Patricio Valladares’ Nightworld (2017) starring Robert Englund and Jason London is a fun, moderately-paced thriller with bits of everything in the mix: action, old TV drama, thriller and horror.
Unlike other films in the “psychological thriller” genre, the story of the protagonist (Brett) has been fleshed out well, though the overall storyline is not substantially unique nor engaging. I believe that the movie wins not in CGI, SFX or in its main story but in its treatment of zombie-like creatures in the afterlife, which is so crucial to the effort of building film lore about zombies and the undead in general.
Brett, a retired LAPD officer, is the quintessential stoic man with a single task – he needs to watch the cameras in the building he was guarding and he needs to report to the two contact persons, who asked him to call a number the moment he notices something suspicious going on.
He is then introduced to the ‘house of horror’ itself – the structure in Nightworld is a huge complex with a single, ornately carved door at the center of it all. I would say that it follows the ‘universal’ design of all horror houses in movies – large, damp and empty.
Such places can suck the happiness straight of people and Brett, who is suffering from depression and repeated nightmares about his wife who Zara who died, is the perfect vulnerable figure to pit against an ‘empty house’ that isn’t really empty.
Arguably, there are only two well-formed characters in the film: Brett and the old guardian of the house, Jacob (played genre vet Robert Englund). In the movie, Robert plays a venerable blind, old man who knows the secrets of the house.
He is the perfect foil to Brett who is unsteady, unsure and plagued with personal issues from beginning to end. Ana (played by Diana Lyubenova), Brett’s semi-romantic love interest and partner in the film gave the sequence just the right amount of spunk especially during the rising points of the film when the secrets of the dark structure are finally revealed.
Toward the end of the film, the evil undead horde are finally revealed. What’s interesting in the film is the concept of crossing over. The film presents two domains that are by ‘nature’ separated by universal laws.
However, once a crossing over (from the non-human realm) is achieved, the undead become vulnerable to physical attack. What has not been shown in the film is where they come from exactly – but I think this is a classic device in thrillers that involve the undead. To show where the undead are spawned can make a story spiral out of focus, unless the movie has a supernatural lead character that can actually outlast or at least operate in a supernatural environment.
I remember when Constantine the movie first came out. It was a blockbuster hit mainly because Constantine (the Hellblazer) can operate even more efficiently in the realm of the undead. He had the knowledge, the powers and the right attitude to deal with evils beyond the human realm. And to add to his advantage, he had a ‘I don’t give a rat’s ass’ attitude that was useful when you’re faced with nerve-wracking things, like the corporeal visions of death and evil.
The Insidious franchise highlighted the effectiveness of using a ‘sage’ character when dealing with the dead. A sage is usually an elderly character who was not particular strong, but had intelligence and arcane knowledge that no one else had in the universe of man versus monsters, the key factor has always been knowledge. You can have all the brawns in the world, but if you don’t know how to seal a gateway or hack an enemy with the right sacred weapon, you’re going to die – period.
Nightworld’s world-building efforts was sourced from classic fantasy – I would say a mix of pre-Judean and Christian lore. It was the same binary of good and evil, but what the film really tried to explicate was that the physical realm had far more participation in keeping out the baddies than we formerly imagined. And this brings us to a classic ‘truth’ in fantasy: that the world, despite its flaws, remains the ideal and those who have been vanquished from this plane will ‘logically’ want to come back.
While the conceptualization of what the ‘other side’ might look like and what might be in there was a plain and in some parts unimaginative, we could say that this is still a fair treatment since the point of psychological thriller films was to stress the human psyche repeatedly throughout, so that the build-up of events and emotions become more amplified and effective through time.
I think it was also smart for the film to play with the concept of lost love. Death is one of the things in this world that puts a period in the love between two or more people. In the case of Zara and Brett, Brett being left behind was so crucial to the entire narrative that one would think that you can draw a love story from the psychological thriller because of the weight that was given to the relationship between the two.
I think this is the primary imbalance that made the film less interesting overall – that despite the best efforts, the main character had been too weak, to preoccupied with being lovelorn that the basic, immediate instinct of saving one’s life was put to the back burner.
That during the moments when Brett could have exerted more energy to face the evils around him, he appeared unevenly-footed and hesitant. After a time, this hesitation is normally cured by information in other films, but for Brett? He was a clear skeptic until the very end, which doesn’t make a lot of sense given the fact that skeptics often change their ways in the face of observable phenomena.
I give Nightworld five stars out of ten – a good effort, but may have done better with a saner lead character.