Dad survived the war and is coming home, much to the delight of his family. When mom and her three young daughters hit the road to meet him at the airport, a twister strikes, forcing them to flee into a stranger’s nearby cellar for shelter. It belongs to a sweet old grandmother making cookies. They might have been better off left to the storm.
Nailbiter is the 2nd full length feature to come from independent director Patrick Rea (The Empty Acre), the one man who has dominated the film festival arena more than any other for the past five years. Short after short under his Nebraska based film studio SenoReality, Rea has earned his notoriety by mastering brief PG horror tales with art and flare unlike most others – to the point where they have garnered more awards than I ever knew existed. While he is one of just a few horror filmmakers who trades in obscenity and extremities for storybook twists and wit, and the potential victims here are mostly supra-innocent pre-teen girls. You only think you know how Rea is going to deliver on Nailbiter. Prepare to be gruesomely surprised. Nobody here is off limits.
As per the set-up above, Janet (Erin McGrane) is trapped in a basement with her three daughters, Sally (Sally Spurgeon), Alice (Emily Boresow), and her eldest Jennifer (Meg Saricks), after a fallen tree pins the storm door shut. Or should I say, after it’s nailed tight by the homeowners upstairs. It’s a hard start (the first 30 minutes anyway), hampered a bit by Patrick’s micro-budget and some newbie/amateur acting – but Nailbiter is far from “thrown together”, and Rea and co-writer Kendall Sinn have become masterful storytellers whose mutant powers are the ability to overcome these things with fresh ideas within the realm of what they’re working with.
These ladies do have a cell phone, but the storm is messing with the signal. The police even arrive early and discover their location. This is all for naught though, and instead of playing the viewer for a fool with these natural factors, Rea and Sinn deal with them in a direct, acceptable manner that doesn’t insult your intelligence. But all of these things are really secondary to the real threat at hand. Nailbiter‘s fear factor is about the creatures that are now running loose in the yard. And the one that is still in the basement with them.
Yes, Nailbiter is actually a monster movie, and with a minuscule budget this might also induce fear of cheap CGI or FX – but I have to give this director credit. The only noticeable CGI worth criticizing is the twister, abut because it’s used sparingly, it’s OK. The creatures, however, are done brave with practical FX – with wide eyes and nail-like protrusions for teeth. Rea follows the mantra of “the less shown the better” – and it works, because when you DO see what is down there with them – it’s actually a bit shocking, what they managed to pull off (I’ll admit, I sat back in my seat) – and your imagination energetically takes over the rest.
Nailbiter is a firm sign that Patrick Rea and his team have evolved. Usually no more harmful to the psyche than a horror film from the 1950’s, Rea steps it up a notch, sneaking some violent R material into his otherwise Lifetime/Hallmark-like television delivery. While I would recommend Patrick Rea to anyone with young children looking to transition through a smooth and non-traumatic gateway into the genre, I made the mistake of showing it to my 10 year old daughter, who ended up scared to death. I, a hardened veteran on the other hand, enjoyed it for the cliché-shattering surprises and original story which I had no grip on predetermining. With its semi-cliffhanger ending, Rea has admitted that a sequel is in the works already – with perhaps more to follow. So while Nailbiter suffers ever so slightly from the curse of the budget strained independent film (factors like its beautiful cinematography make up for it) – trust that the story does pick up the pace once you find out who is upstairs, and in the basement with the ladies. There’s some decent potential here for a mini horror saga. Nailbiter is sharp and deadly all in all, and despite its unresolved portions and imperfections, you’re left on a good note with a different monster movie than your standard R-rated fare.