Color, 1982, 81 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by Don Dohler
Starring Tom Griffith, Jamie Zemarel, Karin Kardian, George Stover, Don Leifert, Anne Frith, Richard Dyszel
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Troma (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
Laser beam battles. Perms. Disembowelments. Bikinis. Branch-swinging dirt fights. All these things could have only one thing in common: Nightbeast, the third film from DIY Baltimore sci-fi / horror filmmaker Don Dohler. Scrappy and energetic, his low budget creature features were tailor made for TV and home video where titles like The Alien Factor and Fiend could appease young monster movie fans looking for a quick fix. Now enjoying a new lease on life thanks to its prominent use in the nouveaux cult film Mandy, this one is no exception as it manages to pulverize the viewer with plenty of laser blasts and bursts of gore every few minutes to juice up its familiar storyline.
More or less rehashing The Alien Factor with many of the same cast members, our tale begins with a spaceship being felled by a passing asteroid and crashing into a forest in the middle of the night. Emerging from the wreckage is a shadowy beast on two legs, and as soon as it encounters a pair of yokel hunters, it blasts them into sparkly oblivion with its ray gun. The interstellar assault continues as it works its way through the nearby populace and proves impervious to gunfire, with fluffy-haired Sheriff Jack Cinder (Griffith) attempting to clear the town before the casualties get out of control. In the process he teams up with resourceful local Jamie (Zemarel) and has to contend with the obstinate mayor (Dyszel), a murderous jackass named Drago (Dohler MVP Leifert), the erotic wiles of Deputy Lisa (Kardian), and mutilated bodies that seem to keep popping up everywhere. Can the survivors come up with a way to take out the Nightbeast before the entire town gets wiped out?
Wildly entertaining with very little down time for things like plot and character development, Nightbeast is also notable for the teenager credited as one of the people involved in its music score and sound effects, Jeffrey Abrams. Yep, it's none other than J.J. Abrams, still years away from his revival work on a couple of recognizable Hollywood franchises. The technical work here is shockingly good for a film made for chump change with lots of ambitious animation effects and rubbery creature and gore concoctions, the kind of sincere and impressive handcrafted work that seems even more precious today. The actors are all fine given that they're essentially playing types we've seen hanging around since the original The Blob and its ilk, and they manage to run around, scream, and deliver science jargon with enough conviction to keep the whole thing moving along at a speedy clip. It's a shame Dohler's output slowed down considerably after this (his only other '80s film was 1985's The Galaxy Invader); though he's no longer with us, his sparse output is enough to ensure that his legacy will continue to live on among anyone with a soft spot for regional genre insanity.
Initially released on VHS by Paragon, Nightbeast made its DVD bow in 2004 from Troma (who snagged the rights in the early '90s) in a fairly stacked edition featuring an audio commentary with Dohler and actor George Stover, a reel of outtakes and bloopers, and the usual Lloyd Kaufman filler material. In 2019, the film made its Blu-ray bow from Vinegar Syndrome as a dual-format release timed for the annual Halfway to Black Friday sale including a limited slipcover edition. The new 2K scan from the 16mm camera original looks fantastic and easily surpasses its video forebears in every way; blacks in particular are a lot richer and deeper here, while the frequent bursts of red blood and laser blasts look especially impressive. However, the drastic increase in resolution might not be such a welcome thing during the big sex scene, so brace yourself. The DTS-HD MA English mono track is also in much better shape with the droning electronic score sounding less sludgy than before here; optional English SDH subtitles are also included. The commentary (which is fine and sometimes really informative but ultimately a little flat) is ported over here along with the outtakes and bloopers (6m40s). "Night Beast Returns" (25m9s) edits together archival cast and crew interviews (with Dohler, Stover, Leifert, Abrams, Dohler's son Greg, and Kim Pfeiffer) about the origins of the film, the disastrous original attempt to make the film without Dohler directing, and the scaled-down result that ended up going in front of the cameras with a "student film" sensibility. Originally shot for the Dohler doc Blood, Boobs & Beast by John Kinhart, it's a great thumbnail account of the film's evolutionary process. Then "An Electric Performance" (15m44s) features one-shot actor Zemarel recalling how he ended up being cast through Leifert and had no idea he would be one of the leads until he was handed the script. He also explains how his theater training had to be modulated in front of the camera and how his motorcycle suit ended up being integrated in an unorthodox way for the shoot. "Crashing the Set" (14m31s) with visual effects artist John Ellis covers the basics of the trickery involved in bringing the film's space effects to life (including the judicious use of pennies) and also touches on the on and off relationship he had with the director, which seemed to hit a snag on every film. Extra points for the funny integration of the label's name, too. Finally in "Shooting the Nightbeast" (19m4s), cinematographer (and brief actor) Richard Geiwitz explains how he became captivated with the many aspects of cinematography via Super 8 films and got his shot at feature films through Dohler and his Cinemagic magazine. In particular he explains how his work on Fiend paved the way for his approach to this film with a more dynamic mixture of settings and camera movement. The (absolutely amazing) theatrical trailer is also included along with a great behind-the-scenes visual effects gallery (4m16s).
Reviewed on May 24, 2019