Nefarious (2019) UK Dir: Richard Rowntree
Toby Wynn-Davies, Buck Braithwaite, Nadia Lamin, Abbey Gillett, Omari Lake-Pottinger
Caution: spoilers ahead!
Hello to you fellow film fiends out there and welcome to the first review of 2021! Let’s all hope it’s a better year than last…
This is actually a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while (sorry Rich!), but with all the happenings over the course of 2020, the blog has been left somewhat neglected, a situation I’m determined to remedy in 2021. But more on that in the next Newsblast article I’ll post in the coming week. Before I launch into my review, I must declare an interest; yours truly helped back the making of NEFARIOUS through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, and did a lot of relentless promoting of the campaign on my social media channels. That doesn’t mean that I have not cast a critical eye on the end product, who wants to read a bought and paid for promo anyway? With all that out of the way, let’s dive in…
NEFARIOUS is the second feature length production from indie writer/director Richard Rowntree’s Ash Mountain Films outfit, following on from their debut, the twisted folk horror DOGGED. Moving away from it’s predecessor’s isolated rural setting, NEFARIOUS is a home invasion horror set among the grey concrete environs of inner city England. The home invasion sub-genre has produced several great horror flicks, from Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (1997), to the likes of YOU’RE NEXT (2011), THE STRANGERS (2008), and most recently two of my favourites that turn the sub-genre’s premise on its head; INTRUDERS (2015) and Fede Alvarez’s DON’T BREATHE (2016).
NEFARIOUS shares much of its DNA with Alvarez’s film; the protagonists are unlikable ne’er- do-wells on the fringes of society, who find an opportunity to take advantage of an individual they mistakenly judge to be weaker and more vulnerable than they are. By the time they realise their mistake it is too late as their intended victim is revealed as a dangerous antagonist.
Told in flashback through a series of police interviews, the events of the previous day are retold mainly through the eyes of Lou (Nadia Lamin) and several corroborating witnesses (watch out for the director’s cameo as a sleazy cab driver). On a council estate somewhere in England, low-lifes Darren (Buck Braithwaite), Lou, Jo (Abby Gillet) and Mas (Omari Lake Pottinger) are in debt to the local drug dealer. Increasingly desperate to escape their predicament, an opportunity seems to present itself when Clive (Gregory A. Smith), a mentally disabled work colleague of Darren’s, lets slip that he and his already wealthy brother Marcus (Toby Wynn-Davies) are in the possession of a winning lottery ticket. With the help of the others, Darren hatches a plan to burglarise the home Marcus shares with his brother, unaware of Marcus’ horrific secret life…
NEFARIOUS continues the theme established in the writer/director’s last film DOGGED; the fallen nature of the human condition. The true monsters are us, and the film forces the audience to acknowledge this uncomfortable fact. In reality there are no supernatural contrivances, no demonically possessed dolls or indestructible hockey-masked killers signposting their malefic intent just by their unnerving appearance. The person sitting next to you in the theatre could be a sadist, a psychopath, a serial murderer hiding their perverse impulses behind a mask of sanity. Only when they have chosen their victim and manipulated them into a vulnerable position, does the mask slip away and the true personality underneath reveal itself.
Rowntree wisely takes a slow burn approach to the story, before he unleashes the full horror of the situation the protagonists find themselves trapped in during the third act. The production’s tight budget is used sparingly up until this point, with the script deftly concentrating on building character and tension through a combination of tight editing (a running time of just 78 minutes), some ominous foreshadowing, and an approach to the story from the show-don’t tell old school. In contrast to DOGGED, the film refuses to give us any sympathetic characters to relate to (bar the disabled and easily manipulated Clive), all are morally compromised at best, from petty thieves and junkies at one end of the scale to full blown serial killers like Marcus (another terrific study in sneering malevolence from Toby Wynn-Davies following on from his performances in DOGGED and ESCAPE FROM CANNIBAL FARM).
And just when the audience is allowed to believe the ordeal is over, Rowntree refuses to let us up for air, slamming down a humdinger of a sting in the tail, USUAL SUSPECTS style. The police in the interview room are of course left none the wiser by their interviewee being an unreliable narrator, while the film’s reveal makes the audience complicit in the darkness that the climax infers will continue to hide among the neat and manicured facade of English suburbia, watching and waiting for the next opportunity to reveal itself.