Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Nesting (1980)

I hate the outdoors. No, wait, let me restate that. I loathe the outdoors. Don't misunderstand me, I find nature to be wonderful to look at. I recognize its importance in the ecological balance of the planet. I like animals. But I don't like being out in nature. I used to, when I was young and even into early adulthood. But I think that my love for the woods ended around the same time I stopped imbibing large quantities of hard liquor on a regular basis (the prospect of waking up on a clump of odd-smelling dirt had lost its shine, somehow). Now mosquitoes and flying, blood-sucking pests of every stripe find me to be something of a delicacy. I can cover myself head-to-toe in Deet-formulated repellants, but I think to insects (in relation to me, at any rate) it's like A-1 on a steak. I burn in minute amounts of sunlight. Some would say that's because I don't go outside to begin with. I would say that's one of the reasons I don't go outside. Heat is not my friend, and most people who want to be out in the woods for any length of time typically want to do so on nice, muggy, sweltering days. I start sweating at about sixty-five degrees and up. I don't begrudge anyone their enjoyment of all things out-of-doors; I simply don't partake in them. I certainly do not suffer from agoraphobia like Robin Groves' character in Armand Weston's The Nesting (aka Massacre Mansion, aka Phobia). I just prefer air-conditioning. 

Suffering from the aforementioned malady, author Lauren Cochran (Groves) can hardly make it out of her New York City apartment for more than a few minutes at a time, and she has a horrible (but not too horrible) fear of men. Trying everything from New Age meditation to seeing a shrink, Dr. Webb (Patrick Farrelly), Lauren decides that she needs to get out of the city to reduce her stress level. Accompanied by her unrequited would-be-suitor, Mark (Christopher Loomis), Lauren comes upon a rundown mansion, which she has never seen before, but she described vividly in her titular novel. She convinces weird old coot, Colonel LeBrun (John Carradine), and his physicist son, Daniel (Michael David Lally), to rent the place to her. Soon thereafter, Lauren has visions of "painted ladies" and phantoms moving about the place, and strange, deadly occurrences start taking place.

The late Armand Weston was a writer/director of porn movies before he made his only attempt at a "legit" film with this piece (according to IMDB, he was fired from Dawn Of The Mummy). And while the film does bear some mild adult influences (the brothel scenes, Lauren's self-caressing scene, the obligatory love scene, etcetera), it is also indicative of the adult industry of the time. By that I mean it is not strictly utilitarian in its technical aspects. The porn directors of the 1970s were often people trying to make real movies that happened to contain scenes of explicit sex in them. In this film, there are two ways that this mindset is in evidence. The first is in Weston's depiction of Lauren's ailment. When she goes outside and has an anxiety attack, he uses POV handheld camerawork with a fish-eye lens to accentuate the disorientation and menace felt by the character. The second is when Lauren imagines an out-of-body experience. Weston here employs a double-exposed ghost image of Lauren rising up from her prone physical form and moving about. It's an old school technique, but it is effective, and it helps the audience form some type of bond with the lead character (though this bond is tenuous and will be undone by the film itself later).

Films have utilized the defective lead/POV character for years. Just look at Harry Caul in The Conversation, the eponymous Barton Fink, or Mabel Longhetti of A Woman Under The Influence. What they do, essentially, is provide the story with an unreliable narrator, so that the audience can freely question almost everything it sees and hears; Was there a dead body in the truck, or was it all in her mind? You get the idea. For the sort of supernatural mystery that Weston has set-up here, it starts off on the right foot. Unfortunately, he also makes the mistake of not leaving the mystery to play out in the viewer's imagination (and, thus, question the film's reality). He explicitly answers the question of whether or not the house is haunted with a resounding "yes," which robs the story of much of its potential impact. When handyman, Frank (Bill Rowley), starts floating awkwardly in the middle of the living room, any sense of nuance goes out the window. There is a reason why Robert Wise didn't show anything unequivocally in his superlative The Haunting, and Weston would have done well to learn from that veteran director's work.

The film also deals with the divide between the heart and the mind through the supernatural elements. Lauren's psychiatrist believes that she is making connections in her mind that don't exist. Daniel believes in the possibility of the unknown, but his faith in science is stronger. By contrast, Lauren is an artist (a tortured one, to be sure) and accepts, even runs toward the embrace of the otherworldly. The first time she sees the house, she has to rent it. She follows furtive specters, no matter where they lead her (and they lead her to some odd places). Since we see all of the things happening to and around Lauren (even when she does not witness them directly), we side with her, and consequently we side with emotion. Yet again, the filmmakers try to marry the two together by the time the finale rolls around in a confused, rather hamfisted way. And it's this mash-up of the two that ultimately makes the film so unsatisfying. Rather than choose one side or the other (and actually develop it), they opt for both, and the audience therefore cares about neither. What's worse is that this attempted merger comes so late in the film, it feels like some egregious afterthought to the flat, blasé, exposition-laden info-dump that makes up the film's ending. Much like the matryoshka dolls the filmmakers almost certainly had in mind as a clever metaphor for the film's themes (nesting, get it?), it instead mirrors the observer's enjoyment, as each piece of the film opens to reveal smaller and smaller ideas, until there's not much left at all.

MVT: The best thing the filmmakers did for the film was trying to imbue it with a Southern Gothic feel, and it works when they care enough to try maintaining it. They just didn't try maintaining it for the entire runtime.

Make Or Break: The GGTMCers out there who enjoy watching unbelievably bad cinematic moments will revel in the scene where Lauren meets the slovenly Abner Wells (David Tabor, winner of this week's BEM Award). Seeing him pound on a car's windshield, his face a caricatured grimace, and his pants split down the crack of his ass is a moment you won't soon forget (no matter how much you'd like to).

Score: 5.75/10

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