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Nebraska filmmaker Patrick Rea and his SenoReality Pictures
company (co-founded by Rea, Ryan S. Jones and Josh Robison) have been slowly
but surely building a name for themselves on the regional independent horror
scene. They have honed their craft as a seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of
short films—two of which, WOMEN’S INTUITION and GET OFF MY PORCH, have won
regional Emmys—and saw their first feature THE EMPTY ACRE released in 2007. And
they’ve continued to do so in their second feature, NAILBATER.
Scripted by Rea and Kendall Sinn, NAILBITER begins with a
woman and her three teenage daughters piling into a car to go pick up Dad at
Kansas City International Airport, despite a forecast of severe weather in the area.
Before they can reach their destination, they find themselves in the path of an
oncoming tornado and are forced to seek shelter in the cellar of the first
house they see in a podunk little town called Wellsville. After the storm
passes, our four frantic females find themselves threatened by someone—or something—not
quite human that seems intent on trapping them in the basement.
Rea’s focus on identifiable, believable characters caught up
in sinister situations has made his shorts a breath of fresh air in an era that
has seen horror largely swallowed up by endless remakes, gory misanthropy and
Troma-esque splatstick. NAILBITER continues this trend; it’s a character-heavy
monster flick more akin to THE DESCENT, with shades of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW
MASSACRE and THE HOWLING. Shot on the hi-def RED camera, NAILBITER is gorgeous
to look at, even in the confines of the grimy country basement. Its visual and
creature FX heavily favor physical creations over digital, save for the early
tornado sequence, and viewers nostalgic for practical makeup and puppetry will
likely find NAILBITER’s approach to their liking. The film provides mostly
incomplete glimpses of the beings terrorizing the trapped family, not unlike
the way JAWS and ALIEN shied away from giving us whole, prolonged looks at
The sound design is also topnotch, and the film’s use of the
storm season’s unsettling hallmarks, such as the National Weather Service’s
robotic warning voice, the sirens and TV/radio weathermen telling people
there’s serious badness on the way, are particularly effective in evoking early
dread. The cast, lead by Erin McGrane as mother Janet and Meg Saricks as
contrary eldest daughter Jennifer, are game and fulfill their roles quite
nicely, with Joicie Appell a standout in the supporting role of (apparently)
lovable grandma Mrs. Shurman.
The film is not entirely smooth sailing, though. There are a
couple of odd plot issues that, while they don’t derail the film, can give
viewers momentary pause. The biggest example is the seeming lack of damage
after the tornado has blown over. While the ladies are in the basement, a tree
blows over on top of the external doors; we thus assume there must be damage to
some degree topside, yet when we’re shown things going on above ground, there
doesn’t seem to be any harm to the house or surrounding area at all. However,
as a Kansan myself—one who spent eight years working in Emergency Services, no
less—I can vouch from personal experience that tornadoes can be wildly
unpredictable. They can be incredibly unstable—changing directions, ascending
and descending, even dissipating and reforming seemingly at random. As locals,
Rea and Sinn know this, but there are many people in the rest of the world who
won’t, and may well be perplexed as to why there’s seemingly no damage to the
house despite the previous depiction of a tornado capable of crushing a water
tower like a tin can bearing down on our desperate heroines. (I would have to
guess that budgetary considerations played a part in downplaying this element.)
On the other hand, Rea and Sinn have worked in some
deliberate—and devious—surprises throughout the story. Two-thirds of the way
through, it seems absolutely clear how the story is going to end; then a
surprise encounter with seven minutes or so left destroys those expectations.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew the filmmakers had enjoyed a good
chuckle, knowing they were going to throw off those of us who’ve spent years
watching this type of film and have grown used to its conventions. NAILBITER
leaves at least two story threads potentially unresolved at its conclusion,
leaving plenty of room for a follow-up in a fashion that isn’t as irritating as
the last-minute reversal-of-fate jump-scare we usually get. Some will love this
approach and some will likely find it irritating, but I can certainly say that
I wanted to see what would happen next.
If Rea and SenoReality are planning a longer series
involving this universe, its characters and its unique spin on a traditional
monster—trust me, you’ll understand what I mean when you see it—I look forward
to future installments. While NAILBITER suffers a few plot hiccups, Rea keeps
most everything else running smoothly and effectively, resulting in an indie
horror feature capable of providing actual tension and suspense, and should
establish Rea and SenoReality as two names for horror enthusiasts to watch for
in the future.
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