Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Flickering Candlesticks

Hey, it's October, and that can mean only one thing - being pummeled with a multitude of horror movie reviews on blogs, podcasts and whatnot. I'm afraid I'll be joining in on the lemming-like march toward Halloween horror mania with some seasonal reviews of my own, but hopefully, they'll be under-seen and under-appreciated enough to be of interest. Toward that effort, I thought I'd focus on horror that had some kind of fairy tale aspect to it. Also, I wanted to pick films from around the world to add some flavor. So without further ado:

Once upon a time in New Zealand, there lived a boy named Jack...

Long before hiding in the bathroom with a hand cannon in Pulp Fiction, or dating one of the coeds in Threesome or robbing banks with the James brothers in Frank and Jesse, Alexis Arquette starred as an Auckland boy named Jack. Now, as tough a time as Arquette's characters had in those previously mentioned films, they are nothing when compared to Jack's difficulties in the New Zealand horror movie, Jack Be Nimble. As the story begins, Jack and his big sister Dora are separated from each other when their mother has a meltdown and they are given up for adoption. 

Dora is adopted by a kindly couple, whereas Jack gets adopted by a different couple who, judging by their appearance, seem like they might be nice...

...well, maybe not so much. But hey, there's good news in that Jack has four, count 'em, four new sisters and that's not a bad trade off at all, is it?

Well, maybe not so much. But hey, everyone eventually grows up and gets over their sibling rivalries and lets bygones be bygones and...

Um, nevermind. The truth is, Jack's upbringing is the stuff of nightmares and he grows up with more than a little chip on his shoulder. Meanwhile, his estranged sister Dora is not having the best time either. Although her parents are decent, she's picked on at school and still yearns to have her lost brother back with her. To make matters worse, after being injured in a schoolyard fight, she begins hearing voices and having visions.

From here, I'd hoped things would get better for Jack and Dora. But being this is a story absolutely drenched in dark fairy tale tropes, I felt it unlikely. There are some good twists and surprises, but to its credit the film never loses that dark edge and keeps the fairy tale ingredients in play right through to the end. At the same time, it never loses its believability due to the imaginative writing and direction of New Zealander, Garth Maxwell. The acting is superior as well with kiwi stalwarts like Bruno Lawrence and Elizabeth Hawthorne, and Aussie icon Tony Barry backing up the leads Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy who plays Dora.

Lawrence, who is always solid in the anti-hero role, puts in another interesting performance as Teddy, Dora's would-be boyfriend. Teddy is not a bad guy, but he is a bit of a selfish prick which is a nice departure for a character who is otherwise empathetic. Tony Barry, who usually plays good guy roles, and whom I loved in Goodbye Pork Pie, is quite believable as Jack's adopted, drunken, sadistic father. But it's Elizabeth Hawthorne, best known from The Frighteners, who is actually the most bone-chillingly evil character in the film.

Alexis Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy both do excellent jobs in the lead roles with Arquette alternating between suppressed rage and emotional hurt throughout the film. I haven't seen all of Arquette's work, but this has to be one of his best performances as he puts on an emotional showcase all the while using a passable kiwi accent.

My only problem with the film is that the below average cinematography and lesser film stock got in the way of what could have been some great shots. The cheaper, muddy look works with the country location of Jack's family but it really does damage with the city skyline or ocean shots that appear later in the film. New Zealand, of all places, demands top notch, crisp photography.
Overall, the film is a rare horror fairy tale in a modern setting that actually works extremely well and is quite disturbing. Why it hasn't received more attention is a mystery but it is a perfect movie for Halloween.

Jack Be Nimble score - 8.25/10

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