Blood, gore, low production values, a little gratuitous nudity, and charm out the wazoo. That’s Nightbeast, the 1982 sci-fi/horror flick from b-movie filmmaker Don Dohler. It’s a simple film with a simple idea: an alien passing by Earth runs into a stray asteroid and crashes in rural Maryland. It’s an angry beast, and it wastes no time slaughtering the locals with its laser gun.
Trying to stop the massacre are the cops and the good citizens of Perry Hall, led by Sheriff Cinder (Tom Griffith). That’s all the plot one really needs to know. There’s very little setup to this flick, and very little character development. That’s a good thing, as Dohler didn’t round up the best talent for his opus. Besides Griffith, there’s Karin Kardian as Deputy Lisa Kent, Jamie Zemarel as local Jamie Lambert, and Don Leifert as local tough guy and murderer Drago (it’s a subplot). None of these performers, or the others listed in the credits, had much work outside of Don Dohler films, and none of them seemed like professionals. But, their lack of acting chops only adds to the appeal.
The special effects are about as low rent as one will ever see from this era of film. Stylistically and technically, the effects are about the same as what John Carpenter whipped up for Dark Star. The beast’s spaceship moves, unchanging, across a starry background and everything looks two-dimensional. When the alien shoots its laser beams, victims disintegrate into flashing lights and sparkles more reminiscent of Xanadu than anything all that threatening. Still, the beast racks up quite the body count. When it’s not using its space weaponry, it tears cast members to pieces.
There’s a lot a blood and guts in this movie. The beast rips out intestines and tears off heads, and not a bit of it looks real. Again, it adds to the charm.
I enjoyed the guerilla moviemaking spirit of this flick. If I had to guess, Dohler cajoled every friend and family member he had into being in his movie. That includes, as best I can tell, his own adolescent children, Greg and Kim. The beast got both of them early on in the film. How exciting. If I had had a shitty filmmaker dad and he wanted to put me in his film to be vaporized by a killer alien, I couldn’t have been happier. Or I would have been mortified. I’m not sure this is the type of film appearance that would have gone over well at junior high.
Then there’s the alien. There was no third act reveal for the beast, à la Alien. Dohler went all in on his alien early. Normally, I would be critical of such a decision. That which is not seen is scarier than that which is. It’s a pretty good horror filmmaking guideline. But, it’s not a rule.
The beast is a rubber mask with a bunch of teeth. It’s bespoke, but looks like something one could pick up off the rack at Walgreens during Halloween season.
It would be easy to just sit back and call Nightbeast incompetent schlock. It is schlock, and it is as cheap as anything Roger Corman was producing at the time, but it’s not incompetent. Dohler seemed to know his and the performers’ limitations. He kept the plot simple, and moved things along swiftly.
A major criticism involves the Drago subplot. It’s superfluous, and seems to have been included to pad the running time. That said, that subplot sparks off a fist fight between Jamie and Drago that is among the most hilarious I’ve ever seen in a shitty movie.
I wasn’t expecting a shitty movie this entertaining. I was expecting a true piece of garbage that would be relegated to the nether regions of the Watchability Index. After all, this is one of those obscure films that Troma Entertainment rescued from the garbage bin for its DVD lineup. It’s finding gems like this that make all the shit mining worthwhile. Despite being objectively awful, Nightbeast is very watchable. It makes it into the top fifty, displacing Leviathan at #49. Check it out.
Of final note, this was JJ Abrams’ first credit. He was only 16 at the time, but is credited as one of the film’s composers. The story of how he ended up working on this film is all over the internet, and worth a read.