“Relax your defenses against the unexpected… the unusual.”
To begin, let me tell you a story about Nightwish. It all started maybe a year ago at Analog Sunday. Someone there had a tape of a movie I had never heard of called Nightwish, and the back of the tape was more than enough to convince me that I had to see it. So much so, in fact, that I bought the tape off them, even though I didn’t have a VCR.
I ended up watching Nightwish on YouTube because even once I borrowed a VCR, it turned out that I didn’t have the cables I needed to hook it up to my TV and Nightwish had already waited long enough. Too long, in fact.
Partway through watching Nightwish that first time, I paused to take a photo and post it to Instagram because there was an ectoplasmic snake.
If you are not already sold on watching Nightwish without me needing to tell you anything more about it, then you and I are two very different people, and you may want to take everything I say from here on in with a grain of salt.
When I learned that Unearthed Films was putting out a new Blu-ray of Nightwish, I knew that I had to get this weird movie just as completely as I had needed to get it that first time, when it was just a VHS tape that I couldn’t watch.
The back-cover copy on that VHS tape made it sound like “The Lurking Fear” by way of Altered States—or maybe the other way around. And that’s a good enough short summary, if you can concoct a short summary for a movie so committed to being everything at once and so incapable of actually being any of it.
Here is a partial list of things that are in Nightwish: UFO sightings. Cannibalism. Not just one séance but several. Brian Thompson killing everything that he sees on the road and also listening to the all-bongos station on the radio while he does it. Slug women. A very mad scientist who shouts things like, “Reject your hallucinations!” Lots of crickets. Ghosts.
In essence, Nightwish is about a professor (Jack Starrett) who takes a bevy of graduate students to an abandoned old house out in the middle of the desert. The house is home to literally every paranormal thing you can possibly imagine.
It was built on top of a mine, in a place where the earth’s magnetic fields dip lower than anyplace else on the planet. Seances were held in the house, and a child died there. The drinking water in the whole valley was contaminated which caused mutations and madness. Also, there were UFO sightings galore.
Here’s another partial list of things that are in Nightwish: Alien parasites that gestate in the skin of human hosts. All the green lights in the entire damn world. Twitching dismembered body parts. A girl who is delightfully horny for almost literally everything. A theme song. Early makeup effects by Robert Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero. Sensory deprivation tanks. An ECTOPLASMIC SNAKE.
When the ectoplasmic snake shows up, it starts moving toward the girl who is horny for everything (Alisha Das). She is obviously into it, and I was like, girl, I am right there with you.
“Clearly, this site is frequented by a demonic entity with the power to produce hallucinations,” the professor tells his students, maybe only after nailing handcuffs to the support beams in the basement and strapping them all in around a chalk pentagram.
He warns them that the demon will try to trick them by getting inside their minds and preying on their darkest fears. He tells them that they will start to feel paranoia, and that it is just the demon turning them against one another. Then he becomes paranoid and stabs one of their number, having his evil Uncle Fester henchman (who comes up through a previously invisible trap door in the dirt floor of the basement) drag off the body and torture the remaining students.
The beauty (and ultimate failing) of Nightwish is that it is about everything. It is a haunted house movie that is also a mad doctor movie that is also about aliens that is also… you get the picture. It tries to have all of those cakes and eat them, too, and if its eyes are bigger than its stomach, well, those eyes are very big, indeed.
How Nightwish is going to resolve this mess is fairly obvious from the setup, in which we see the grad students participating in what essentially amount to guided nightmares where they try to visualize their worst fears and the moment of their own death.
That the film is going to end on an “it was all a dream… or was it?” note helps to explain how it can get away with throwing so many kitchen sinks at the wall (to mix all the metaphors), but only goes so far to alleviate the traffic jam caused by the attempt.
It doesn’t help that, while writer/director Bruce R. Cook is good at establishing shots that create atmosphere, he doesn’t seem to know how to use them or when, so they are simply littered everywhere throughout the film.
Nightwish is far from a good film—at one point, a character’s severed finger is on the wrong hand—but there’s a lot to love in its patchwork Frankenstein monster body.
If the ectoplasmic snake (!) isn’t enough to win your heart, then you’ll be on the movie’s side by the time everyone is handcuffed around a glowing green pentagram—and if you’re not by then, you probably never will be.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.