Ever have one of those days where the universe just relentlessly takes one big steaming dump on you after another? From our character’s perspective, that’s Nailbiter in a nutshell.
Sure, all horror movies deliver characters in terrifying and evil scenarios, but Patrick Rea, director of 25 some odd shorts, and writer Kendal Sinn really just kick their spotlighted family every chance they’re down, starting simply with showing an alcoholic mother questioning the sobriety she’s been working towards for gosh knows how long. Such an insignificant detail once the tornadoes and horror kick in, but we watch as the low-blows keep snowballing into one gigantic rolling ball of despair.
In Nailbiter, Rea has crafted a tense and curiously inviting thriller in which the Maguire family are forced to take shelter in the basement of the nearest house when a tornado touches down in hot pursuit of their speeding car. Once in the basement, a tree falls on the door, forcing mother Janet (Erin McGrane) and her three girls to struggle for a way out. But just when hope seems lost, the tree is lifted off the door, and salvation seems within reach! Until someone boards all the windows, doors, and any other areas the family could possibly escape from. And then they hear a rustling in the basement. And then we meet the creepy old lady with a secret who actually lives in the house. And then our creature feature dimension kicks in. Tornadoes, monsters, and nail-biting, oh my!
Ok, before I seriously discuss Rea’s film, I have to address the one GLARING problem I had – Nailbiter‘s soundtrack. Julien Bickford’s original score was some cartoony mixture between terrible made for TV cavorting and bad 50’s style slapstick quirkiness. I can’t express how awful, atrocious, and seriously laughable it made situations, completely disconnected with the horror genre. Rea would set up these crucial moments with dimly lit basement lighting, moving scenery, scary growls, but then in would chime a kooky xylophone playing a completely up-beat and nonsensical tune, completely oblivious to the terrifying scenario TRYING to be established. Bickford’s orchestral sounds would be equal to me cuing Slayer’s Raining Blood just as Gerard Butler leaned in for the movie ending kiss in his latest shitty bargain bin romantic comedy where he regrets letting “the one” go and he travels back in time to win her love back from his douchey present self – give me a break, I don’t know where they come up with this shit, but wow that was a little tangent I didn’t see myself going on, back to horror. Oh yeah, WHY DID THE SCORE TRY SO HARD TO SUCK THE HORROR OUT OF EVERY MOMENT?! Bickford’s work if standing alone isn’t bad, but for Rea’s film it represents an atmosphere-slurping black hole of confusion.
So getting that out of my system, Nailbiter chooses to meld a few different types of horror films in one package, something horror fans can appreciate given how many films follow rigid, stereotypical sub-genre rules which wrongfully contain certain films within electrified fences of boredom. Not that Rea has created a masterpiece, but Kendal Sin’s screenplay strives to be anything but generic. Without pulling the curtain back too far, we’re presented a hodgepodge of creature feature horror, backwoods cultist type horror, natural disaster horror, and a little captivity horror to round things out. The ambition is prevalent, which is exactly what true fans want from our independent horror.
Ambition doesn’t always translate though, and Nailbiter is far from a perfect film. While child actors Emily Boresow (Alice) and Sally Spurgeon (Sally) give passable performances and Erin McGrane (mother Janet) plays a strong mama bear, the only character I find undeniably captivating is Meg Saricks’ main character Jennifer. She’s the only family member that hovers above independent level acting, showing promise to break though to the next level, while most other actors are simply working in their means. Actually, I take that back, Joicie Appell plays a sweet, innocent looking old grandma who seems harmless enough, baking tornado cookies and storing loads of moonshine, but then shifts gears and takes us to crazy town. Not exactly the secrets I’d want my gam-gam uncovering someday, but very entertaining indeed!
Story wise I would have loved a little more explanation as well. The Maguires are given a series of events that work to make horror happen, but much like our locked up victims, we’re kept in the dark as to why such strange occurrences are taking place about this proper home-grown pit-stop. Things get real evil in a hurry, in the way a fable or tall tale test reality, but even made up folklore have more established roots than Nailbiter‘s dosage of crazy. I’m not a knowledgeable intellectual by any means, no Plato or Socrates, but adding another level of supporting details can’t HURT your film. Rea and Sin take a more mysterious tone, wanting your acceptance of story based off nothing but real-time events presented as if the viewer already knows WHY and HOW. Sure, we’re on the same playing field as our characters then, both having the same small exposure to Nailbiter‘s insanity, but as an audience member, knowing some WHYs wouldn’t have been a movie killing information overload. In fact, it might have helped. No, scratch that, it DEFINITELY would have helped.
So what am I getting at here? Nailbiter is an independent horror film through and through, one that reaches for the stars yet only gets about halfway there. You won’t be floored by big names, crazy visuals, Cabin In The Woods type ingenuity, or any monumentally breathtaking horror. With that said, Patrick Rea doesn’t create a stinker, and for the budgetary constraints, you know what, I could find certain aspects that make me excited to see what Rea can do in the future. It’s worth the one time watch, but unfortunately nothing much else.
Nailbiter is an independent horror film through and through, one that reaches for the stars yet only gets about halfway there.