Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Nesting (1981)

During the production of her newest novel, writer Lauren Cochrane (Robin Groves), never exactly a picture of mental health it seems, has developed a serious case of agoraphobia. She decides that the best way to cope with her condition is for her to move from her native New York to the country for a time.

Out in the boons with her friend Mark (Christopher Loomis), Lauren feels strangely drawn to a place where she finds an old, dilapidated, yet beautiful mansion that looks exactly like the house she had in mind when she was writing her latest book, "The Nesting". Fascinated, Lauren decides that the house is to be her new country home. The owner, a senile old coot named Colonel LeBrun (John Carradine in a horrible state) would be quite willing to rent it, yet for some reason, taking one look at Lauren is enough for him to suffer a stroke that leaves him speechless and unconscious for most of the rest of the movie; fortunately, his grandson Daniel (Michael David Lally), rogue physicist, is there to take care of the renting business.

In a turn of events that'll come as no surprise to anyone but Lauren, her new dream home leaves something to be desired. Once the writer has moved in, her nights are disturbed by nightmares and peculiar dreams full of sexual undercurrents, grasping hands and a see-through Gloria Grahame. Initially, these dreams make the writer quite happy, for she has never been able to remember her dreams at all, yet now does so quite clearly. That happiness soon gives place to hysteria, when it becomes less and less clear to Lauren that her dreams actually only are dreams, and not ghostly apparitions. Soon enough, these ghosts find their first victims.

If you know him at all, you'll probably know The Nesting's director Armand Weston for a series of exceedingly dark and intense porn movies made in a time and place when hardcore porn directors had ambitions to make actual movies that just happened to include lots of sex, and weren't at all afraid to make sex look anything but enticing. As every ambitious porn director must, Weston also tried his hand at the horror genre, resulting in this, a pretty strange mix of haunted house movie, evil country yokel film, Southern Gothic not actually taking place in the South, and psychological horror that just might be the most Italian horror movie of 1981 not made by Italians or in Italy.

During its first thirty minutes or so, I thought I had The Nesting pegged as a cleverly directed (say what you will about Weston, but the man knows how to frame scenes so that they show the mental state of his characters) haunted house movie of the type where the haunting and the inner life of the main character are so inextricably entwined there'll be no telling what's supernatural and what mental illness. Sure enough, that's a card the film will continue to play later on, too, as well as trying its hand at pretending to be the story of a woman cleansing herself from post-natal trauma, but at that point, it will have already exploded into a series of increasingly bizarre scenes of screaming and mild mayhem that start with the physically dubious death of Lauren's psychiatrist (it's all very Freudian, really), make a little stop over at the house of a mad country person, guest star a flying cradle, and so on and so forth until its quite impossible to make out what the film really is supposed to be about, or for what kind of mood Weston is going. There's an explanation for most of the film's spooks late in the film, but the reason for Lauren's haunting and the way it actually plays out don't make a lick of sense when brought together, really putting The Nesting on the same level of merry what-the-hell-ness as, say, the films of Lucio Fulci.

Apart from the American movie's much lower level of gore and blood, Fulci's body of work truly is the best comparison I can come up with: there's the same love of sideways melodrama, people acting so weird they are more embodied mental states than characters, actors that can go from terrible to very convincing from one scene to the next, batty dialogue, plot lines disappearing and reappearing out of and into nowhere, explanations that fall ever so slightly short of making sense, flourishes (like Daniel's physicist job) that don't seem to have a reason to exist, and supernatural attacks often disturbing through their wrong-ness. And just like with Fulci, it's all presented in stops and starts, yet imbued with a deep, lingering sense for creating mood, an atmosphere of decay that is only increased by the film's logical missteps and weird pacing.

Now, Weston's film isn't quite as good as those of the maestro at his best. The mood is not quite lingering enough, and the weirdness not quite outré enough to keep a viewer as deeply engaged as Fulci's films can. However, for a film that was probably shot on a shoe-string budget to make use of a fantastic looking haunted house somebody in the production team stumbled upon (I'm speculating wildly here, so if I'm wrong, don't sue me), The Nesting is quite the thing. It's also proof - if anybody needed more of it - that US directors can succeed at the whole "horror as illogical, over-excited mood piece" approach to filmmaking nearly as well as we Europeans do, if they only apply themselves.



Maynard Morrissey said...

You're probably one of the very few who dares to compare The Nesting to Fulci :) I thought it's more in the vein of The Hearse from 1980 - that said, I admit I'm not a fan of both movies.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Hm, I remember The Hearse as being pretty TV movie-like, but it's been a decade since I saw it, so I may very well misremember.