The first challenge on the list: 1. THE LADY AUTEUR: Pioneering women directors in psychotronic cinema. Now see who’s wearing the pants in Hellywood.
I’ve gone with Doris Wishman, who produced and directed at least thirty films over four decades, mostly in the usually male-dominated genres of sexploitation and pornography. Her film career began as a hobby after the death of her husband in 1958, with her feature debut being 1960’s Hideout in the Sun.
She’d already had experience in the film industry, as she worked for her cousin Max Rosenberg as a film booker for his art and exploitation films. The 1957 New York appeals court that allowed nudism to be shown in movie theaters inspired her to make that first film, which she followed in 1961 with Nude on the Moon, a film that was banned in New York because nudist colonies were legally permissible but nudism on the moon was not. She also worked with the legendary burlesque dancer Blaze Starr but as the nudie cutie genre started losing money, she moved into sexploitation.
That’s when some of her most famous — well, amongst lovers of ridiculous cinema like me — films got made, like Bad Girls Go to Hell and the Chesty Morgan vehicles Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73, films in which Morgan kills people with her monstrous 73-inch breasts.
Wishman also produced 1972’s Keyholes Are for Peeping, which starred comedian Sammy Petrillo, a Brooklyn nightclub performer who eventually made Pittsburgh his hometown in the 1990’s. He’s probably better known for his teaming up with singer Duke Mitchell (yes, the guy who made Massacre Mafia Style and Gone with the Pope) as the poor man’s Martin and Lewis. They teamed up for Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, which also somehow rips off Abbott and Costello monster films at the same time.
As the industry moved from softcore to hardcore, Wishman directed two Annie Sprinkle features, Satan Was a Lady and Come With Me, My Love. She wasn’t really excited about the shift and denied working on these films. As the 70’s were coming to a close, she released a film she’d been working on since 1971, Let Me Die a Woman, a groundbreaking semidocumentary on transgender issues filtered through the lens of exploitation.
That brings us to today’s movie, A Night to Dismember, which she started filming in 1978 to cash in on the slasher craze begun by Halloween. Wishman was ready to direct and produce the film from a screenplay by Judith J. Kushner. Most of the shoot took place in 1979 in New York at Wishman’s home.
From there, things get weird. Wishman claimed that multiple reels were destroyed in the photo processing lab, resulting in her having to reshoot several scenes and use stock footage to make a releasable final film. After four years (!) of post-production, the film would remain unreleased until MPI Media Group put it out in 1989.
There’s also an entirely different version of this film that was released in August 2018 on YouTube by the film’s cinematographer, C. Davis Smith. This version features actress Diana Cummings in the lead role and an entirely different plot, as adult film actress Samantha Fox replaced Cummings after the destruction of Wishman’s film.
According to Smith, Fox paid Wishman $2,000 to get the starring role of Vicki Kent. He said he doesn’t know for sure, but he believes that Wishman faked the story that the original print was destroyed in a fire and reshot the film with Fox. You can read more about that story here.
Whew! That’s a lot of history to cover, but this is a film that has plenty of it. Let’s get into what it’s really all about!
The Kent family suffers from an ancestral curse that has caused nearly all of them to be murdered, often by one another. Bonnie was first, hacked to pieces by her sister Susan, who was upset that her father favored her sister. After the murder, she slipped on the blood and was killed by the very same axe.
Broderick Kent’s wife Lola is next, murdered in the bathtub. While Kent tries to proclain his innocence, he eventually hangs himself.
That’s when we get to Vicki Kent (Samantha Fox), who has just ben released from an insane asylum after killing two boys. Her brother and sister, Billy and Mary, want her to be committed again.
Despite wanting to rekindle her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, she struggles to make it in the real world, constantly hallucinating. Then again, with Frankie getting decapitated and his head burned in a fireplace, that relationship seems doomed.
Vicki tries to visit some relatives who turn her away before they’re all killed by hatchet and by car. Even a trip to the lake is fraught with horror, as a zombie chases her around, only to be revealed to be her brother Billy who has been trying to frighten her back into the sanitarium.
This is the kind of movie that rewards your lack of attention with shifts in characters, hairstyles and clothing all within the same scene. It doesn’t help that there is next to no voiced dialogue and only a narrorator’s voice to carry us through every scene and change in tone. We go from Vicki performing a sexy dance and trying to seduce a detective to Vicki’s sister Mary actually being the one behind all the killings.
The detective makes his way to the house where he finds a confused Vicki holding a hatchet. Despite hitting him several times with it, he manages to strangle her to death. That’s when we get the voice over from the detective, telling us that Mary was the real guilty party, but she’s escaped after killing a cab driver. And that’s the movie, I guess.
To put it bluntly, A Night to Dismember is a mess. It’s got songs that stop and start, horrible acting, bad gore and footage that appears to be the quality of a 1970’s super 8 home movie. It’s the kind of movie that if I watched it with a roomful of normal folks, they’d scoff and laugh. And that’s why I woke up at 4 AM so that I could enjoy it all by myself, away from the insults of people not ready to cheerful enjoy a movie that combines the insane and the inane. There’s also plenty of 1970’s fashion and an unhinged voiceover to love, which continues over the credits, making me adore this piece of film even more.
Back to Wishmasn. Before her death in 2002, she was finally honored for her groundbreaking work, with John Waters featured a clips from her films in Serial Mom, appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, appearances at the New York and Chicago Underground Film Festivals and a showing of her films at Los Angeles’s Nuart Theatre entitled “Doris Wishman: Queen of Sexploitation.”