Bigfoot Saturdays: ‘Night of the Demon’ is Glorious Schlock Incarnate

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[Continued from Part 3]

Take four, the final take of why I wanted to write about Bigfoot: Bigfoot is fun.

I like dissecting movies. That is, after all, why I spend countless hours pounding out essays and reviews during my free time. I enjoy it so much that on my days off from work, instead of just watching more movies and relaxing, I take time out to essentially do more work (enjoyable work, fun work, rewarding work, but work nonetheless). Thinking about Bigfoot films- one of the strange little movie niches that I enjoy incredibly despite often minimal returns- is enjoyable, it’s complex, and it can provide insight into why images resonate the way they do, and why they stick with me beyond a film’s runtime, but it doesn’t explain why I started watching all these movies in the first place. At the heart of it, I like Bigfoot because he’s fun. All the other things I’ve said are true- he’s unknowable, he’s malleable, and he’s an interesting metaphor for the environment- but those mean little if the entertainment isn’t there. That’s the hook. That’s the title that gets them in the door, so to speak.

Sometimes in critical analysis, fun gets discarded too quickly because it’s simply so hard to quantify (and because of its lower class and uneducated connotations, but we’ll sidestep that for today). What’s fun for me may be miles away from what’s fun for you. It’s the same reason comedy is perhaps the hardest form to analyze and critique, and one of the most useless things to read reviews for, because it’s so intensely subjective and personal. I could tell you all about the craft and techniques in Clue, a movie I adore, but if rapid-fire wordplay and formal allusions to small cast, one location mystery stories don’t do it for you, I’m not telling you much at all. There’s craft and skill going on, certainly, but it’s harder to put your finger on outside of unhelpful references to comedic timing and good writing. Trying to explain the fun of Charlie’s Angels to, say, someone who finds its knowing cheesiness cloying and grating is a Sisyphean task. Describing fun is essentially self-indulgent, and exercise in commodore between you and like-minded film fans. So, such discussions are (understandably) discarded in most serious criticism or left to a few sentences bookending a review.

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It follows then that telling you 1980’s Night of the Demon (note the singular demon; we are not talking about the also great film Night of the Demons here, nor its remake) is the most fun Bigfoot movie out there isn’t much help. Even if I tell you that Bigfoot rips a man’s stomach open and swings his guts around like a flail. Even if I tell you that it has one of the strangest and most unnecessary framing devices in horror film history. Even if I tell you that there’s a scene, backed by the incredible cheesy synth score that someone must’ve made over a weekend on their brand new Moog they didn’t know how to program yet, where a biker gets his ding-dong ripped off by Bigfoot. If that doesn’t sound like a hootin and hollerin good time, then Night of the Demon simply isn’t for you, and that’s certainly alright. I’m not here to judge your wet-toweled churlishness. However, if it sounds like the best thing since sliced bread (which it is), then consider this your hearty recommendation. Run, don’t walk, to this forgotten schlock masterpiece.

Before I go any further, I have to point out that Night of the Demon, unsurprisingly, fits in all of the previously outlined Bigfoot themes and aspects. Yet another scientific expedition heads into the wilderness to investigate claims of Bigfoot, the creature claiming their lives in the process (as Bigfoot is wont to do in these sorts of situations). Bigfoot is unknowable and unrelatable (hell, the premise could be a long lost Lovecraft story if you take out all of the women), he is malleable (fitting into both his slasher villain and mythical aberration modes), and he is an avatar of the wilderness (invaded by the scientists, praised by local cults, and violently rejecting the foolhardy that don’t respect or understand his domain). In many ways, it is an archetypal Bigfoot film; all of the pieces are here, just strung together with fishing wire and duct tape. But the reason it stands head and shoulders above almost any other Bigfoot film is that inescapable fun factor; other movies have embodied Bigfoot’s mysterious nature, his chameleon adaptability, and his ecological signifiers, but none has done so while remaining as goofy, ridiculous, and entertaining as Night of the Demon.

It starts as it means to go on: incomprehensibly and with unnecessary (but wonderful) difficulty and opacity. We open on a man in the hospital, his face covered in bandages that do not at all impact his ability to speak, talking to a detective trying to get a handle on what happened to him and his comrades in their forest expedition. He is an anthropology professor, and the other five (now deceased) were four of his students and the daughter of a man supposedly killed by the cryptid. Interested in getting to the bottom of a rash of local disappearances, they head off, fate sealed, to the dense, dark woods. From here, we get a meandering tale of their journey into the wilds, punctuated by the anthropology professor telling his students stories of other people killed by Bigfoot.

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Now, I feel like this has to be stopped on and pointed out. This story we are seeing is, ostensibly, the story that the anthropology professor is telling the detective while in the hospital. So at every one of these delightfully pointless anecdotes, I had to ask myself: is the professor telling the detective a story where he multiple times and without reason tells stories to his students?  Is the detective annoyed at this? Or is he so enveloped in the rich tale being woven in front of him that he scarcely notices the film’s fitful attempts to waste enough time to make it to feature length? Don’t get me wrong, those side stories are often the most entertaining parts of the film, as untethered from continuity or consequence Bigfoot can just run rampant over the landscape maiming and destroying the foolish people who thought that perhaps they weren’t in danger of being whirled above the head of Sasquatch in their sleeping bags like a helicopter and then violently flung into jutting tree branches. They’re excuses to show blood and boobs (two of exploitation film’s most valuable tools), and they don’t try to disguise their gratuitousness.

In addition, these external stories provide what is, in my humble opinion, one of the best moments in cinema, one I talked about earlier but that I feel bears repeating. Bigfoot rips off the dangle of a biker while the biker pees on the side of the road. The biker, in shock (naturally) from his schlong being torn right off, staggers back to his bike, trailing blood before the scene abruptly ends as ungainly as it began. It is a microcosm of the entire movie: hilarious, surprisingly graphic and exploitative, with more nudity that expected and a whole lot of bright red blood. It’s totally unnecessary and amateurish, but absolutely worthwhile; it’s meandering and strange, hiccupping in tone and pacing, but incredibly engrossing in its oddity and entertainment. I’m already a big fan of movies where woodies get torn off, and Night of the Demon is the peak of this incredibly specific and narrow horror film trope. I must have watched the scene a dozen times, but every time it fills me with such joy that I cannot wait to show someone else the entire movie.

Essentially, that scene is the entire film; it’s incompetent and juvenile, but adorably so. It’s a rickety old jalopy bouncing all the way to town, inviting the audience along for what promises to be an interesting if not slick ride. It achieves the most of any Bigfoot film because it never loses sight of how ridiculous Bigfoot is at the heart of it all. You can push that aspect as far away as you’d like, but a lack of acknowledgement of the absurdity inherent to the being is dooming a depiction to failure. Even The Lost Coast Tapes, probably the most serious minded film I’ve discussed this month, has levity and recognizes the silliness of its premise. This doesn’t have to overwhelm the horror, but it has to exist somewhere, at least on the periphery. As I hope I’ve shown, Bigfoot films can be many things, but in their core the creature is simply more innately comical and traditionally entertaining than any other horror monster. Fun is what first invited us to the movies after all, and Bigfoot pulls me back in every time, even for his poorest ventures, because he’s just so damn enjoyable.

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