Patrick Rea and Kendal Sinn
Joicie Appell as Mrs. Shurman
Emily Boresow as Alice Maguire
Jason Coffman as Creature
Tom Conroy as Bartender
Michelle Davidson as Dina
Ian Dempsey as Sean
By Ian Watson
Whether released theatrically or straight to DVD, most movies let you know where they’re going in the first 15-20 minutes, which camp they’re in, which character is The Slut, The Nerd, The Resourceful Heroine etc. Fifteen minutes into Nailbiter, you’ve been shut in a cellar with the protagonists, and when director/co-writer Patrick Rea decides to let you out, that’s when the fun really starts.
A veteran of twenty-plus short films, Rea is a filmmaker who refuses to draw attention to himself with show-off camerawork and clever-clever ‘homages’, and because he’s such an invisible presence you may not realize how hard he’s working to keep you entertained. He comes to us neither as a garlanded music video director nor as a good friend of Quentin, Eli and co but as an unheralded novice whose first film, 2007’s The Empty Acre, was seen by fewer people than were left in Barrow, Alaska, when Danny Huston left town. Which is part of what makes his second effort such a pleasant surprise.
Sensibly eschewing the found footage, torture porn and generic teen slasher subgenres, Rea gives us a cautionary tale that proves the wisdom of avoiding road trips during tornado season. Alice Maguire (Emily Boresow) and her three girls are driving across Kansas to meet her husband, a Marine who’s returning from overseas, when she spies an unfriendly storm in the rearview mirror. Forced off the road, they take refuge in the cellar of a seemingly abandoned house, which is of course where the real horror begins.
The story of a family being stranded in Hicksville and falling prey to crazy locals and their crazier secrets may bring to mind the Texas Chainsaw, House of Wax and Hills Have Eyes revamps, but those efforts were formulaic and surprise-free. Boresow may bear a passing resemblance to Milla Jovovich but, portraying a recovering alcoholic, she’s more likely to go to pieces and break down than take charge, do everything right and save the day (with hair perfectly intact). Come to think of it, this is probably the first monster movie in recent memory whose female leads have been cast more for their abilities than their measurements. Boresow and Meg Saricks are never less than credible, even if some other cast members are now and then given to insuffererable whineyness or saucer-eyed emoting.
Rea gets on with the business of storytelling and delivers a lean, entertaining yarn that, while not dazzlingly original, still avoids the ‘been there, done that’ feel of too many other releases. Also, at no point does anyone stop to namecheck George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven etc, nor does anyone experience a ‘Nilbog moment’ and proclaim the blindingly obvious. Okay, so maybe the monster resembles a rubbery Orc in a few shots and the ‘storm’ is clearly being created by a rain machine, but that’s all.
Patrick Rea is a name to watch, though he’ll probably end up helming a 3D Elm Street sequel or The Asylum’s next production, Arachnazi Vs Dinoshark (“Hitler Hybrid and Jurassic Jew In Sensational Showdown!”). Too bad. Nailbiter may not always live up to its title, but it leaves its audience wanting more. And you couldn’t say that about House of Wax.