Wednesday 17 April 2013

Nailbiter (2013)

Director: Patrick Rea
Stars: Erin McGrane, Meg Saricks, Emily Boresow and Sally Spurgeon
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Unfortunately I got to see Nailbiter while the theatre was experiencing technical problems with a projector, thus causing problems with the colour balance. Even so, it was clear that prolific short film director Patrick Rea had done something just a little different with a very familiar story. The question of the day is whether he did enough, because the familiar is commonplace throughout, and I feel that he did enough to make this a good film but not a great one. There are two tweaks to the usual, one with regards to the monsters of the piece who are given an original origin and another with regards to the stars, all four of which are female. Rea co-wrote with Kendal Sinn, so there's no overt female influence in the production, but the tone is completely different from the expected comparisons, which are either testosterone fuelled or mixed in outlook because they're mixed in actors. Here, it's all about women and their reactions are refreshingly different.

The one nominally in charge is Janet Maguire, a recovering alcoholic whose husband is deployed overseas in the forces. That leaves her to juggle AA meetings with bringing up three daughters who are all clearly rebelling against her in their own way. Most overtly, there's Jennifer, who's a textbook bad girl who's stringing along some dorky young guy because he has a car and is more than happy to be at her beck and call. We meet them as he drops her off at home, but she keeps him there while she finishes her cigarette. Next youngest is Sally, who wants to change her name to Sarah. That leaves Alice, who retreats into the world of books and stays very quiet indeed. Jen may be wearing the rebel card on her sleeve, but all three seem like nice kids who are just stuck in a bad situation and don't know how to reengage with mum now that she's sober. That reading is reenforced as the story progresses and teamwork becomes a must.

They live close to the border between Kansas and Missouri and, as the film begins, they're getting ready to drive up to Kansas City so that they can be the first people Dad sees when he gets home from deployment. The storm that will presumably erupt as he finds his family this dysfunctional is mirrored by a more literal storm whose coming kicks off the movie in impressive style. Initially the screen is entirely black, while we listen to the radio talk about approaching storms; then lightning splits the sky and our eyeballs engage. Dad's plane isn't going to wait, so the Maguires head north in conditions that are rapidly deteriorating. Interestingly, Jen has never seen a tornado in her life, even though she's the eldest and she was even born during one. They are a little east of Tornado Alley but not much, so maybe she's just been lucky. By the time they reach Wellsville, where folk are battening down the hatches and boarding up the storefronts, her luck runs out.
With a tornado following them up the road, they abandon the car and take shelter in the nearest storm cellar they can find, not knowing who it belongs to, to ride out the storm. Unfortunately for them, this is just the beginning. It's been a slow, characterful build, though not a long one, as Rea initially plays the story in thriller fashion. The first enemy is the tornado and the second a tree, which falls onto the cellar door, preventing them from being able to leave. The third is human, as they realise that there's someone upstairs, someone who not only won't respond to their cries for help, but who actively boards up the cellar from outside to ensure that they can't leave. We enjoy the very feminine reactions of Mrs Maguire and her girls, which may be a little underdone but are still refreshing in this sort of tense scenario. There's a balance of strength, as Janet faces despair and eyes their unknown host's liquor but recovers as the others band together.

Things enter horror territory just before the boarding up of windows, as Sally decides that, with a little assistance, she can climb out through one of them and find help outside. She gets bitten for her trouble, by something that clearly ain't no man. What it is we aren't exactly sure, because Rea wisely only hints at his monsters until it's time for them to come out and play, beginning with the moment that nice deputy Barney finds the Maguires' car and comes looking for them. It won't be a surprise to find that he's quickly dragged off and eaten, but what we discover right before that is enough to neatly set the scene for the rest of the movie. The good news is that this is all different enough to keep us guessing a little as to what's out there with the storms, as the Maguires slowly make discoveries that fill in the background for them and for us. The bad news is that the picture slows down here for a weak, only mildly suspenseful middle that lasts into the final act.

The film's title would like to be an appropriate one in a number of ways and it is in some, but the obvious meaning hints at the suspense of the piece and sadly that's not consistently maintained. The story builds pretty well and we care about the characters; the arrival of the tornado and the tension sparked by the falling tree are handled very capably too, but here, the suspense begins to fade and the film drags as the Maguires attempt to figure out both what's going on and how they can get out of the cellar to face it. I should emphasise that it isn't particularly bad, and there are some very nice scenes within this part of the film; it's that they can't live up to what came before and don't bode well for what we hope is still to come. The framework is familiar enough for us to build expectations rather easily and Rea delivers some of what we do expect to see, but he keeps it surprisingly low key towards the end, moving back from a horror to a thriller mindset.
All four Maguire ladies are decently played and the family is well nuanced, with each of the actors bringing something different to the table. Erin McGrane has a surprisingly short filmography, this being only her seventh feature in over two decades, but she brings a believably fragile strength to her role, as befits a mother of three who's struggling with drink. Meg Saricks, as Jennifer, is brand new to features, with only an anthology segment and a handful of shorts previously to her name, one of those being Hell Week for Patrick Rea. Her arc is from bad girl to good then back to bad in the name of survival and she lives up to it reasonably well. Sally Spurgeon and Emily Boresow as her younger sisters have even less credits to their name but are surprisingly capable nonetheless. I wanted to see more from both of them. Trumping all of them though is Joicie Appell, who steals the show as old Mrs Shurman, a much more important character than she might initially appear.

There are male characters in the film, but none of them get to do much of anything. It's as if they all took their lead from Lt Maguire, Janet's husband, who is referenced early and often but doesn't even make it on screen until the story is all wrapped up and put to bed. He's there only to provide a solid ending and the promise of a testosterone fuelled mirror image of the movie in sequel form. Any traditionally male scenes here are handled by the women, who prove that though they may be the weaker sex, that doesn't mean they can't take care of business anyway. It's this angle that impressed me, along with the mildly subversive concept that while the Maguires may be victims in a stereotypical horror way, the story clearly happening to them, they're also the protagonists of the reverse story, in which they adversely impact the Wellsville community in return. It's a shame that this wasn't taken further, because it's far more interesting than the routine story it's built on.

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