Return of the Loving Dead: NINA FOREVER

A necromantic love triangle and "fucked up fairy tale" presents a unique portrait of grief and trauma.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · January 6, 2022, 4:06 PM PST
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NINA FOREVER (2015)

"You're an oil painting that's still wet." ― Nina

Who said love* is dead? In Ben and Chris Blaine's cathartic horror romance [1], the plum and stuffy séance of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit (1945) [2] is replaced with a more… messy affair. There is no room for prudency here [3] as implicit tender interludes collide with disturbing horror and Ballardian eroticism. Quintessentially British, this is everything plus the kitchen sink drama ― reveling in the mundane ― and a direct contrast to "the awful magical impossibility" [4] of the undead. Through a stark and grey observation of this small and ordinary world, characters navigate supermarkets, cemeteries, car parks, residential flats, and university dorms. But, amongst the humdrum of Nina Forever, bloody and heated moments become the perfect metaphor for any (complex) relationship.

*Love is a four-letter word or

An accident waiting to happen.

Having arrived at the height of the zombie boom, it would have seemed dead girls were all the rage in 2014; Life After Beth and Burying The Ex [5] attempting to ape the rom-zom-com; brought to life by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg a decade earlier in Shaun of the Dead (2004). Of course, Nina Forever has the odd nod, but ― avoiding any blatant parody ― remains a unique and original work in and of itself. This is a personal film to the Blaines, having worked together closely as writers, directors, and editors; a joint effort that only reinforces how damn good their feature debut is, balancing distinct tonal shifts that most audiences may find jarring.

Shot on a micro-budget and partially funded via a Kickstarter campaign [6], Nina Forever was meticulously storyboarded; including the intricacy of its sex scenes. Color grading and digital compositing were used seamlessly; from warm breath hitting cold air to the frequent bloodstains throughout. According to the Blaines, the somber tone was inspired by painter Sir Stanley Spencer [7], Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler (2008), and Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of Let the Right One In (2008) ― this latter film a prominent echo ― the deathly quiet (and cold) aesthetic punctuated by bloodier scenes. Although not a direct influence, similar parallels can be made to David Robert Mitchell's more menacing It Follows (also from 2014) that presents a sexually transmitted ghost in a more ambiguous light, lending itself perfectly for an STG (Sexually Transmitted Ghost) double feature.

Sex, death, and the bloody mess of it all

Over the years, horror movies have often moved towards more psychological undertones ― Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) [8] and Peter Medak's The Changeling (1980), prime examples ― framing grief and trauma through the power and seductive qualities of cinema. The 21st century ― with its collective emotional trauma in tow ― continues to deliver its fair share; such as Joel Anderson's Lake Mungo (2008), Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014), and Ari Aster's Hereditary (2018), to name a few. Both Kent and Aster's 'accidents' were (shockingly) a more explicit part of the narratives; their particular brand of horror dealing in the pain of loss with a more insidious presence ― ghost, witch, and the garrote ― grief, and trauma manifesting as something mean and monstrous. Nina Forever sets itself in the aftermath, the Blaine brothers making an effort to avoid seeing any accidents onscreen [9]. In terms of the title character's presence, she doesn't always hide in the shadows. Nina isn't a monster and certainly much more than a ghost or zombie; dressed in blood-matted black hair and deathly complexion; witchy vibes resembling the Truthsayer; her venomous tongue laced with brutal honesty.

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In 'fucked up' fashion, Nina's grieving boyfriend, Rob (Cian Barry), is the damsel in distress; a lost boy desperately seeking closure, even if it means taking his own life. His attempted suicide is something of a turn-on to paramedic student, Holly (Abigail Hardingham), who works with him in the local supermarket. She doesn't like the 'nice girl' label; something darker swims in this pixie's soul ― a less reductive MPDG [10] who continues to subvert expectations ― her macabre fascination with death channeled to save lives. There's just a kink (and kinkiness) in Holly. Danger signs in a supermarket's stockroom scream "strictly forbidden" as she grabs a pomegranate [11] and slices it with a box cutter, gouging the insides out before (suggestively) placing a seed between her lips. If that doesn't crystalize the fairy tale elements further for you, then nothing will. Holly fawns over Rob… and then… we see the fauna. Before the revival (and arrival) of Nina (Fiona O'Shaughnessy), a dead fox lies on the grass verge of a dual carriageway; the roadkill a powerful symbol of our antagonist's cruel demise and a portent to the cunning, playful nature we are about to witness.

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The playfulness is in the acting, the casting of the threesome all in the eyes. O'Shaughnessy's convey a range of emotions, from a scared child-like quality to a deathly doll's eyes smudged with massacred mascara. Barry and Hardingham's baby blues also capture an odd innocence, often drowning in each other's gaze; the subtlest of glances suddenly swimming with intensity. The film's setup is about the connection these two people experience, whether through their eyes, sharing headphones, or crossing a dangerous road… before they fuck. There is no shying away from the other four-letter word ― no making love ― the unbridled, passionate (relatable) first night elevated here by thoughtful and intricate editing…

Before their dance between bloodied sheets, Rob makes the mistake of calling Holly "sweet". She smashes her wine glass on the floor and laughs. This is the trigger as we intercut back and forth between rooms, before and during the moment. A red spot appears (the spilled wine?). They fall naked onto the bed. Back again, Holly's bare feet are next to the broken glass. Then the removal of her bra, under the harsh glare of the living room lighting, points to a photograph of Nina resting on a shelf; her eyes masked (don't look now) by Rob's hands. Then we hover in the darkness of the bedroom as the dance continues. It should be disorientating but, when we see Rob's tattoo ― "Nina Forever" ― the red spot, already hinted at, soaks through the sheets and surrounds them; their passion intensifying before broken limbs crack and entwine around them and…

"Oh God, not again," gasps Nina, emerging from the bed.

Rob and Holly recoil. Traumatized, damaged, scared, and disturbingly beautiful (in every gothic sense of the word). Nina, for an instant, is the spilled wine and broken glass. Every movement is a bloody mess as she struggles to hold up her neck ― a fragile, startled sparrow ― until she sees Holly. "How could you, Rob?" Then, once Nina has time to think, her monologues begin; standout dialogue that is completely measured throughout; a mix of disturbing, uncomfortable reality, and the blackest of (cringe) humor [12], "I think I remember six or seven seconds. My mouth filled with my own blood and then no change, just the mortuary slab with you and Dad bonding over my dead, naked, body [13]. And then the funeral… then you… and her."

Pause.

"Kiss me, Rob."

At first, despite her macabre fascination, Holly's innocence is magnified by Nina's resurrection; potentially the first roadside accident she has witnessed. But she hardly has time to digest the situation before the tragic Nina snaps at her. She flees the bloody boudoir and steps on her broken wine glass, another sting to the tragic tale.

Once the blood has settled, we return to another aftermath. The horror followed by a deep clean [14] now Nina has left her mark [15]. She was an artist after all, "The need for comfort and the sparsity, absence, and fractures of grief all mix with Nina's own interest in decay, in printing, in tattoos and text." [16] Here she paints red for dead; first the blood-stained sheets and then the rest of the flat. As highlighted further by the Blaine brothers, the loss of someone is "a huge emotional mess that constantly needs repair" [17], and as Rob and Holly continue to clean ― cue soundtrack ― we see them bond through love and loss. Holly does what she feels is best in their weird ménage à trois and, branded with her own "Nina Forever" tattoo, she naively accepts Rob's dead girlfriend in an effort to "fix" him. But dead girlfriends have no feelings; nothing left outside or inside…

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"You're so warm," says Nina when the macabre act resumes. She then quickly kills the moment by describing a shard of glass lodged in the back of her throat. Her pain is real, but we are never quite sure whether she died with the mean streak or not. "Forever" the artist, she simply "remains", painting a picture of her and Rob's "happy times" while taunting Holly in the process. These key scenes are a gamut of emotion. Disturbing, provocative, erotic, and deeply, deeply heartbreaking because they are the darkest night of the soul.

When Holly realizes there is no saving Nina, she attempts to remove every part of her. But, despite a fresh canvas of white paint, Nina appears even when Rob isn't there. The bath, the chair, the sheets, the mattress, the walls ― "You missed a bit," she points ― a never-ending bad dream, as the pixie begins to descend into a newfound madness. Then, what appears to be somewhat reminiscent of the graveyard sex scene in Dellamorte Dellamore (1994), Holly ― in the ultimate defiance to Nina ― fucks Rob (literally) over her dead body. The undead ex suddenly appears to them from behind her gravestone, "Don't you think that's a bit rude?" interrupts Nina before slithering down into Rob's lap where she proceeds to finish off her boyfriend, spouting (poetically) about his "splash of sunshine". On and on ― a relentless spirit ― before Rob shouts, "STOP!" and Nina is once again a delicate bird in his arms.

Holly, driven further towards manic, continues to cleanse the flat. Wash. Paint. Scrub. Her efforts are now a warped domestication. Numb to it all, she feels the need to discover her own pain... if just a little bit. Only then can she smile again. But her pain is pushed to the absolute limit in the final act. After selling Nina's letterpress on fleaBay, Rob and Holly stay over in a B&B before dropping it off to the buyer. The contraption is the last of Nina [18] and their final attempt to stamp her out as they (delicately) stamp each other; a typeset "FUCK” pressed on lace-dressed skin. Then, Holly has the wild idea to place her arm directly in the letterpress. Nina reappears, bringing the heavy leaver down, demonstrating a painful nostalgia of metal and bone, almost breaking Holly's arm in the process as she shares one final pressing monologue.

Letting in the sunshine

The Blaine brothers achieved what they set out to produce through their "deliciously dark and magical sensibility", a film that reaches as far as possible and challenges an audience on morality and mortality through transgressive and transformative storytelling. We're okay with this because, emotionally, it rings true and never feels exploitative but, instead, forces us to experience something deeply personal and human through the fear of death. In recent times, this has never felt so prevalent.

Each intricate character moment, whether physical or emotional, becomes a sucker punchline through the eyes of Nina. With nothing left to lose in her own (twisted) way, she is a voice of reason, a bitter conscience, a grim reaper, or now Holly's ghost she leaves room for on her pillow. The balance of horror and humor is perfect. Although not quite the abrupt ending of John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981), the juxtaposition of upbeat music seems as much a conscious nod as Nina is to Jack. Piney Gir's postmodern whimsy rendition of Noel Gay's "Letting in the Sunshine" leaves us with a pang of optimism; a song that displays the sweetest of sentiments countering Nina's (masturbatory) poetry and highlights all the more that Holly's passion should never be mistaken for vulgarity.

The pain of love and loss is unavoidable. But Nina Forever perfectly displays ― both implicitly and explicitly ― how a (brief) sexual encounter leads to the hope of a new beginning and, for that reason alone, makes you feel… strangely alive.


1 Horror and romance have always been intrinsically linked. Whether "romanticized" or exploring those more seductive qualities and eroticism, the gothic qualities of sex and death that illustrate our fragile mortality are the bread and butter of the genre. Sure, there is a wet dream fantasy to Jenny Agutter's Nurse Price in John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (you'll have to forgive the 19-year-old Landis) but her anguish by the end speaks volumes. Then there is David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) that explores love and mad science as a modern Frankenstein Fable, while Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson's "Love" of the "Craft" in Spring (2014) remains a 21st century (romantic) horror benchmark.
2 The Blaine brothers refer directly to the film (directed by David Lean) in their Kickstarter campaign. "Though Nina's energy is similar to the ghosts of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit we have always been keen that she is a real impossible physical messy presence in Rob and Holly's lives."
3 "No sex please, we're British"? A far cry from any stuffy sexual attitudes or crude "confessions of…"
4 Kickstarter Look and feel of the film: The locations
5 Despite a "return of the loving dead", Nekromantik (1987) this is not. Nor is it anything like Jeff Baena and Joe Dante's films, leaving most of us feeling we were not in on the joke, both an attempt to "curb our enthusiasm" or default to lazy slapstick. Unfortunately, they seem to miss the point of what made Shaun of the Dead so distinct in the first place; British humor subverting genre tropes and expectations already owned by the US and their more bombastic approaches to horror.
6 Their Kickstarter campaign pitched as "an accident waiting to happen" and raising £18,614 of a pledged £18,000.
7 The Blaine brothers refer to Spencer, specifically his painting, The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-1927) that "situates powerful, spiritual events in his own small village in Kent." Kickstarter.
8 Nicolas Roeg's masterpiece explores two grieving parents (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who attempt to 'rediscover' themselves [9] while, in true DeMaurier fashion, are haunted by their tragedy that may or may not be manifest. The horror creeps up on you from the corner of your eye until the film's shocking climax and, much like the Blaine brothers' film, displays the powerful (and contradictory) nature of red; one moment the most intimate of love scenes, the next, a most horrific scare.
9 More than likely a budget constraint. And all the better for it.
10 Holly breaks the "manic pixie dream girl" trope. Her imperfection outweighs any immaturity so often attached to these stock characters. Although acknowledging the term in a limited context, writing for Salon in 2014, Nathan Rabin stated that the term he originally coined was frequently deployed as sexist and had already fallen into cliché.
11 The fucked up fruit has a diverse cultural-religious significance. As a symbol of beauty, eternal life, and fertility (owing to their many seeds), the pomegranate is also representative of power, blood, and death, perfectly symbolizing and summarising Nina Forever.
12 Much like most British cringe humor the script revels in the most awkward predicaments. Still in touch with Nina's parentsDan (David Troughton) and Sally (Elizabeth Elvin)the three of them have come together through their grief and brought out a (confused) and unfiltered attitude, dealing with the loss in their own way as though nothing else matters and the boundaries that would have separated them before no longer exist. It's all about a misplaced affection ― those uncomfortable moments ― dad the best friend and mum's (subtle) intimacy at the dinner table that confuses Holly all the more. Nina's parents were, in fact, the original focus of the story during early development.
13 It's an odd relationship. Her dad, escaping to his "parlor", has discovered writing. Self-absorbed, in his own hilariously grotesque and unfiltered prurient monologues, his words are a literal ejaculation he forces on the dumbfounded Rob. This is all a new experience for Nina's dad, his therapy, "… that's why it's good, you know. Scary. But exciting."
14 "We also wanted to make a film which really revels in the joy and satisfaction you get when you do your cleaning." The Blaine Brothers Reveal Main Message Behind Nina Forever & Tease Film with Trainspotting Author [Interview]
15 Marks are an important part of the film both literally and metaphorically. At one point Rob highlights, "Her art was all about leaving a mark."
16 Kickstarter. Design.
17 The Blaine Brothers Reveal Main Message Behind Nina Forever & Tease Film with Trainspotting Author [Interview]
18 A poignant moment sadly edited out as Nina reveals the letterpress and the "message" she was working on was her valentine's gift to Rob.
19 Kickstarter. What's This Film About?