Stephen King once made an allegorical comparison of Thanksgiving leftovers to literary repetition; it culminated with his story of his then young son’s response to the umpteenth consecutive day of turkey variations: “Do we have to eat this shit again?” King was referring to his own retooling of previous material in a collection of short stories, but that same line of thought is often experienced by us horror film fans. How many times have we seen the same slasher formula? How about found-footage ghost stories? Or the “cabin-in-the-woods” scenario? I’m sure we ‘ve all had similar feelings to those expressed when one is on their fifth day or so of reworked turkey.
So here’s one for you: A group of teens (hitting all the stereotypes, of course — the Good Girl, the Good Guy, the Troubled Girl, the Jock, the Promiscuous Bitch, etc. — the gang’s all here) gather together for one last hurrah — a graduation party before they all go their separate ways. There’s lots of booze, some drugs, some sex…and then someone gets the bright idea of playing around with a Ouija board, and….
…wait, you’ve heard this one before? Are you sure?
I ask you that, Fellow Fans, because setting aside the introductory, formulaic set-up, I’d bet you haven’t seen it done quite the same way writer/director Steven Shimek has done in his latest film, Nocturne.
Somewhat catty Vi and her boyfriend Issac decide to throw the graduation bash to end all graduation bashes…however, another classmate has a bit more resources (including a DJ), and only a close group of friends actually show for the party. However, they decide to make the most of it, even allowing the awkward Jo to remain for the festivities (much to the barely-hidden delight of nice guy Liam). Although the celebration is small, the group of friends party on in the best late-teen tradition, including lots of booze, some weed, and a secret ingredient for later. Engaging in typical juvenile games (Like the old standby “Never Ever Have I…” in the hot-tub) causes some feathers to get ruffled, so it’s a good thing charming jock Gabe is around to fascinate with his card tricks and philosophical meanderings….meanderings that segue to an impromptu séance with a home-made Ouija board. This leads to some even more awkward secrets being revealed — it’s obvious someone at the table wants to make some waves amongst the group….but the events that follow the occult action point to there being a little bit more going on that flaring tempers, the green-eyed monster of jealousy, and the cubes of LSD that are missing — it seems that something from beyond has infiltrated their little gathering, something ancient….something evil. Where the band of friends were just a little while ago worried about colleges, relationships, and tearful good-byes, this entity seems to have a far more permanent “good-bye” in mind…for all of them.
Now, I’ve already touched upon how this all sounds so very familiar — when I first read the description, I thought “great, another ‘dumb kids screwing around with a Ouija board’ flick“. Settling back for what I was certain to be a slow, “been there seen that” hour and a half, something happened in the first reel of the flick I wasn’t expecting: character development. Now, lest you think that I mean it’s some boring, Dawson’s Creek-style whine-fest, let me assure you that not only was it well-written and brilliantly acted, it was enough to actually make me start to relate to and care about the characters. This isn’t something I’m used to in horror films, much less low-budget indies, and it was actually a nice change — hell, I got so into the trials and tribulations between the cast, I almost forgot I was watching a horror film. Then, when everything goes to hell, it does so with believability and again, fantastic acting (with a particular dialogue trick that I’m still marveling over!). Shimek uses the single location of the house and makes an entire, inescapable world of it — it’s the best use I’ve seen of a single-location in a while. The narrative flows effortlessly, moving from moment to moment with a naturalistic vibe that’s so often absent from horror — besides the really clever twists that the story takes, I also mean that the characters actually don’t always make the dumbass decisions that they’re so often known for! Of course, all of this quality writing and camera work would be useless with crap actors — fortunately, this film boasts some of the most convincing acting I’ve seen lately in indie horror; sure, there are one or two moments that the notes seem kinda sour, but within the scope of the story, it works. How many times have you Fellow Fans wound up either hearing or saying something amongst friends that came out flat and stupid-sounding?
Although the whole ensemble really shone in my opinion, the standouts to me were Clare Niederpruem as Jo, Hailey Nebeker as Maren (a name that I’m virtually certain is a nod to The Exorcist), and Jake Stormoen as Gabe. This isn’t to say the rest weren’t awesome — this trio just really had the most to do, story-wise. The effects weren’t in-your-face, but the ones you DO get (both practical, bloody business and ghostly, CGI-aided) are effective and serve the narrative very well.
It came as something of a surprise to me, but I guess you can tell I really dug this one, folks…I was totally absorbed into the story, and was genuinely upset when some of the characters met their fates — something that sadly seldom ever happens with modern horror. Shimek has crafted an effective, atmospheric, creepy, and above all contextually believable possession-type flick that manages to homage films of days gone by, stand alone as a good movie in it’s own right, and — by showing us that even longstanding formulas can be molded into something interesting with a little talent and effort — raises the bar on this type of film.
When this gets a Blu-ray release, it’ll be on my shelf, that’s for sure.
Two-fifths of a nickel lighter.