Assembled by some talented directors, Nightmare Cinema is absolutely brimming with style. Though it has its ups and downs, this anthology film comes together as quite a nice collection of horror shorts by Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Ryûhei Kitamura, and David Slade. There’s a wide range of styles and realms within the horror genre represented here, so when it all comes together, we get a mix of over-the-top horror comedy and some downright disturbing bits of filmmaking.
The story bringing all these tales together is fairly simple and involves different people finding themselves inexplicably drawn to a strange abandoned cinema, where they are shown films by a mysterious projectionist in which they themselves will be participants. There is an 80s horror vibe to these segments that is charming, as well as some nice payoffs, but the real draw is the shorts themselves.
Nightmare Cinema may not be all gold, but it’s a proficient project that entertains front to back.
The Thing In The Woods
The first is Alejandro Brugués’ “The Thing In The Woods,” a campy 80s slasher flick sendup that quickly starts to give off some real Tucker and Dale vibes, with the ‘victims’ accidentally ending themselves or their friends in their attempts to bring down a masked killer. This slasher (called ‘Welder’) isn’t really a patch on other genre villains in terms of creepiness, but he’s sufficiently goofy for the role he plays.
Embracing the postmodernism of slasher films and even taking things a bit further, “The Thing In The Woods” presents a rather cliched setup before pulling a twist to cap it off. And what a twist! Where the killer is normally assumed to be the villain of any horror film, “The Thing In The Woods” shifts the audience’s perspective before taking a wild right turn out of slasher horror and into the neighboring sci-fi genre with an insane change of direction that really subverts expectations for a slasher.
Some of the humour feels a bit forced and awkward, but putting aside the comedic lean, the second half has some great ominous shots and a very fitting — if a bit generic — soundtrack. It’s a nice start that showcases how Nightmare Cinema balances out humor and its darker, more serious horror offerings.
The second segment, titled “Mirare,” is directed by Joe Dante (of Gremlins fame). It revolves around a woman named Anna, who sports facial scarring and has rather deep insecurities about it. She seeks help in a clinic that turns out to not be everything it appeared on the surface; after being told that she requires a followup, she discovers over the course of that night some of the horrible things the clinic is hiding.
“Mirare” presents some strong imagery, including Anna’s bandage-wrapped face, which immediately conjures up the iconic “Eye of the Beholder” episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s a great device for tension, as it alienates the character from themselves and leaves them vulnerable. There’s also some effective body horror, with one scene, in particular, involving Anna finding out what had happened to another patient in the clinic.
Overall, however, it feels like “Mirare” misses the mark just a bit. Playing on body horror and warped ideas of perfection is a great backdrop, and there’s a good bit of dancing with dark and disturbing themes, but the tension ultimately ends up fading into the background among the stronger segments around it. This second segment does provide a lot more intensity than the first, but a lot less charm as well.
Ryuhei Kitamura is a prolific director who solidified himself with one of the J-Splatter genre‘s best films, Versus, as well as the hilarious and utterly insane Battlefield Baseball and Deadball, so I went into “Mashit” with quite a bit of excitement.
It gets off to a hardcore start with the suicide of a possessed boy, as onlookers at a catholic school get splattered with red as a result of this little monastery/boarding school being terrorized by a demonic presence. Kitamura stays his hand (at least for a while), creating atmosphere and slowly building towards the over-the-top action he’s known for. Small gory and disturbing details emerge whilst the school’s residents search for whatever being is making strange noises that night. There are defaced statues and trails of blood leading about, and the brief glimpses of a strange, distant creature is a nice touch.
“Mashit” is an entertaining rollercoaster, mixing religion and horror for a great combination, but it does feel like it suffers from being a short film. There’s no time to dwell on exploring the ideas, and though it’s covered in that J-Splatter ridiculous goodness, the ups and downs of the completely insane plots of J-Splatter films coming at the viewer this fast is a bit head-spinning.
The acting in this segment is really on point though, and this, combined with the killer imagery Kitamura puts together, makes the very rushed plot still feel impactful. And the ending, when the weapons come out and demonic possession runs rampant, may not reach anywhere near the levels of Kitamura’s other J-Splatter films, but it’s got that same energy.
This Way To Egress
“This Way To Egress” is an ambitious and unnerving surrealist venture from the director of Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night, and most recently, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. It casts away a lot of the silliness leading up to it, as we now fully enter the darker side of Nightmare Cinema.
A woman named Helen in a waiting room to see a psychiatrist has to deal with shifting reality, as her world turns from sterile to filthy, and her two sons disappear as if they were never there. She sets out to navigate the truly disturbing place she finds herself now in, find her sons, and try to escape. On top of that, the woman remembers things that seem to not be true in this world, like she’s stepped over from another place.
The most real sense of terror comes from this short; every being Helen comes into contact with is extremely deformed, with their voices down pitched and monstrous. The janitors, who claim to have not seen the children, are ominous and powerful, with strange behaviour and monstrous looks. ‘Egress’ can mean an exit, a way out, but it’s also a letter away from ‘regress,’ which is a very briefly hinted-at plot device. A few layers can be applied to the surrealist nature of this segment.
The metaphor at play leads up to an almost-cliched twist, but instead, the swerve is in another direction entirely. The terrifying idea of suddenly crossing over to another place, another world, and not knowing anything concrete about your situation is excellently played with. The acting here is phenomenal from our main character, and “This Way to Egress” is elevated to the most terrifying amongst this anthology.
“Dead” sees young Riley killing a piano recital after his father barely made it in time to see him. Just as they’re about to drive home, a gunman threatens them; Riley’s father tries to grab the gun, resulting in a scuffle that ends with all three family members dead. Riley is lucky enough to be revived after being shot, but he was dead for 17 minutes. This does something to a person.
Around the hospital, Riley finds he can now see dead people (though a bit differently from The Sixth Sense), as if that short time spent dead has put him somewhere between the worlds. It’s a terrifying reality for him now that he can see all the pained deceased about, as well as his own mother, who’s very adamant that he should rest and join her on the other side.
Whilst the dead are quite scary on their own, where the main tension of “Dead” comes from the intent-on-finishing-the-job murderer of Riley’s parents. This works due to the character development, which is possibly the most proficient of all in the anthology. Riley and Casey (another child with a similar condition) become endearing people to root for.
However, whilst it is quite an impressive short, the special effects do feel very B-movie-esque. A dramatic scene with Riley getting visions and messages from his mother and another character looks really cheap and awkward. Outside of this minor gripe, “Dead” is a fantastic offering and a perfect way to cap everything off.
All together, Nightmare Cinema is a thoroughly enjoyable horror anthology. It may not reach the chilling highs of VHS or the narrative togetherness of Trick ‘r Treat, but it stands on its own quite confidently. Certainly, worth a watch for horror fans, these anthologies are the perfect place to widen your horizons and see different approaches and styles within the genre we love so much. Nightmare Cinema may not be all gold, but it’s a proficient project that entertains front to back.
‘Nightmare Cinema’ is available on Shudder.