Directed by: Patrick Rea
Screenplay by: Patrick Rea and Kendall Sinn
While most horror fans pay lip service to the simpler times “man in a suit” movie monster horror, there’s no denying that simple storytelling and effects find themselves waylaid by digital FX driven films with bloated plots and paper thin characters. Lucky for horror fans there’s still films like Nailbiter that know how to create an old school monster movie with lots of charm and wit without skimping on the terror.As a fan of Patrick Rea's short films, it had long been on my personal "most anticipated" list. Thankfully, the film exceeded my lofty expectations heading in to it.
The film wastes little time getting into the meat of the story. En route to picking their father up at the airport, a mother and her three daughters find themselves trapped in a tornado. They make a run for an isolated home and break into the cellar storm shelter moments before an uprooted tree pins the doors closed. While they wait out the howling winds and pounding rain, it becomes evident that something else is downstairs with them, and that something is hungry. It also becomes clear that others know the women are trapped downstairs, and they don’t feel compelled to do much about it. At points the film reminds one of The Howling but the conscious decision to leave the monsters lurking just off screen give the film a definite Alien vibe as well.
Shot on the RED camera, Nailbiter looks gorgeous. The bulk of the film takes place in the cramped confines of the storm cellar, yet the stellar cinematography bring out every detail within the space. Rea The limited lighting cast the basement in shadows and give the impression that something dangerous could be lurking just out of view without sacrificing any detail on the screen. Too many lesser indie productions suffer from a murky quality that distracts from the viewing experience. Here the lighting effects are used to perfection, whether it’s shafts of daylight bursting through a broken windowpane or a kerosene lamp providing hazy visibility within dusty confines.
Rea uses the impending storm to build tension prior to any hint of monsters. The weather reports are a constant presence early on, staring as droning background noise while folks go about their day. Soon the signs are too obvious ignore background players preparation for the coming storm set up a real sense of impending doom. Julian Bickford’s score incorporates sounds similar to a siren wail adding to the tension.
Rea sticks to practical design for the film’s creatures, and adheres to the “less is more” philosophy. One character’s reaction to the creature tells you everything you need to know before its big reveal as the camera pulls in for a tight shot on her sweat drenched and panic stricken expression. For much of the film Rea provides quick glimpses of the monster, giving us a few frames of a claw or a jaw line. The sound designers deserve a tip of the cap as well, as they provide gnarly sounds of snarling and gnawing that pique the viewer’s curiosity as to what’s chained up behind closed door.
The pitfall many simple stories fall into is one of predictability. In your typical horror film a seasoned viewer can predict with near certainty which characters will live and how the events will turn out. This time around Rea plays with the scenario, making a marked shift in the initial playful tone at the midway point to much darker fare. An event occurs signaling that we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore (sorry, couldn’t resist) and things are going to get far nastier than anticipated. While much of the violence occurs off screen and rely on the superb sound design to get its point across, the film toys with the tried and true tropes as to what characters are “untouchable”. Rea’s ghoulish wit is also in full effect, punctuated by a moment where one character asks another if they hear something while just off frame one of the sisters is being made into a nice meaty snack. Even when you think you have a grasp on how the events will turn out, the film makes another hard turn in the last ten minutes, entering unexpected territory and keeping the audience on its toes.
Two hallmarks of Rea’s short films has been their ability to craft characters easy to relate to and to create villains out of even the most unassuming persons. Kudos goes out to Kendall Sinn for crafting a script with believable family dynamics. Unlike the majority of films that require its audience to take at face value would even hold a door open for one another let alone spend time together by choice, Nailbiter depicts strong family ties. As the situation in the basement grows more desperate, sibling rivalries give way to sisterhood and gives the impression this is a tighter knit clan that we’d initially been led to believe. Newcomer Meg Saricks stands out as Jennifer. Her arc is the most interesting as she evolves from sulky teen to the taking charge and keeping the family together under duress. Her change in demeanor and her delivery resemble Sarah Michelle Gellar in the early (re: good) seasons of Buffy.
As he’s done in his short films, Rea continues to explore the idea that the kindly next door neighbor can harbor some dark secrets. Here the nice little old lady that bakes cookies to calm her nerves during a storm also harbors a brood of flesh eating ghouls AND in a nice little touch makes a mean jug of bootleg hooch.