Night Beast (1982)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2020-10-18 14:40

Written and Directed by: Don Dohler
Starring: Tom Griffith, Jamie Zemarel, and Karin Kardian

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“What does the coil do?"
“It’s like a huge battery, it stores an electrical charge…once you charge it up, you run lines from it, and anything that touches the wires…zap!”
“Ah, so you’re gonna electrocute the creature.”

An alien invasion would be inherently terrifying on an existential level. Forgetting for a second whatever carnage it might cause, the mere presence extraterrestrial life would upend everything we know about our existence and our place in the universe. It’s the kind of unfathomable terror that reaches Lovecraftian depths—if, of course, that’s your persuasion as an artist. I cannot imagine this was what was on Don Dohler’s mind when hatching Night Beast though. When you’re Don Dohler and you’re hatching Night Beast, you don’t exactly have the resources to go existential. And going Lovecraftian? Out of the question unless you’re talking about hitting up the local library for inspiration. No, when you’re working on something like Night Beast, you go straight for the visceral shit. You just have an alien creature descend to earth only to tear people limb from limb because that’s all you can muster when it’s basically just you and your buddies making a movie in your backyard.

That’s the gist of the plot: after hurtling through space, an alien creature (John Dods wearing a costume that looks like it was borrowed from a local haunted attraction) lands in rural Maryland and immediately starts to go hog wild with a phaser. The locals it vaporizes are the lucky ones; less fortunate are the ones it mangles with its inhuman strength. Hayseed authorities are positively baffled about what to do, but you can be damn sure they call in the old codger who’s got the best aim with a shotgun in the entire county. Other than that, though, you might be at a loss as to what the plan is here.

I have to admit that I found Night Beast much more unrealistic before I watched it during a pandemic where idiot politicians defied expert advice because they thought—as the doomed idiots in Night Beast do—that the show must go on. It turns out that maybe Dohler understands human behavior more than I’d ever given him credit for because now I absolutely believe that some folks would treat an alien invasion not as an existential threat but rather as a minor annoyance. They’d absolutely lounge by their pool and party on until they alien swam up and phased them in the ass. Now, before I go hailing Don Dohler as some kind of prophet, let me admit that, yes, this is basically the equivalent of Mayor Vaughn keeping the beaches open in Jaws. So we’ve seen this kind of thing before…but have we seen it with the homespun charm on display here?

Well, yeah, we probably have. The homespun filmmaking boom produced no shortage of these regional, do-it-yourself efforts featuring stilted performances, jagged editing, and kitbashed special effects, not to mention the fact that Dohler had literally already done this once before with The Alien Factor. However, Night Beast possesses charms distinctly its own, most of them emerging in the sprawling subplots that come to dominate the narrative. If I had to guess, Joe Bob Briggs would probably accuse the plot of getting in the way of the story, but Night Beast really comes into its own when its amateur cast is tasked with keeping this venture afloat between the alien attacks. Dohler keeps them occupied by scripting an eclectic bunch of subplots that range from incongruently serious (a domestic abuser terrorizes a woman) to absolute nonsense (the mayor and his buddies get toasted by the pool). Even the stuff that’s on-topic, like a scientists’ attempt to ward off the alien or the cops’ investigation into the attacks, gets remarkably side-tracked by various digressions.

All of it’s united in Dohler’s devil-may-care approach. Even the recurring subplot about the woman being pummeled features an appalling amount of gratuitous nudity, only to be outdone later in the movie when the two cops (Tom Griffith & Karin Kardarin) decide the sexual tension that’s been brewing between them should finally percolate. Far be it from me to judge how hormones might work in the event of an alien invasion, but the tryst here might actually redefine the terms “gratuitous” and “awkward.” Any time an amateur performer steps on-screen in something like Night Beast, it’s an act of bravery, and we should consider awarding medals to Griffith and Kardian for indulging Dohler’s quest for titillation at any costs. Just about the only thing more galling would be discovering a sex tape involving your own parents, who would at least have the good sense to know it’s not fit for public consumption.

Dohler at least has some sense about him, or at least enough to deliver the stuff you do expect from a movie titled Night Beast. Even though long stretches unfold where you forget the title character exists, Dolhler compensates adequately enough by slathering gore and scattering prosthetic limbs all over the place. When it’s at its best, Dohler’s film is a testament to the ambition that often guides these backyard productions: sure, they might only aim to deliver the cheapest of thrills, but spirited attempts like this one remind us that there’s definitely room at the table for dime-store theatrics. With its ambitiously-staged shootouts (featuring sound effects from a young J.J. Abrams!), its funhouse gore outbursts, and, most importantly, its 82-minute runtime, Night Beast is quite the ride.

It would be fair to liken it to the same kind of dark ride you’d find at your average backwoods carnival, but I’m not sure that’s even much of an insult. Some of my fondest memories involve that specific mix of excitement and the uneasy fear you experience when you’re not quite sure what you’ve talked yourself into riding. You study that carnival attendant intently, hoping he hasn’t been manning this thing for so long that he’ll fuck up your ride. So it is with Night Beast and Don Dohler, the cinematic equivalent of a carnival barker if there ever was one. With Night Beast, he asks you to step right up and check out some dangling eyeballs, shredded intestines, vaporized kids, shredded skulls, and the greatest use of climactic electric shock this side of Jaws 2. Set phasers to “brain-melting.”

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