{WiHM Feature} David Sodergren takes a look at the outrageous career of inspirational sexploitation pioneer Doris Wishman

Doris Wishman

(23/07/1912 – 10/08/2002)

It’s Women in Horror Month, so what better time to take a quick look at the outrageous career of inspirational sexploitation pioneer Doris Wishman?

Born in 1912, Wishman is the last person you’d expect to be cranking out grindhouse nudie-cuties and violent exploitation horror films. She took up directing aged 48, after the death of her husband, almost as a lark. Her first eight films were nudist pictures, with all the frolicking and games of volleyball expected of the genre. Her most famous film from this time is arguably Nude on the Moon (1961), which introduced sci-fi elements by transplanting the nudist colony to the moon (the fucking moon!).

The space-nudists converse through telepathy, which meant Doris could forego recording dialogue and simply dub it in after, a practice she would follow on nearly every film she made after. The quicker and cheaper the better, for Doris, who bankrolled most of her own pictures in addition to writing, directing and often editing, a veritable one-woman movie industry. This was unheard of at the time, particularly in the male-dominated sexploitation industry of the 1960s. Wishman, in fact, turned down working with some of the big players of the day, such as exploitation kingpin David F Friedman, who at the time was revolutionising the horror industry with HG Lewis’s seminal Blood Feast.

Of course, exploitation is — by its very nature — a trend-dominated field, and so it was that the innocent nudist films soon fell from grace with the public, who were looking for something a bit more…edgy. Thus, the “roughie” was born.

The sort of sub-genre that could only have existed in the 60s, the roughie films were sex movies that incorporated crime and violence into the mix. While soft by today’s standards, the plots and ideas of these films would never fly today. It was, however, through the roughies that the real Doris Wishman emerged, with all her wonderful signature stylistic flourishes. Together with long-time cameraman C. Davis Smith, Wishman made several roughies that were among the very best the genre had to offer, offsetting the general sleazy vibe with crackpot plotting and a more laidback, ‘fun’ feeling than other, nastier films of a similar ilk.

Her best film from this time, the campy Bad Girls Go To Hell (1965), is a deliciously lurid melodrama, and clearly a big influence on John Waters. Wishman’s style is in full effect here — cool, vibraphone-heavy jazz music, sensationalist story, gorgeous women beautifully captured in moody, noir-esque black and white photography, and frequent cut-aways to objects (ash-trays, lamps, etc) at the most bizarre and inopportune of times.

As censorship relaxed in the early 70s, Wishman found her brand of coy, oddly naive sex films once again falling out of favour with the fickle public, always on the lookout for something harder. But Wishman knew how to adapt, and made The Amazing Transplant (1970), a ludicrous film involving a sex-maniac and a penis transplant. As the 70s progressed, Wishman — like many other exploitation and horror filmmakers — turned to pornography. She directed two films of this type, though denied ever having done so. Her cameraman reported that she would leave the set for the hardcore scenes, letting someone else direct them. Luckily, with the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the tide soon turned. Horror was in vogue, and Doris Wishman had something up her sleeve — a little film called…wait for it…

Holy shit, guys, A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER! Now that’s how you title a movie. The first true, all-out horror movie Doris Wishman directed is almost indescribably crazy, and with good reason.

You see, the film that was released in 1983 is not what was intended. The way Wishman tells it, the film was shot in 1979 as a gory slasher movie, edited, and then sent to the lab for processing (or whatever the fuck they do at labs, I don’t know). Reportedly, a recently-fired assistant vandalised the lab, destroying much of the negative for A Night to Dismember, apparently as much as 50% of the footage Wishman had shot.

It was a disaster, and most directors would have given up there and then.

But not Doris Wishman.

No, instead of forgetting about the film, Wishman — who had to provide a completed movie to pay off her investors — decided to recut it using the remaining footage and a bunch of outtakes! She rewrote the script, shot some new footage, and tried to piece it together into something approaching a releasable movie. The soundtrack had also gone, so Wishman decided to add a voiceover that runs the length of the movie, while occasionally dubbing a few lines here or there. I’m pretty sure she dubbed the female characters herself, though I can’t confirm this.

The resulting dubbing allows for some extraordinary dialogue, such as, “Susan had accidentally fallen on an axe, and was dead.” It’s insane, and thankfully the visuals are just as wild. Some scenes take place in negative for no reason, others are superimposed onto footage of the sea, and then at one point, this happens —

It’s almost Lynch-ian in its strange, otherworldly beauty, adding to the absurd, psychedelic feel. As a horror film, it’s a disaster. Nothing makes sense, the editing feels like it was done with a chainsaw, characters change names, and scenes end before they’ve even begun…

Then, in a staggering turn of events for exploitation film fans, the original version of A Night to Dismember turned up in 2018, courtesy of cameraman C. Davis Smith! It was the trash holy grail, and somehow the actual, finished film ended up being ever more bananas than the truncated edit.

Sadly, the only existing element is a VHS copy, so the quality is poor, which is a shame as the original cut turned out to be one of the loopiest slasher films ever made. Fans of such films as Pieces, Don’t Go In The Woods…Alone, and Bloody Moon would have a field day.

More gore and nudity, more location shooting, characters who actually, y’know, have dialogue — it has everything, including an introduction to the film by some ghoul lurking in a graveyard. Marvellous.

Unfortunately, the whole experience soured Doris Wishman on filmmaking, and she retired from the business…for a while!

Thanks to the efforts of Something Weird Video, Wishman’s films received a whole new lease of life on DVD. Their double-bill of Bad Girls Go to Hell and Another Day, Another Man introduced me to her work way back in the early 00s. Upon discovering she had legions of fans across the world, Wishman embarked upon a comeback, at the age of 89, and how awesome is that? She even appeared on Conan O’Brien to promote her film Dildo Heaven (2002), and the footage is out there on YouTube if you don’t believe me.

Her final film was to be Each Time I Kill (shot in 2002, but released in 2007). A teen-horror flick shot on digital video, the typically ludicrous movie reunited her with C. Davis Smith for one last hurrah.

Buoyed along by cameos from John Waters, Linnea Quigley and Fred Schneider from The B-52s, it’s a fun if inessential movie. Sadly, it would be Wishman’s last. During post-production, she succumbed to lymphoma, and the world lost a true original, a woman who managed to infiltrate the world of sexploitation filmmaking, making almost thirty films in her own inimitable style. But we shouldn’t mourn too much. After all, it was Doris herself who used to say,

When I die, I’ll make films in hell.”

Amen to that, Doris. Amen to that.

David Sodergren

David Sodergren lives in Scotland with his wife Heather and his best friend, Boris the Pug. Growing up, he was the kind of kid who collected rubber skeletons and lived for horror movies.

Not much has changed since then.

His first novel, The Forgotten Island, was published on October 1st 2018 to critical acclaim. Up next is Night Shoot, a brutal throwback to the early 80s slasher movie cycle has just recently been released.

He has several more books in various stages of development.

You can follow David on Twitter @paperbacksnpugs

To find out more about David please visit his official website www.paperbacksandpugs.wordpress.com

Find David on Instagram here

Night Shoot

A group of desperate student filmmakers break into Crawford Manor for an unauthorised night shoot. They have no choice. Their lead actress has quit. They’re out of time. They’re out of money.

They’re out of luck.

For Crawford Manor has a past that won’t stay dead, and the crew are about to come face-to-face with the hideous secret that stalks the halls.

Will anyone survive…the NIGHT SHOOT?

A delirious homage to the slasher movies of the 1980s, Night Shoot delivers page after page of white-knuckle terror.

You can buy Night Shoot from Amazon UK & Amazon US

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