Severe Movie Alert: Take Shelter with Nailbiter!
As deadly storms ripped through the Midwest last weekend, I couldn’t help but think their victims probably suffered less than those in Patrick Rea’s latest thriller, Nailbiter. Not only did its fictional family have to scramble for shelter as a tornado approached, they also got trapped in a basement by some very scary creatures… creatures with nails for teeth. Hence, the name of the movie, although it could also describe the unrelenting suspense that it provides.
Making its way across the country through the film festival circuit (and collecting awards along the way), Nailbiter is a remarkable achievement for an independent filmmaker working with what I assume was a miniscule budget. In fact, it accomplishes what many big-budget Hollywood movies fail to do with enormous budgets: tell a decent story, develop believable characters and keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
You might think I outlined the plot in the second sentence of my first paragraph. However, that is only the framework upon which a multi-layered story is hung. Nailbiter does not offer its creatures without explanation. There is a simple, yet elaborate, backstory revealed over the course of the movie’s 87-minute running time. Revealing any more now would spoil the fun.
Neither does Nailbiter offer its characters as generic stereotypes for a buffet of human carnage. In its introductory scenes, the screenplay by Rea and Kendal Sinn is quite efficient at conveying the personalities of the mother and three daughters. On the way to Kansas City to pick up their husband/father from his tour of duty, the family dynamics are made clear in a pre-storm car trip and gas station detour.
Watching a tornado approach through their rearview mirror is only the beginning of the nightmare for Janet, Emily, Jennifer and Sally Maguire, as well as the suspense for the audience. Thinking they’ve found sanctuary in the basement of a seemingly deserted rural house, and then thinking they’re merely trapped when a tree falls on the doors, imagine the terror of gradually learning they’re being stalked by “monsters”.
Nailbiter is sprinkled with clever details that first appear to be horror movie clichés, but ultimately serve a unique purpose. For example, it’s not terribly original that the oldest daughter’s cell phone has no signal in the basement. But it is logical. And there is a payoff later in the movie for her continued, seemingly futile efforts of texting.
Nailbiter is not perfect, but what movie is? For me, it dragged a little in the basement when the gang may have discovered their way out, but then are detained from using it. And I would like to have gotten a better look at the creatures in some of their scenes. While these “flaws” may be expected in a low-budget, independent film, there are some real surprises in the production: the special effects (particularly the tornado), the sound design, and a rich score that could easily support a movie shot on a grander scale.
Comparing Nailbiter to a recent release I imagine more of you saw last weekend, Nailbiter succeeds exactly where Cabin in the Woods failed: it’s scary. Both have familiar set-ups, but instead of deconstructing horror tropes, Nailbiter embraces them. It’s obvious that the different filmmakers have a great fondness of the genre, but while Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) take a cerebral approach toward expressing it, Patrick Rae (Nailbiter) takes an emotional approach. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we want from our horror movies? Nailbiter is more satisfying than not only Cabin in the Woods, but also most other horror movies.