NIGHTMARE MAN, a Rolfe Kanefsky flick, kicks off with an excellent title sequence, with swirling credits roaring through the forest, merging into psychedelic super-imposited nightmare footage of women running around screaming for their lives. It’s like a Sam Raimi fever dream fuelled with high-octane barbiturates, and it very succinctly sets the pace and mood for what’s to follow.
The film opens on a tense domestic scene with Ellen (JAQUELINE HYDE’s Blythe Metz) and her Euro-trash hubby, Bill, obviously not connecting. Ellen has purchased a fertility mask through the mail, but what she receives is a hideous demon-mask that gives her the heebie-jeebies. Bill is boorishly callous and gives the impression that he couldn’t be bothered to throw his wife a bone, mask or no. One quick topless shower-scene later and the terror begins with a low-light, high-tension, old-school ‘blown-fuse, bump-in-the-attic’ scare sequence that sets the mood for the rest of the film. Ellen is attacked by a demon ‘nightmare man’ in the attic who tears open her robe and throws her to the floor – that’s right, two flashes of Blythe Metz in the buff in the first 5 minutes.
Cut to Ellen waking from a nightmare in the car, as Bill is driving her to a nuthouse in the country. We learn that the ‘Nightmare Man’ incident has led to Ellen being heavily medicated and on her way to hospitalization. Bill is still unbelievably nasty to her, especially once the car breaks down on a deserted backwoods road (! Who saw that coming??!!). He leaves her in the car to find a gas station and, as darkness falls, the Nightmare Man returns to terrorize Ellen. Following a protracted fight in and around the car, Ellen is on the run through the forest, with a knife wielding Nightmare Man in hot pursuit. This is where we are introduced to the other element of the film, namely a pair of young couples enjoying a weekend away at saucy young troublemaker Mia’s (Tiffany Shepis) cabin.
The ensuing juxtaposition between Ellen’s fight for survival in the woods and a game of erotic truth or dare in the cabin is classic slasher convention, but handled so deftly and in such a knowing way as to make it fresh and free of cliché. This is Kanefsky’s specialty, as seen in his other films – from the re-glorification of the 80’s teen-sex-romp in PRETTY COOL, to the revisionist college-slasher flick THE HAZING. This is Kanefsky’s ‘Cabin-in-the-woods’ flick and, while it is filled with homage to great 80’s horror like THE EVIL DEAD, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS and Lamberto Bava’s DEMONI, it throws the usual genre pitches, but low and outside with a reverse spin.
The rest of the film is a fast-paced, gore and thrill-packed ride through the funhouse, with knives through faces, crossbow-carnage, gunshots galore, demon possession, mass murder and Tiffany Shepis in black lace undies wielding various weapons. Yes, I will admit that many of my own wildest dreams came true, when Tiff did a little dance, dropped a little trou and then picked up a friggin’ crossbow!
The writing (also by Rolfe Kanefsky) was tight and natural. There are no clunky expositive passages, no confessional monologues and unwieldy conversations written in voices that don’t fit the characters. The characters were all individually realized with distinct personalities, attitudes and motivations. That, by itself, was a breath of fresh air compared to almost all of the lo-bud horror I’ve recently been subjected to. This is well written, well directed and, most of all, well acted.
Blythe Metz delivers a perfect unhinged paranoiac. She is also as close as you’re going to get to circa 86′ Tawny Kitaen, when Kitaen was the Whitesnake girl and the greatest pinup centrefold since Farrah Fawcett. Metz plays nutjob like nobody’s business and walks that very thin line between crazy and hammy with the greatest of agility. James Ferris and Hannah Putnam, who play one of the happy weekending couples, have great chemistry with each other and each bring a believability to their roles that keep the film above water during the tense 2nd act. Jack Sway, who plays Mia’s much younger boy-toy, has a few moments of genuine charm, a la Wiley Wiggins in DAZED & CONFUSED. That being said, his characters main purpose seems to be to wear a T-shirt from Kanefsky’s first flick, THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE, and then be the first to die (a little in-joke for RK fans).
The real treat here is watching the always-enjoyable Ms. Shepis spread those wings and kick ass. Anyone who has seen a film with Shepis, from 1996’s TROMEO & JULIET through almost all of Kanefsky’s films and such B-titles as the underrated DETOUR, DELTA DELTA DIE and the Bigfoot-flick ABOMINABLE, will know that she has always been a magnetic presence and always been memorable, no matter how questionable the film itself may have been. In NIGHTMARE MAN, she takes it to a whole new level. Shepis’ Mia is a smart-mouthed, volatile badass survivor – smart, funny, sexy and tough. She’s like a tiny, sexed-up, live-wire version of MacReady from THE THING. She’s the last one standing and following a slam-bang climactic battle, she brings it all home with a phenomenal character switch-up, a near-heart wrenching performance in the denouement and one final twist on the old rubber-room chestnut. You have to see it to fully understand it. Suffice it to say, Shepis has always been a genre fave, now she proves that she is a tremendous actress and a bona-fide movie star in the making.
Kanefsky is one of the most interesting Lo-Bud filmmakers out there right now and it is no surprise that NIGHTMARE MAN was picked up by After Dark Films for their 8 FILMS TO DIE FOR fest. It’s also won a passel of awards at a number of film fests, including Shockerfest and IFFYNTX, both of which chose Tiffany Shepis as Best Actress.
When all is said and done, NIGHTMARE MAN may not be the most groundbreaking story in the history of horror cinema and it may not be the most eye-gougingly effects-magnificent epic you have ever seen, but it sure is a wild fuckin’ ride. Check it out at the After Dark fest as one of this years 8 FILMS TO DIE FOR (http://www.horrorfestonline.com/) playing across the US from November 9 to 18, and then be sure to put it into your collection when it inevitably hits DVD later this year.
Check out NIGHTMARE MAN:
On MySpace – http://www.myspace.com/nightmaremanthemovie
Rolfe Kanefsky Official Site – http://www.rolfekanefsky.com/projects/nightmare1.htm