REVIEW: Reel Nightmare
– By Allan Lear
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the perpetually-sickly writer from Providence, Rhode Island, needs no introduction to the horror aficionado. Despite a limited appreciation during his abbreviated lifetime, his horror writing would inspire generations of horror artists in all media.
Given the fact that he had such a short time and produced only a relatively small body of work, there is an awful lot to unpack in Lovecraft’s oeuvre: the fact that some of his best work is informed by his racism, which was pretty extreme even for the standards of 1930s America; the fear of sexual intimacy that led him to some interesting early work in the field of body horror; and, of course, the wonderfully bleak and uncompromising underlying philosophy of his work. This is an ethos that makes Lebowski’s nihilists look like Pippi Longstocking: the underlying assumption is that the universe is not merely unfair but actively inimical to human life, and that the reasons for this are completely incomprehensible to the pathetic intellects of tiny humanity.
Reel Nightmare is one of the immeasurable quintillions of films, short stories, novels, comics, tattoos and kitchen utensils that claim to derive inspiration from the works of Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos – that is to say, the invented mythology which unifies all of his writing and that of many of his contemporaries, juniors and imitators. Like many such claimants, Nightmare makes no use of the philosophical underpinnings of the Mythos and merely appropriates minor Lovecraftiana while telling a fairly standard ghost story. In this case, like many before it, it opts for the infamous tome of dark evil, the Necronomicon.
The Necronomicon may also be familiar to viewers of Army of Darkness or Ash vs The Evil Dead (or, er, Evil Toons), as the ancient flapping-mouthed ventriloquist’s almanac that is bound in human skin and bites people. Here, however, it’s a lovely new hardback. Clearly it’s not the Olaus Wormius Latin translation from the sixteenth century – maybe it’s the recent reprint from Dorling Kindersely, or perhaps the mad Arab Abdul Al-hazred has started producing it as a POD from lulu.com.
That sole HPL reference aside, Reel Nightmare is a fairly straightforward horror story in the mould of The Amityville Horror – a haunted house drives people mental and not in a good way. It’s shot in the handheld fashion, which is a sure sign that somebody was unwilling to invest any real money in a project.
Another sign that there was no money in the pot is that, despite being only just over an hour long, Reel Nightmare is composed almost entirely of inconsequential chat. The characters talk, then they stop talking in order to talk about what they’re going to do when they finish talking, then they talk about why they haven’t done anything, then they talk about what they will do instead of what they talked about doing the last time they talked about doing something when they finished talking their talk about talking about their talky talk talk talk.
It’s not like they even talk about anything interesting. It’s just chinwag. The dialogue doesn’t sparkle, the characters aren’t deep and fascinating, much of the talking is frankly not very convincing, and yet we spend nearly an hour listening to it while nothing happens. For some bizarre reason, the ability of the actors is split neatly down gender lines: the women are all pretty good, the men less so. Madeleine Heil does much of the heavy lifting and performs well, although her views on feminism REEEALLLY betray the fact that the script was written by a man; her counterpart, Garrett Morosky, is quite bad in a way that’s nearly as inexplicable as his name. It’s not that he can’t deliver a line, or that he can’t portray emotion, it’s just…I don’t know. I think it’s his timing. He leaves too much space between his cues and his lines, which makes his performance stagey and weird. Also he plays a recovering drug addict who relapses instantly and for no reason, which is admittedly very realistic but narratively unsatisfying.
A special acting mention must also go to Armand Petri as Hassan, an uncharismatic mumbling sweaty weirdo who inexplicably cops off with a dynamic and attractive cinematography professional. The copping off is explained by the fact that Petri also wrote and directed, thereby seizing the opportunity to write himself in the only intimate contact he is likely to experience this decade; the mumbling sweaty weirdness is, I assume, simply the limit of his acting range.
After four thousand years of inane gibber-jabber have gone by, some witches turn up and there are stabbings. This has something to do with the history of the house and something to do with the copy of the Necronomicon that they picked up from The Works on the way in. It’s all explained satisfactorily someone within the vast acreage of scripted dialogue that we have endured about this stage, but it doesn’t actually matter. All you need to know is that the special effects budget finally arrives, the film squanders it in a few minutes, and then we get to the end. By this stage I didn’t really care about anything or anyone. Not even Madeleine Heil, who really should have been in a better film.
One of the things about Lovecraft’s writing is that he uses a dense and highly stylised writing technique, complete with arcane if not abstruse vocabulary, that can be off-putting for the first time reader but which rewards close attention. In that respect, Reel Nightmare is one of the least Lovecraftian films I’ve ever seen; its frantic surface chitter-chatter runs fast and shallow over pretty much nothing at all.