Tonight was the official kickoff of the 16th Annual AMC Theatres Kansas City FilmFest (#kcfilmfest), and its organizers were pleased as hell to start things off with an independent feature-length narrative film from right here in the heartland.
Organizers picked a labor-of-love film that took four years to make, and every penny of its impressive production value on a low budget (an astonishingly low $200-300 grand) was on display tonight. It looked and sounded great on the big screen at the AMC Mainstreet in downtown Kansas City.
The new horror movie Nailbiter, shot entirely in Kansas and Missouri, shows director Patrick Rea in full control of his cinematic faculties. If only he had a script that could live up to his abilities.
Rea, whose award-winning short films have graced film festivals around the country for a decade with his imprint SenoReality Pictures, knows how to build suspense. The first 30 minutes of Nailbiter are proof positive of that.
Janet Maguire’s (Erin McGrane) life is full of turbulence, both figuratively and literally. A recovering alcoholic, this Kansas mom is trying to hold on to her sobriety while raising three very different daughters. The day her husband is returning from military service overseas, she takes the three girls to the airport to greet him amid the backdrop of an incoming thunderstorm that’s threatening to turn into a tornado.
Rea’s command of these early scenes is impressive, especially as the storm moves in. Nailbiter is often at its best when it tells its story without the aid of too much dialogue. I’ve lived in Kansas all my life, and Nailbiter absolutely nails the unusual mix of casual bravado and creeping dread that accompany every tornado warning.
The movie’s cinematography from Hanuman Brown-Eagle switches perspectives often during the storm, and with the help of the sound design from Ryan S. Jones, it creates a swirling cacophony. These elements are the early stars of Nailbiter, as well as the completely convincing digital special effects of Branit FX.
Then the trappings of a standard horror film threaten to drag Nailbiter down. As the women hole up in a stranger’s cellar to ride the storm out and then discover they are trapped, the movie does two things:
First, there are some subtle and effective scenes of character building between Mom and the siblings, played by Emily Boresow, Meg Saricks, and Sally Spurgeon. What follows will test their relationships and some formerly hidden strengths and weaknesses will be brought into sharp focus.
Secondly, Nailbiter settles rather disappointingly into the ill-fitting skin of a second-rate creature feature. Without going too far into the plot, let’s just say that it’s too bad that all that early promise isn’t rewarded with any clever developments until the third act.
This middle section — the guts of the movie, if you will — is appropriately claustrophobic (and credit is due to the entire production for keeping continuity over several years of shooting), but mood-wise, it doesn’t have the feeling of abject terror that it should. From a plot standpoint, it feels overly familiar.
To his credit, Rea doesn’t use cheap jump-scares very often and shows only strategic shots of whatever it is that’s down in the cellar with the women. As a filmmaker, Rea has always shown a tendency towards Spielberg expressiveness, and the fine throwback score from Julian Bickford also steers away from shock-horror convention.
I am often plagued by questions I can’t answer when I’m mulling over a movie in my head after the credits roll. Rhetorical question of the night: With all these things going for it, why did the script (written by Kendal Sinn, story by Rea) have to go and succumb to the very horror conventions that it seemed hellbent on thwarting in its setup?
Still, Nailbiter manages to avoid overly gory scenes (…it’s just not the aesthetic they were going for, and it’s appropriate for the movie’s tone, so cheers!) and craft a story arc for its characters that puts it a tier above most of its contemporaries. Some last-reel revelations in the movie are as intriguing as they are kind of silly, and the whole affair is left a little — how shall I put it? — vague.
The final shot of Nailbiter sets up a sequel perfectly, but Rea might do well to leave this well-tread world where it lay and move on to more challenging material. Nailbiter proves he’s ready for it.
(Nailbiter screens again at 12:15 on Sunday at AMC Ward Parkway 14.)