There are two very broad, distinct, and (fine) obvious types of horror stories being told in this 2013 indie thriller from After Dark Films (Originals). In one corner we have the “happy family in a creepy house they just bought to get away from the city” stuff and in the other is the “evil female spectre who may or may not be real but definitely seems to covet the couple’s infant” material. Adding to the patchwork feel of the premise are some touches, characters, and ideas that are inspired by a wide array of recent (mostly indie or foreign) supernatural thrillers.
In other words, Nightmare (aka Dark Circles) will be thoroughly familiar (perhaps even predictable) to anyone who watches a lot of horror movies, but that’s not to say you won’t find some creepy moments and worthwhile assets scattered across the flick. For example, writer/director Paul Soter seems to actually care about his central characters. As conventional as the story might be, leads Pell James and Johnathon Schaech do a strong job of creating basic but compelling characters. As the couple welcomes their new baby and gradually settles into their new home, we actually grow to like them. That alone makes the movie at least slightly novel.
To its credit, Nightmare is in no big rush to get to the scary stuff, and when it does, it focuses on the inner turmoils that any young parent must feel: the pressures of a baby who won’t stop crying; the inability to get any work done; the feeling that you’re now just a support system for a baby instead of a complete person of your own. And while it’s certainly not as powerful or memorable as movies like Grace or À l’intérieur, Nightmare is interesting in that it’s a full-bore “post-natal depression” horror story — and therefore something that a lot of viewers can relate to.
What’s most interesting about Nightmare is how it shows that fear for one’s own safety is instantly dwarfed by the fear for their baby’s safety. Thanks to some nifty special effects, the poor baby in this film comes close to all sorts of terrible “accidents,” and let’s face it: nobody wants to see a little baby get scalded or sliced. At its best moments, Nightmare digs into our fears about the fragility and helplessness of babies, and how it can turn any strong grown-up into a quivering mess. Ultimately it’d be easier to dismiss Nightmare as a whole lot of “been there, seen that, cute baby though” stuff, but between the film’s unexpectedly mature tone and earnest attempts at character-building, it slowly becomes a surprisingly decent little psychological chiller. (A small but colourful performance by Jenn Foreman as a good-natured babysitter also helps a lot.) This is not a slam-bang, white-knuckle horror film or even one you’ll rave about to your friends, but it’s a quietly satisfying little ghost story all the same. Especially if you have a baby in the house.
Interesting note: writer/director Paul Soter is a member of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, but Nightmare has only the smallest moments of light humor and no silliness whatsoever. Even given the two-level conventional nature of Nightmare, I applaud the comedian for taking his horror movie seriously.
Scott Weinberg (@ScottEWeinberg)
NIGHTMARE is available to stream or download here from Monday.
In the meantime, watch the trailer here.