Monday, June 27, 2016

Retro Review: NIGHTFALL (1988)

(US - 1988)

Written and directed by Paul Mayersberg. Cast: David Birney, Sarah Douglas, Alexis Kanner, Andra Millian, Starr Andreeff, Charles Hayward, Jonathan Emerson, Susie Lindeman, Russell Wiggins, Larry Hankin. (PG-13, 83 mins)

As an acclaimed screenwriter working in conjunction with an experienced, visionary director, Paul Mayersberg has been a key figure in at least two legitimate classics and several other fascinating works. A frequent collaborator with Nicolas Roeg, Mayersberg scripted the director's 1976 masterpiece THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH as well as his eccentric 1983 curio EUREKA. He also worked with Roeg in 1979 in the early stages of an abandoned adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel High Rise, which ended up getting made decades later by Ben Wheatley in 2016. He also co-wrote the 1983 WWII drama MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE with director Nagisa Oshima, and enjoyed a short-lived renaissance when he wrote GET CARTER director Mike Hodges' 2000 comeback CROUPIER, which became a word-of-mouth hit on the arthouse circuit and made a star of Clive Owen. But in the three instances he's been left to his own devices to direct his scripts himself, without a Roeg, an Oshima, or a Hodges at the helm, Mayersberg simply implodes. He made his directing debut with 1986's obscure, Patty Hearst-inspired straight-to-video UK kidnapping thriller CAPTIVE, which starred Oliver Reed but is only remembered today because its score was composed by U2 guitarist The Edge, with vocals by a then-unknown Sinead O'Connor (the soundtrack was released as an Edge solo album). In 1988, Mayersberg wrote and directed NIGHTFALL, a bizarre adaptation of a highly-regarded 1941 Isaac Asimov short story, for Roger Corman's late '80s company Concorde.

Born in 1941, the British Mayersberg had a history with Corman: Roeg was the cinematographer on Corman's 1964 classic THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, on which Mayersberg served as a production assistant. It's possible Mayersberg just needed the work, but it's hard to believe the guy who wrote THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE was responsible for the mess that is NIGHTFALL, which has just been released in a limited edition Blu-ray sold exclusively on Code Red's web site. It's not particularly faithful to Asimov's story, which involved a planet existing in eternal daylight thanks to it being surrounded by six suns, but that got whittled down to just three suns by the time Mayersberg got the green light. In one of those vague settings that may be the future or the past, guru-like astronomer Aton (David Birney, sporting what looks like a discarded Ritchie Blackmore wig) is the science-minded leader of the populace of a planet that's never experienced the darkness of night but is about to thanks to an event that, until then, has only occurred every 2500 years. His followers are looking for guidance into this heretofore unknown phenomenon, but a distracted Aton has been bewitched by the alluring Ana (Andra Millian) and is blowing off his work for some constant afternoon delight. This opens the door for an insurrection led by blind prophet and fearmongering doomsayer Sor (Alexis Kanner), who claims "The Book of Illuminations" has foretold that Nightfall means the end of the world. Sor has brainwashed his acolytes and also seduced Aton's estranged wife Roa (Sarah Douglas), eventually strapping her in some bizarre contraption where birds peck out her eyes in a rather blatant bit of "blind leading the blind" symbolism.

There's some prescient themes of science vs. religion in NIGHTFALL, culminating in Aton admonishing the zealot-like Sor (a terrifically hammy performance by Canadian stage vet Kanner) with "You took our doubts and turned them into fears." Unfortunately, Mayersberg lets the plot get bogged down with endless new age babbling and tiresome subplots involving the bedhopping extracurricular activities of Aton and Ana, Sor and Roa, and later, Ana leaving Aton and having a clandestine affair with Kin (Charles Hayward), who happens to be married to Aton and Roa's daughter Bet (Starr Andreef). For a PG-13-rated film, there's a surprising amount of skin and sex, with Millian's Ana frequently naked and with one scene showing a post-coital Kin being bitten by a snake, with Ana sucking the venom out of his upper inside thigh with Millian's face practically buried in Hayward's copious pubes. Mayersberg takes great advantage of a terrific location with the commune-like Arcosanti, an experimental "arcology" community set up in Arizona in 1970 by architect and ecology enthusiast Paolo Soleri (some Arcosanti residents and University of Arizona students served as extras). That and some surrounding desert areas shot by debuting cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who would go on top be a top figure in his field with films like THE CROW, DARK CITY, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series, and numerous Ridley Scott titles like PROMETHEUS, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, and THE MARTIAN, give NIGHTFALL a vivid and distinctive look despite its pitifully low-budget.

While it doesn't work for a variety of reasons--paltry budget, comatose pacing, Birney's dull performance (did he only take this gig because he got to roll around in some sex scenes with Millian?)--there's a strangeness to NIGHTFALL that makes it too odd and too ambitious to just simply dismiss as schlock, even though it's generally considered one of the worst films to come off the Corman assembly line. It's filled with sequences and images throughout that just need more of an auteur touch than Mayersberg--a significantly better writer than he is a director--is capable of providing. There's an eccentric and surreal vibe to NIGHTFALL that's crying out for the masterful guidance and artistic vision of an Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Ridley Scott, a Nicolas Roeg or even the late Andrei Tarkovsky. Indeed, this is as close to an abstract, avant-garde art film that a Corman production would ever get during the Concorde era. Alas, there's too many things working against Mayersberg--time, money, Paul Mayersberg--to make it a success. He's obviously trying hard, but it's tough to figure out if he's making a serious Asimov adaptation or providing the inspiration for a terrible David Arkenstone concept album. By the end, it basically looks like Corman just commissioned a cheap knockoff of DUNE. Now 75, Mayersberg has laid low in the years since CROUPIER. He only directed one more film after NIGHTFALL--the South Africa-shot adventure THE LAST SAMURAI (not to be confused with the Tom Cruise epic), with Lance Henriksen and John Saxon, released straight-to-video in 1995 after six years on the shelf--and co-wrote a 2000 straight-to-video thriller titled THE INTRUDER, with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Nastassja Kinski. Apparently still owning the movie rights to Asimov's story, Corman produced a straight-to-video remake of NIGHTFALL in 2000, directed by Gwyneth Gibby and starring David Carradine.

NIGHTFALL opening in Toledo, OH on 5/27/1988. 

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