent script, or solid dialogue. But let’s look back at most of your favorite monster movies from the ’50s, shall we? They frequently suffered from these very same impediments, yet are revered to this day. What endears them in the same way as Nightbeast is ambition—with often the reach exceeding the grasp—and heart; there can be no question that Dohler loves his creature and the genre.
As for the story, well, it’s a tale as old as time, and pretty much a retread of Dohler’s first film, The Alien Factor (1976), but with one alien instead of three. (Some of the actors even play their same characters again.) Alien crashes in field, vaporizes townsfolk, Mayor doesn’t want to evacuate, sheriff evacuates anyway, sheriff and deputies and local yokels dispense creature. You can move as many chess pieces around the board all you want; this has been the blueprint for a million sci-fi/horror films since the ’50s—and when they work, it’s due to whatever flavor the filmmakers bring to it.
Dohler’s flavor is a love of the genre itself that oozes through the sprockets of every reel. There is no aesthetic to swoon over—everything is point and shoot on 16mm—nor sparkling dialogue to fall back on for lack of visual enticement. Nightbeast works because it stays away from the biggest pitfall of other budget-impoverished features: it’s never boring. Whether he’s staging shootouts between the heroes and the villain or a ridiculous love scene between our gray-permed sheriff and his deputy, Dohler keeps things moving.
It’s Dohler’s knowledge of film, specifically genre, which keeps him miles away from producing boredom; he ran his own magazine called Cinemagic, in which he delved into the behind-the-scenes work of many FX artists, and was a cartoonist of some note in the Robert Crumb underground era. He was steeped in the fantastic. His films bear this out; Nightbeast had a bigger budget than his others, so everything has a bit more of a sheen to it (a quasi-competence is reached), and the effects are not only enthusiastic, but are frequently quite good.
So when we talk about “bad” cinema, I think intent is nearly everything; Dohler may not have possessed the skills or budgets to fulfill his visions, but he had more heart than just about anyone. Nightbeast is one of the most entertaining films I’ve ever seen, regardless of its shortcomings and sometimes because of them; the bottom line is it’s a celebration of film and the dreams they inspire.
This would make Vinegar Syndrome’s new Blu a bit of a dreamcatcher then; loaded with loving extras, it tells you nearly everything you need to know about Dohler and his work. Special features include:
• Region Free Blu-ray/DVD combo
• Newly scanned & restored in 2k from its 16mm camera original
• Audio commentary with writer/director Don Dohler & actor George Stover
• “An Electric Performance" - an interview with actor Jamie Zemarel
• “Crashing the Set" - an interview with visual fx artist John Ellis
• “Shooting the Nightbeast" - an interview with cinematographer Richard Geiwitz
• “Nightbeast Returns” - archival interviews with the cast and crew
• Outtakes & Bloopers
• Visual FX gallery
• Original theatrical trailer
There honestly isn’t a dud in the bunch; the commentary is fun and informative, the interviews are quite lengthy and cover different aspects of production, and the outtakes put you right in the no-budget action. What you’ll come away with is a sense of family and a code of honor and respect. Plus some filmmaker by the name of J.J. Abrams shows up, as the then 16-year-old was asked to co-write the music, as he was a fan of Dohler’s magazine and was about to have some contributions published before it shut down. He has nothing but affection for Dohler, as does everyone else on the disc.
I’m fairly confident you will, too, once you’ve watched Nightbeast and taken in everything this Blu-ray has to offer. It’s good to have dreams, and even better when they can come true. The best is when they can be enjoyed by lovers of genre cinema everywhere.
Movie Score: 4.5/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5