I was all excited about getting up to Dallas for Texas Frightmare Weekend last year (2012) partly for the convention itself but also for film screenings. One in particular, Nailbiter, caught my attention and I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately one thing led to another and the trip was a no-go. I noted soon after that it was included in a day of horror festival down in San Antonio…but the fates conspired against me and it didn’t happen either. When I heard earlier this year that it’d be out end of May on DVD etc, I marked the damned thing on my calendar determined to finally, finally see it. I’m nothing if not persistent.
Not taking all of that ridiculousness into consideration, the film turned out to be a fun, interesting film about natural threats you expect and natural threats you don’t. ((An aside – in order to talk about the film as a whole, I have to divulge a little bit of what would be considered a surprise and/or a twist. I don’t like doing this, but, I wouldn’t be able to address it properly without it included)).
Working within the confines of a small budget, director Patrick Rea delivers a thriller in the classic sense of the word and makes the most of the fear of the unseen versus the constant bombastic overuse of effects for effects sake. That is not to say the film could’ve been better served with more full-throated creature effects at times and maybe more implied threats from the storm than actually seeing it at others but by and large the balancing act is pulled off well. Many of you might know Rea as a prolific short film director having produced a number of well crafted shorts that can be seen via Vimeo. He takes that same eye for spacial confines and tension building from his shorts and applies it to a much larger scale here.
The story follows a mom and her three daughters getting prepared to travel to pick up the girls’ father returning home from military service. We’re introduced to each of the women in a pretty straightforward way and have the stage set for the long drive to the airport with the spectre’ of a tornado bearing down on the area. All four actresses do well in their roles, but it is Erin McGrane’s struggling mom Janet and Meg Saricks’ turn as the spitfire oldest daughter Jennifer that stand out. There are a couple not-so-subtle parallels between mother and daughter (regarding closed-off attitudes, possible substance abuse etc) that give them more weight.
Not long after the four venture out on the trek are they sidelined by the aforementioned storm and must seek shelter very quickly and do, barely, in a cellar beneath a lovely country home off a dusty side road. Once the storm subsides they discover they are trapped (via a fallen tree on the exit door, it seems) and are forced to look at other avenues to exit as well as get a feel for their surroundings. An attempt to hoist the youngest daughter through a ground level window results in a sudden and bizarre attack from an unseen creature that leaves her with a nasty would on her arm and a whole new set of problems to worry about.
It is at this point that the film takes a strong turn toward the slow reveal in the form of bits of information sprinkled here and there and a tense and well handled knock-and-response to something walking on the floor above them. A wonderfully unsettling scene involving a visit by a new town deputy to the seemingly kindly old woman homeowner spirals down badly and opens the women stuck in the cellar up to the reality of the seriously bad and worsening situation they find themselves in. Interspersed in this, Jennifer attempts to reach out to both her father and a male friend from school via her phone with no luck. As things worsen, she tries and fails multiple times to get a message out. I liked this because unlike many situations where phones don’t work, this one actually makes sense.
It is at this stage in the story that we’ve been given information as to the possible nature of the owners of the home and the real danger the women are in but not the extent. I won’t say more than that but it reminded me a little bit of Storage 24 or The Cottage in the micro/macro way a problem can spiral outward without the protagonists knowing it. The final act of the film brings things to a head and then some. We think the bloodletting is over and there might finally be some relief but in a series of bold and excellent choices in the story, things get bigger and more serious and more lethal. I absolutely commend Rea for bringing this level of seriousness to the story and not taking the easy way out. His creatures (and their story) are not played for fun/games/cleverness and are instead a very tangible and scary threat not unlike the wolf/bear things from Attack The Block or the demons from Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (before they start talking on-camera).
I will say that I would’ve liked to have seen more of the creature in full movement (a la The Burrowers), more close-in on the actors during the storm and less seeing the tornado/storm itself (a la Burning Bright) and a more subdued score at times but those are minor gripes. The larger gripe I had went away in the film’s final moments and the full weight of everything comes crashing to a stark end. I won’t say what that gripe is, but, once the credits roll you should have one larger question addressed in a pretty compelling way.
On the whole, Nailbiter is a satisfying and enjoyable thriller/horror that makes the most of what it has and builds an interesting mythology around a simple, scary idea that plays against expectations in a fresh way. I definitely want to see more from Rea and SenoReality Pictures.