I was a little apprehensive going into Nailbiter. The last screener I got that basically spelled out in the title how it wanted the audience to feel/react was Cold Creepy Feeling, and that one…well…it blew harder than the gale force winds in this flick. Thankfully, Nailbiter is a really good flick. Horror cinema has a long history of using storms to trap people in a central location where they can be menaced. Nailbiter takes this tradition, blends it with another tried and true horror trope that I particularly enjoy but won’t discuss in the interest of not revealing too much, adds some interesting twists and elements, and delivers a satisfying and effective indie thriller.
Synopsis: The Maguire women, consisting of recovering alcoholic mother Janet, angsty teen daughter Jennifer, mousy bookworm middle child Alice, and sweet little Sally, are off to the airport. Mr. Maguire is returning from a tour of duty in the Middle East, and Janet has decided that nothing is going to stop them from being the first faces he sees when he arrives, including the storms that are rolling in. The ladies brave the foreboding skies and threatening forecasts, which proves foolish when a tornado hits mid-trip, forcing them to take shelter in the storm cellar of a nearby house. The tornado then picks up the house, eventually dropping it on top of a witch in a magical land populated by little peop…wait a minute. Scratch that last sentence. I get my twisters confused. Anyway, the storm passes and the gals find themselves trapped in the cellar when someone topside nails the door shut. When Sally tries to escape through a window, something takes a bite out of her, and it sure doesn’t look like any dog bite. Something is out there, and it has them trapped right where it wants them. Worse than that, they just might not be alone in the cellar…
The first thing that really struck me when watching this flick was the CGI, but not in the way CGI usually does. Regular readers of SOC know that when I bring up CGI, 99.9% of the time it’s not gonna be flattering words. I loathe CGI. I hate CGI as I hate hell and all Montagues. That’s not necessarily always the case, however. I will never condone the use of CGI to do something that can be done practically, because without fail the practical effects will look better. I’m pretty sure Nailbiter’s budget wasn’t quite big enough to hire a tornado though, as I’ve heard that they charge ridiculous rates, so CGI was their only choice. I forgive bad CGI when there is no other way. The thing is, I didn’t have to forgive a damn thing here. That storm looked GREAT! I seriously cannot remember a storm looking that good in a major studio motion picture, much less an independent film. You know it’s gotta be spectacular if I’m raving about how good a flicks CGI is, and folks, it definitely was.
Speaking of the storm, another aspect of this film that warrants special discussion is the lighting. I was particularly impressed by the lighting in the early scenes right before the storm. As anyone who lives in an area that is susceptible to severe storms knows, right before it gets nasty everything takes on a very distinct hazy glow. I have never seen that particular hue of light captured in ANY other movie. That blew me away. It was absolutely perfect. After over 100 years of cinema history, and nearly 20 years of watching every horror flick I can get my hands on, any time I can say “I’ve never seen that in a movie before” it excites me. Bravo. As far as the rest of the lighting goes, I think the way the cellar was lit added a lot to its effectiveness as a setting. At no point is it well lit, leaving shadows everywhere where something could be lurking. The lighting added exponentially to the creep factor. My only qualm about the lighting is that, with the flickering lantern and flashing lightning being a bit overdone, sometimes it felt like the entire second half was filmed under a strobe light.
I dug the fact that a lot of the character development of the ladies in peril was accomplished through the family structure. While we learned a little about the characters individually, Janet especially, their identities were closely interwoven in a very realistic family unit. The sibling and mother/daughter interaction displays the “contentious and sometimes hostile yet loving underneath it all” relationship beautifully. By tying our knowledge of these characters together, the audience views them as a unit. Unlike, say, a Friday the 13th flick where the group of survivors is a loosely connected bunch and one getting knocked off doesn’t profoundly change the group dynamic, each member of the family in Nailbiter is an integral part of a greater whole, making a death mean much more. This was a very smart move on the part of the writers as it amplified the danger, put more at stake, and helped ramp up the tension. Then again, this technique would have fallen flat on its face had the actresses not have been able to pull it off. Luckily all four actresses are up to the task.
***SPOILER ALERT*** Grandma just might be my favorite part of this flick. I’ve always loved the evil Grandma character. Granny being a bad guy takes a beloved, safe source of comfort and completely mindf**ks you with it. I’m not talking about Rabid Grannies style full on monster Maw-Maw. It’s when she just goes about doing Grandma stuff, baking cookies and whatnot, while aiding those in her care in insidious pursuits that it’s particularly chilling. Joicie Appell plays it to a T here. She’s the perfect mix of matronly and menacing. She’s a walking contradiction worthy of one of those Starburst commercials. Mrs. Shurman definitely steals the show in my book.***END SPOILER ALERT***
The story definitely takes the slow burn approach, but it never really drags. The tension is kept high and it builds steadily until a major tonal shift in the third act, when it becomes more action oriented. When the movie picks up speed, it’s sudden and jarring in a good way. You’ve been waiting for the confrontation, but it happens in such a way that you’re not quite ready for it. As far as gore and violence, Nailbiter goes with the “less is more” philosophy. I’m cool with that. I am a gorehound, but a bloodbath isn’t always necessary. What I wish there had been a little more of is the monster, however. The monster is shown piece by piece and in very quick, choppy, shadowy shots. From what is shown, I could tell that there is a really good practical makeup job there. With a creature design that strong, I wish they had shown a little more of it. I’m not suggesting a full on monster mash, but I think one really good “money shot” clear look at the monster could have added to the flick without feeling overdone. It looked too good not to get a chance to fully appreciate.
Nailbiter is an old school type of monster movie with some new school ideas. The cinematography, acting, story, and effects are all very well done. Actually, my only problem is what I feel was a slightly weak reveal, but I can see what they were going for. Overall, it certainly lives up to its name. They also left us with a nice (and refreshingly non-contrived) setup for a sequel. I hope it comes to fruition, because the world of Nailbiter is definitely somewhere I would like to visit again. One and a half severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.