Updated: Sep 7
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Nightwish (1989, directed by Bruce R. Cook)
With guest reviewer Tom Breen
JONATHAN RAAB: You initially recommended this film to me because it has, on paper, everything I could want: occult research conducted by weirdo academics, a spooky abandoned mountaintop mansion, ectoplasm, aliens, body horror, Brian Earl Thompson of X-Files fame playing a roided-out maniac, and a nonlinear plot. This film is both wonderful and a complete trash fire. I love it and I hate it. It is, in many respects, the ultimate expression of the duality of man and one of the most incompetent movies I’ve seen in recent years. What do you think?
TOM BREEN: Maybe 10 minutes into the film’s run time, I thought, “I have to tell Jonathan about this.” It has enough ideas for half a dozen movies, and they’re all kind of poorly executed here. It’s a film from a conceptual universe where subtlety and nuance do not exist. I mean, this is a movie where the evil scientist character is named “Dr. Mendele.”
I’ve seen people describe the narrative as possessing “dream logic;” if you want to see a well-crafted horror film that actually proceeds like a dream, I recommend Pavel Juracek’s A Case For a Rookie Hangman. Nightwish does not have dream logic; Nightwish does not have logic. It makes as much sense as cutting pages out of Moby Dick and a cookbook and then having a chimpanzee paste them together in random order.
But for all that, it’s one of the most compellingly bizarre films I’ve seen in years. Scenes from this movie—along with lines of its incredibly clunky dialogue (“Yes, he’s alive, but I had to split his head open!”)—have stayed with me a lot longer than scenes from films that are, on every level, objectively better.
So let me ask you: this isn’t one of those “so bad it’s good” movies, right? There’s actually something more interesting happening here, isn’t there?
JR: I think so, yes, because what begins as a really bad zombie movie and transitions into a dark science/nudie film and transitions into a Texas Chain Saw Massacre college-kids-in-a-van-with-a-creep setup and transitions into a western mountaintop haunted mansion seance sequence and transitions into a… etc. keeps your interest because it’s always going places and doing something new. None of its 100-horror-movies-in-1 tonal shifts or setpieces are executed with any degree of competency, mind you, but its misguided creative ambition helps the film transcend its obviously low-budget limitations. I wonder if this movie had trimmed away about half of its twists and subplots if we would be as motivated to discuss it.
The acting seems to gyrate between “confused,” “hysterical,” and “likely drunk or stoned,” and none of the character relationships really make any sense as everything is recontextualized every fifteen minutes or so. In the hands of a master filmmaker, the ideas behind this film would have created a cult classic; I’m picturing a world in which this story was written by Mark Frost and directed by David Lynch, and that world is preferable to our own in every way imaginable.
It doesn’t help that I spotted the boom three or four times over the course of the picture, but then again, I was watching a low-quality version on YouTube, so I don’t know if this was some sort of ripped assembly cut or if the errors were present in the final version. The boom pops up so often I began to wonder if it was intentional, considering where the film ends up. I’m not sure if watching an incomplete version might help or hinder the film, as its postmodern take on linearity and plot is so crosswired with the unintentional (?) confusion of the events occurring on screen at any given time that trying to adopt a coherent viewing strategy or critical approach feels like a waste of energy.
The sensations and feelings Nightwish produces are akin to engaging in the reality-breakdown news cycle that began with the killer clown hysteria of a few years ago and that has culminated in the ritualistic occult ceremony being carried out via mass death and the unwinding of social fabrics we now witness and participate in real-time. It is, like Fulci’s The Beyond, a perfect film for our present age.
I thought the ghost snake was a fun special effect.
TB: Agreed on all points. I love your observation that the movie has really only now found its moment, because it’s kind of a cave painting version of Internet culture: it’s basically a spastic collage of lots of different ideas from the past smashed together seemingly at random in hopes of synthesizing some new meaning from the shards of yesterday’s junk, but it’s not done with any of the craft, precision, or skill familiar to earlier ages of cultural production, which might have made this into something more than an especially intense cough syrup nightmare.
That’s the experience of being online for hours and hours every day: all these things zoom past you—essay fragments; stills from old movies; decontextualized images of 20th century atrocities; eerily guileless foreign ads for fast food—too fast to hold onto any of them and force them to make some kind of rational point. All you’re left with is a vague but never-shaken sense that something very wrong is happening out there. That’s what watching Nightwish feels like. It feels like putting your brain in a washing machine stuck on the “agitate” setting.
I can’t say it’s a good movie, and I’m not even sure I enjoyed watching it, but I’m glad I watched it.
JR: Would I recommend this movie? To the average movie-watcher or horror fan: no way. To the horror hound who has seen everything and, like me, finds themselves contorting into ever-maddening spaces of subgenre and trash-cinema obscurity, maybe. You should watch this movie, maybe, if, having found yourself at the conclusion of this review intrigued and willing to put aside expectations of narrative coherence and general filmmaking competency, you are ready to waste the runtime of the film in order to catch the blurred outlines of something truly unique in the fog-choked darkness ahead. And boy howdy, there’s darkness ahead alright, darkness for all of us, and perhaps, against all reason and left-brain inclination, you might find a few crumbs of joyful reprieve amidst—and because of—the overwhelming spastic madness of Nightwish.
Tom Breen is is the author of Orford Parish Murder Houses: A Visitor’s Guide, along with numerous short stories and two books about contemporary American Christianity. He is one of two people responsible for the erratic output of Orford Parish Books and lives in Connecticut. He fires off tired hot takes on Twitter on a disappointingly regular basis: @TJBreen.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including the forthcoming The Crypt of Blood, Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.