Nailbiter‘s premise alone is enough to make any horror fan’s mouth water: a family, trapped in a tornado shelter during one of the worst storms of the century, is hunted and mercilessly killed at the hands of familial creatures with an insatiable taste for blood. Sounds good; sign me up. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many modern “creature features”, the film fails in its execution.
The film stars Erin McGrane as Janet Maguire who, along with her three daughters (Meg Saricks, Sally Spurgeon, and Emily Boresow), are on their way to the airport to pick up their father, a soldier returning from overseas. Reports of a terrible storm infiltrate the radio waves, and soon enough they are forced into the nearest shelter they can find: the cellar of an old farm house. After waiting out the storm in a montage of flashes and thunderclaps they are petrified to find that they have been blockaded in the shelter by a fallen tree. It soon appears that there is more at work in their captivity as Sally attempts to escape through a small window and is bitten by one of the lycanthropic creatures and all hell breaks loose.
Two things the film did have going for it were the music and the cinematography. Throughout most of the film I felt like I was watching a sadistic version of The Burbs, with the wholesome 80s family score pouncing along in the background and the “small town with something to hide” vibe permeating the (digital) celluloid. It set the tone right away and within the first minute of the movie I knew I was in for a love song to the 80s. As for the visuals, the film is wrought with beautiful cinematography including helicopter shots, sweeping cranes, meticulous set design, and beautiful landscapes of tornado alley in Kansas City. Director Patrick Rea‘s painstakingly crafted shots and the crisp colors and contrast of the RED camera elevated the aesthetic to a solid professional level. The problem is the film promised something more, and it never delivered.
Let’s forget about the paint-by-numbers storyline and the forgettable characters for a moment and focus on the film’s largest selling point: the creatures; or rather the lack thereof. Sure there are enough innocuous noises and omnipotent snarls to keep your heart rate at a fairly high level, but sadly that’s just about the extent of it. I found myself sitting through 90 minutes of excruciatingly bad acting, predictable story, and overdone sound effects hoping beyond hope that the creatures would make it worth my while. They did not. Aside from some extreme close-ups of the creatures’ mouths, eyes and hands, and a couple profile shots of the their faces, the creatures were never shown. Always from behind or just out of frame. Whether the director thought this would build tension and keep the audience guessing is beyond me (to his credit it did build tension) but you can only build tension so much until it’s released, and unfortunately for this story it never is. It is the cinematic equivalent of blue balls.
As for the characters, I’ve seen more intriguing and sympathetic characters in an episode of SpongeBob. You’ve got the recovering alcoholic mother, who couldn’t hold her own if she was reading from cue cards; the rebellious teenage daughter, who smokes cigarettes and is apathetic about everything; the intelligent and shy one, who is so insecure she can’t even be counted on when her smarts are needed; and the Jan Brady, exceedingly annoying and naive as all hell, who is passed out for the majority of the movie anyway. In short, you couldn’t have come up with a more contrived group of characters if you were taking screenwriting classes from Bowfinger.
The saddest thing is that all of this would have been excusable if the creatures and gore had come through. I love poorly acted low-budget B movies more than anything, but the difference is there is always something worth sticking around for, and with films like this it’s got to be the unflinching over-the-top creature FX. And they just weren’t there. Hell, even one badass full body shot of one of the creatures would have been something! The story dragged, the characters lacked, the comedy wasn’t hitting, and the FX were subpar at best. Whether or not you want to show copious gore is up to you, but you can’t have a creature feature without the creatures. It literally defeats the purpose.
Nailbiter – 5.7/10