I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. So, armed with a subscription to Vinegar Syndrome’s Exploitation TV, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education.
The following trailer is NSFW:
NIGHTMARE WEEKEND was released in 1986 (by no less a quality distributor than Troma), but if the clothing, music, and general look of the film are anything to go by, it was probably produced around 1982 or 1983. But the lag time between production and distribution did not hurt the film. It would have been a turkey no matter when it was released. That said, I had a hell of a fun time with it. Read on if nonsensical horror/sci-fi flicks that throw in the kitchen sink are your speed.
For a film that features at least forty minutes of filler in the form of softcore sex scenes, random shots of a guy dancing at a dive bar by himself while listening to his Walkman, and insert shots of characters staring moodily at nothing in particular while contemplating their life decisions, there is a ton of plot.
Edward (Wellington Meffert) is a brilliant scientist who looks like a soap opera villain. His latest invention is a computer system (named “Apache” for some reason that is never explained—like many of the plot points in this movie) that somehow takes random objects, turns them into small metal spheres, and then forces those spheres down the throat of a subject to cure them of mental illness. Seriously. But when the film begins, Edward has only used Apache on feral animals to turn them into docile pets. Despite the push from his assistant Julie (Debbie Laster) to use Apache on human subjects, Edward is not ready to move forward with that testing until he sees how the animals react to the treatment over several months’ time.
But Julie has ulterior motives. She wants to test Apache on human subjects to prove it will work to change personalities before she steals Edward’s work and sell it to a shady businessman who pops up for a couple of scenes, talking vague nonsense into a phone. With this plan in mind, Julie sets up three college students in a luxury house for a weekend with the intention of using Apache on them. When she does, the process turns them into mutated freaks who drool green slime and try to kill anyone they come across.
But the mutations don’t happen until the third act. Despite setting up the existence of Apache, Julie’s duplicitous plan, and the three college students in the first fifteen minutes of the film, NIGHTMARE WEEKEND spends most of the next hour focusing on the romantic and sexual entanglements of side characters who have almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie.
Those peripheral characters include Jessica (Debra Hunter), Edward’s virginal college-aged daughter, who falls in love at first sight with Ken (Dale Midkiff, in one of his first roles), Julie’s conflicted right-hand-man. There is Dave (a very young Robert John Burke), a biker who hangs out at the dive bar, who has his eye on Jessica. Then there is Mary-Rose (Kim Dossin), the maid working for Julie at the luxury house, who unwittingly becomes a part of the experiment. And let’s not forget George, the sentient hand puppet created by Edward to take the place of Jessica’s dead mother. George taps into Apache and uses the computer to keep Jessica safe at all costs. Yes, a sentient hand puppet.
NIGHTMARE WEEKEND was a co-production between American, British, and French producers. The director, Henri Sala (credited as H. Sala), and writer George Faget-Benard, are French. The script was reportedly written in both French and English to accommodate both the mostly American cast and the French crew. But even if the story intentions and some of the dialogue was lost in translation between the director and the actors, that still would not completely explain the stunning disconnect between the characters and the story.
Never mind that Julie seems to hate seemingly everyone in the world; she still expresses guilt at betraying Edward. Forget that Jessica knows that Ken is working with Julie to rip off her father; she loves him anyway—even though she has only known him for ten minutes. Who cares that Apache not only seems to work on Edward’s test subjects, but also randomly allows Jessica to control an actual car on the road during a video game and can be used to launch the metal spheres at a person, killing them in gruesome ways like ripping the skin from their face? What does it matter that no one bats an eye at the sentient hand puppet that Edward created as a surrogate parent/bloodthirsty bodyguard for Jessica? The filmmakers clearly do not care that these random plot elements never cohere in any way, so why should the viewer? Sadly, I cared enough to write this article.
It would be easy to say that the film’s choppy editing, slapdash story, poor acting, and flat cinematography were the result of Sala’s background as a director of hardcore and softcore adult films. But plenty of filmmakers have successfully made the transition from adult films to mainstream films, so that excuse seems like a cop-out. I think the blame has to fall on a combination of a language barrier between the cast and crew and the apparent fact that Sala and Faget-Benard have never seen actual human beings interact once in their lives.
But it is not just about the bizarre ways in which characters behave that makes NIGHTMARE WEEKEND one of the most accidentally surreal films I’ve ever seen, it is the hodgepodge nature of the plot. How does Apache work? How is it capable of manipulating objects that are seemingly outside of its circle of influence? Why does the experiment turn the test subjects into drooling, homicidal mutants? How is Jessica in college, yet behaves like a five-year-old child in most of her scenes? Why does Edward think nothing of barging into his daughter’s bedroom to have an unimportant conversation while she lounges around in lingerie? Why does the film have a James Bond-style theme song that does not fit the plot or tone? Why do any of the things in this film happen? Why do any of these characters behave in the way they do? Why did I watch this movie?
The film runs nearly ninety minutes, so there is plenty of time to answer at least a few of these questions or amp up the action and horror aspects of the film so that the viewer never has time to stop and think about the chaotic nature of the plot. Instead, Sala slows everything down for several soft-focus sex scenes that feature the actors basically posing naked near each other while never actually having sex. Even worse are the long, random shots of Ken, Jessica, Edward, and Julie staring off camera as they contemplate their strange and awful behavior.
But this long laundry list of complaints is why I was fascinated by NIGHTMARE WEEKEND. Thematically, there is nothing going on in the film to force the viewer to contemplate its deeper meanings, but the sheer “what the hell just happened and why?” quality that is present in every scene makes it impossible to turn away from the screen. If you are looking for a gore-soaked horror movie or a sex comedy where coeds run around in various states of undress, this will be a disappointing film for you (there are moments of both those genres here, but they are so clumsily handled that it will not satisfy fans of either). But if you are looking for an epically botched, high-concept thriller where the filmmakers make the wrong decision every step of the way and the plot hinges on the presence of a sentient killer hand puppet, this is your flick.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)
Tags: Dale Midkiff, Debbi Laster, Debra Hunter, Exploitation.TV, George Faget-Benard, Hand Puppet, Henri Sala, Kim Dossin, My Exploitation Education, Nightmare Weekend, Robert John Burke, Troma, Vinegar Syndrome, Wellington Meffert