Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nomads (1986)

A disheveled man screaming something in French (Pierce Brosnan and his terrible "French" accent) dies in the ER room of doctor Flax (Lesley-Anne Down). The last few words he whispers to her trigger something in her and she is possessed by him, or at least his memories, and she starts to wander LA in a trance-like state, all the while flashing back to what happened to the man.

It turns out that our man Pierce wasn't the hobo the script says he looked like, but rather a famous anthropologist (as if such a thing were possible) named Jean Charles Pommier. Pommier and his wife Niki (Anna Maria Monticelli) had spent the last ten years on the move, studying everyone from the Inuit to African nomad tribes, and have now decided to semi-retire to a nice university job in Los Angeles to settle down and produce a child.

The house they chose isn't a good place for them, though. On the first day, someone writes a charming little message about sex and death on their garage door, and - worse - another one inside their garage. The same someone has left some rather disturbing newspaper clips about violent crimes in the garage. It seems as if someone was murdered in the new family home.

Pommier quickly jumps on the Mad Max rejects (among them Adam Ant and Mary Woronov) in a black van he regularly sees driving around the house as the culprits. He's instantly obsessed with them, grabs a camera, wanting to do some anthropologizing on them. He follows them through LA and learns that they never seem to sleep and don't do much else than to threaten people, sometimes playfully, sometimes in a more dangerous fashion. The scientist develops the theory that he has stumbled upon a tribe of true urban nomads, not much different from the ones he has studied all of his life.

But some close and puzzling encounters show that he is only half right. These aren't nomads, but the evil spirits all nomads he studied were afraid of, and once having come in contact with them, there is no escape into a saner world for Pommier anymore.

And it seems as if there also isn't much of a chance for a normal existence for his loved ones, or people like Flax whose lives he somehow touched.

Before director John McTiernan went and built the house we know as the American action film of the 80s with films like Predator and Die Hard, he made this deeply flawed, but highly interesting urban horror story.

Let's start off with the film's biggest problem - Pierce Brosnan's typically dreadful performance that culminates in the worst French accent you'll ever hear outside of a comedy, but isn't any good in any other aspect either. Making him the leading man here is a very puzzling decision - he can't act, he can't do the French, and pretty boy anthropologists are even less believable than square-jawed 50s scientists. Personally, I would have gone with a French actor for my French lead character, preferably someone with a little talent, but hey, I just watch this crap. Of course, if you feel the need to see a very naked Pierce Brosnan, you will have the chance here.

The rest of the actors is basically alright, but neither Down nor Monticelli have much to do beyond the usual hysterics.

Another problem are the evil spirits themselves. You know, mock punks aren't too frightening even at the best of times, and the "threatening" stuff these guys are up to isn't anything to write home about.

So, if the main actor just sucks and the baddies aren't frightening, why do I still think that this is one of the lesser known horror films from the 80s more people should see?

For once, it's the script, to my surprise also by McTiernan. While I wouldn't exactly call it subtle, it is still rather on the clever side. The basic concept of nomadic spirits haunting the streets of LA just is a brilliant idea and the sort of thing that might not be all that original when you are a reader of contemporary fantasy novels, but is nearly never done in movies.

It is also a script that respects the intelligence of the viewer to understand its concept, spelling out as little as possible, but keeping its mythology logical, even going so far as to not ruin everything with a smartass ending.

McTiernan's direction also has its moments. Again, it isn't subtle, and some of the "cock rock plays to darkened streets while 80s rejects roam" moments are quite annoying, instead of moody as they are probably meant to be, but after some time, McTiernan falls into a slightly hypnotic rhythm that impressively manages to convey the thinning of the borders between the things that are urban reality and those that are urban fantasy.

In the end, that is more than enough to make up for Brosnan and the film's shocking eightiesness. At least it is for me.


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