Dissecting Nailbiter (2012, Dir. Patrick Rea)

WARNING: If you don’t like spoilers, do not read any further. This review is gonna be full of them. Sorry, but that’s just how I roll.

I first heard about Patrick Rea’s NAILBITER almost a year ago through a post on a horror website. The trailer looked good, and best of all, I soon learned NAILBITER was a monster movie after stumbling across a photo of one of the creatures on the web. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Cut to: one week ago. I came across a review of the movie on Horror Yearbook. I wanted to see NAILBITER badly, so I contacted the reviewer, Kelsey Zukowski, and she told me she got a screener from Patrick Rea, the director himself. I contacted him and got lucky; he was willing to send me a screener.

NAILBITER is about a mother, Janet Maguire, played by Erin McGrane, who is a recovering alcoholic. A fairly recent one from what is insinuated in a very early scene of her at an AAA meeting. It’s quite obvious sober life isn’t what she thought it was going to be and things seem to be getting tougher for her day by day. It doesn’t help any that she has three daughters at various ages needing care, but by her interaction with the eldest, Jennifer, played by Meg Saricks, you get the gist that her alcoholism has clearly gotten in the way and stunted their mother/daughter relationship. It’s not hollering and bickering, but sarcasm from Jennifer.

The following scenes in the car with the other two daughters, Sally and Alice, show the further damage the bottle has done: Alice, played by Emily Boresow, doesn’t talk much, and it’s like pulling teeth when Janet asks her what she’s reading. The other daughter, Sally, played by Sally Spurgeon, suddenly speaks up and asks if she can change her name. The interactions in all these character set-up scenes are excellent, very well acted, and very believable.

This is one of those movies where none of the tragic events that follow would have happened if one of the characters hadn’t done something stupid to set it into motion. That character is the mother. Her husband is in the military and is on his way home from overseas; she has plans to meet him with their daughters at the airport in Kansas. But all these plans get monkey wrenched when a tornado decides to touch down. Decision time, Janet could simply not go, thus protecting their lives, or she could play lets-see-if-I-can-beat-the-tornado. Janet does the latter. Admirable decision, but simply the wrong one to make.

It had me wondering, if she was not in recovery, or had not been an alcoholic to begin with, would that fateful decision still have been made? I like movies that get me thinking along these what-if lines.

As expected, the tornado wins, and to the extent that it forces her to ditch the car on the side of the road, grab her daughters, and flee to the nearest house for shelter. They bang on the door, no one answers. Desperation drives them around the side of the house looking for the above ground cellar doors. They’re padlocked; they bash their way in and just in time as the storm rolls on by.

At this point in the movie, NAILBITER becomes just that. The storm has succeeded in knocking down a tree right across the cellar doors trapping them in, or so you would think. Janet grabs a broom and bangs on the ceiling hoping to let the residents know they have some people stuck in their cellar, but the response they get back is not a comforting one. Someone simply bangs angrily back; an act that implies what we are about to see in the rest of the movie may not be just a simple tale of 4 people trapped in a confined local with a monster.

I have to admit that the vibe given by the trailer was of a Lovecraftian tone. But that vibe was very minimal. It wasn’t until the scene where Janet decides to send one of her smaller daughters, Sally, up through the window that the movie gained a very specific Lovecraftian feel. As the girl tries to wiggle out, some “thing” rushes up and bites her savagely on the arm. Janet pulls her back in and we get our first glimpse of the “thing” and the odd bite mark it left on Sally. It’s only an arm glimpsed for a second through the window. Humanoid, clearly, but obviously from the sounds it made and the act it performed on Sally’s arm, it can’t be all that human.
Right?
Maybe.

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THAT OLD LOVECRAFTIAN FEELING

This is the point where I started to recall H.P. Lovecraft’s tale, THE LURKING FEAR. It’s about a family that has over centuries devolved into rat-like abominations that can tunnel through the earth and cause bloody mayhem for all that cross their path. Right after the attack, someone from outside starts nailing the cellar doors shut and boarding up the windows. Clearly Janet and her girls are not meant to escape. From here on the movie does an expert job at turning the screws, and making you bite your nails in dread of what other horrors might await this poor family. And the movie doesn’t stay with them for the entire running time; it cuts away to a couple of key moments to let you in on what, or who, is responsible for wanting this family to stay right where they are. They’re nice scenes where the clues are not literally spelled out for you in the casual dialogue.

The scene I refer to occurs between Barney, the deputy played by Ben Jeffrey, and the old lady, Miss Shurman, played by Joicie Appell. They are the owners of the house the family ran to. Janet and the girls met Barney earlier at a restaurant where they stopped to use the bathrooms. He regrettably runs across their ditched car later on and traces their route to Miss Shurman’s house. She has no clue as to what Barney is talking about, but when he leaves, the Sheriff, played by Mark Ridgeway, and she converse. From that particular conversation you can infer several insidious things: The old lady knows what’s happening and so does the Sheriff, that they both know who (or what) is running around outside, and that the tornadoes are fueling some kind of metamorphosis in the residents of the house.

Oh, and that one of the creatures has been locked up in the cellar. Did I forget to mention that? Yeah, that’s right. You heard me. There’s one of those Lovecraftian freaks down there, with the girls! I have spoken with the director and despite him revealing to me that he is indeed a fan of the author, he assures me Lovecraft was not on his mind when he created NAILBITER. It may not have been consciously on his mind, but from what I have seen, especially when the movie is focusing on the family in that creepy cellar, I propose the influence of the famed author’s works was subconsciously pulling at least some of the strings.

While Alice is caring for Sally, Janet and Jennifer start scouring the cellar for a way out. This part of the movie had me thinking of Dan O’Bannon’s 1992 movie, THE RESURRECTED, an adaptation of Lovecraft’s THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD. While searching through the shelves of the cellar, Janet finds a hidden latch that opens up the shelving unit, revealing a hidden passageway. By no means is the passageway she finds lead to any anything as elaborate or horrifically grand as what’s in THE RESURRECTED; it leads down to a single room with a moonshine distillery. In THE RESURRECTED, the characters eventually stumble upon “holding cells” in the floor where Ward’s experimental rejects are tossed. One of those biological monstrosities has gotten free and comes face to face with the hero of that movie. NAILBITER has a comparable scene that’s just as effective, but far more tragic. There’s another hidden room which Alice inadvertently discovers and in that room is one of the creatures, chained to the wall.

These cellar scenes are nicely lit to maximum creepiness, and filled with very good detail. For example, a trunk discovered by Alice filled with newspaper clippings that give more insight into the connection tornadoes seem to have with the residents of Wellsville, the town the tornado sidelined the family in. It’s another scene that also made me think about THE RESURRECTED and how the characters of that movie learned about the horrific things Ward was doing via a notebook left on a table. So, you see, Patrick Rea was doing Lovecraft without consciously knowing he was doing Lovercraft.

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DEATH BY “FREAK”

NAILBITER is not a gory movie by any means. The only real gore is a quick shot of a severed arm on the lawn. And that arm, incidentally, belongs to poor Barney, who’s the first to die. I have to say before I recount the deaths, Patrick Rea does something you don’t normally see in horror movies these days, he actually created likeable characters. Not one douchebag in the lot. The protagonists are relatable to the point that I didn’t like it when they eventually took their expected dirt naps. And the antagonists are suitably detestable to the point where you like it when they take their expected dirt naps.

Barney dies trying to pull one of the daughters out of the cellar window. Dragged off out of sight where his demise is heard and not seen. Alice is the second to push up daisies, and the one that made me go, “Oh, fuck!” You see even though I know it’s a horror movie and I know there must be death, I was still unprepared for her demise. Curiosity killed the cat, and it also killed Alice, who hears something odd and goes to investigate, getting too close to that secret room with the chained up creature. The discovery of her body by Janet and Jennifer was the real kicker. Janet loses it, and so did I, a little bit, as I could feel my eyeballs getting moist.

Janet’s up next, getting her number punched during a plan to move the moonshine distillery and a propane tank in front of the cellar doors, and igniting the whole thing with a Molotov cocktail, blowing the doors clean off their hinges. It goes exactly as planned. Problem is she’s not fast enough to get out of the way of the explosion. More credit to Rea for not making Janet the “human villain” of the piece. Being a recovering alcoholic and finding all that moonshine and wine in the cellar could have been tempting to make her relapse and become the drunk-douchebag-of-the-group-that-ends-up-getting-herself-and/or-others-killed. But he didn’t take that predictable route; instead he made her sympathetic, then eventually heroic.

Jennifer and Sally are the only ones left, but what we learn from their escape is that all of Wellesville is populated by these genetic abominations. Finding solace in the house of a young pregnant couple is just as bad as being trapped in that old woman’s cellar. Again, curiosity rears it’s ugly head and Sally just can’t help wandering into the nursery only to be set upon by two freakish children that are in the process of turning into a pair of Lovecraftian freaks.

The only “human villain” this movie really has, and a very effective and creepy one at that, is the elderly Miss Shurman. Her best scene has no dialogue at all; she just scowls at Jennifer and Sally as they race off into the night after Jennifer succeeds at killing one of her mutant sons, or was it her mutant husband? Miss Shurman is next in line to buy the farm, right after poor Sally is chewed on in the nursery, and after the townspeople surround lone Maguire family survivor, Jennifer, outside in the middle of the road. Jen’s a hell of a shot, probably learned it from her military dad, for she puts a bullet right between Shurman’s eyes.

Jennifer’s eventual fate is left hanging, for she flees to the perceived safety of a nearby pickup, intent on driving her ass at supersonic speed out of Wellesvile, but a tornado rips through the block and hurls the pickup into Timbuktu. It’s found later in a field, with no Jennifer.

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NAILBITER FX

These here are the people responsible for the opening title sequence, which I liked a lot, digital tornado, the exploding still, the bloody carnage (what little the movie has), and, most important, the monsters:

• Jackson Bolt—pyrotechnics / on set effects
• Jason Coffman—additional pyrotechnics
• Allan Holt—monster fx / creature design
• Bruce Branit—visual effects: Branit FX
• Ryan Scott Jones—titles

I know I’ve mentioned this in my other reviews, but I think it bears mentioning again. I love monster movies and the older I get the more I seem to favor the ones that have practical creatures. I don’t despise the CG ones by any means, as long as there’s enough money to create it realistically, but if that can’t be achieved, I’d prefer filmmakers go with a man-in-a-suit and/or animatronics rather than footing the bill for a substandard, unconvincing CG effect that a certain channel we all know revels in. I would also love to see stop-motion animation make a comeback, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.

With all that said, I’m happy to say that Patrick Rea decided to go the practical FX route, and Allan Holt has expertly created the creatures of NAILBITER. Never heard of him, but after checking out his resume on his website (http://allanholt.com/), I learned he has contributed FX on some noteworthy flicks, THE BURROWERS, PANDORUM, FRANKENFISH, and PREDATORS just to name a few.

So, what do the creatures of NAILBITER look like? That’s a hard question to answer, because I’ve never seen anything like them in any other movie before. Obviously from what I previously stated, they’re humanoid and about the size of an average person. Like all good Lovecraftian monstrosities, they have that unspeakable something extra in their DNA that prevents me from being able to describe them beyond that. You never get that full-body shot of them either; all the movie shows you are arms and faces and heads, but shown in ways that will leave you satisfied.

FINAL THOUGHTS

 For those of you who are Lovecraft fans and are impatiently waiting the release of Survivor Films,’ ARKHAM SANITORIUM, I urge you to go see this movie. It will alleviate some of that impatience. For those who are not fans of that author, I urge you to go see it simply because it’s a smart, creepy, monster movie that does not disappoint.

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