Lorcan Finnegan’s “Nocebo” subverts the villainous nanny subgenre with a haunting horror story with a ruthless and relevant message.
“I’m here with you.”
There are few bonds that are more innate and eternal than those that exist between the family. These fundamental connections can push even the most ordinary people to do impossible things. Parenthood – whether it’s the stress that surrounds that responsibility or the idea that someone else doesn’t deserve it – is a topic that frequently finds itself at the center of the horror genre. There’s no shortage of evil nanny or creepy child horror movies, but by Lorcan Finnegan Nocebo yearns for something more with this surreal and visceral Irish/Filipino hybrid horror story that features some of the most haunting visuals of the year. It’s a powerful punch from a movie that looks like M.Night Shyamalan’s Servant meets The Babadook meets On the inside.
Nocebo begins in fairly familiar territory as Christine (Eva Green) and her husband Felix (strong brand) go about their ordinary, albeit overworked, occupations while trying to provide their son with the best of life. This simplistic existence deviates from its axis when a caregiver, Diana (Chai Fonacier), appears – seemingly out of nowhere – and becomes the essential boon that Christine didn’t know she lacked. Nocebo lives in the tension of whether Christine actually hired Diana or whether that helper has much more sinister intentions. A lot of Nocebo’s success rests not only on the public buying into this central relationship, but also on the fact that it is all really worth it. Recent horror movies like Barbaric are proof that viewers can be patient when it comes to responding and Nocebo never reaches those heights, it always takes a surprising turn that will likely leave more viewers satisfied than annoyed.
Nocebo is technically a fantasy horror film, but much of its material examines the survival of capitalism through the exploitation – and defamation – of foreign workers, which in this case is limited to Filipino culture. The horror of “the other” has sadly been alive and well in the horror genre for decades. Nocebo stirs up those tired archetypes in front of the audience, but what’s encouraging about the film is that there’s a level of authenticity here that comes from the Filipino screenwriter, Garrett Shanley. Nocebo and its reviled “other,” Diana, intentionally mock and subvert horror’s fascination with symbolic mysticism. It’s no coincidence that Christine’s work centers around child exploitation and Felix is a marketing strategist who only sees people in terms of dollars.
The growing schism between Christine and Diana fuels most Nocebo’s story and there is some interesting material that grew out of Christine’s superstitious and touchy disposition. Finnegan concocts creepy recurring symbols throughout this cat-and-mouse feud (a thriving tick is a recurring image that is put to good use and triggers several of Nocebo’s strongest scenes) which only become more authoritative for these characters. There is a fascinating karmic bond between Christine and Diana that is perpetually in flux and leads to exhausting and heartbreaking performances. The fragile mental state of Eva Green in Nocebo’s The final act is reason enough to watch the movie (even if it sometimes feels like “Resurrection light”). Nocebo is a movie that wallows in a lot of intense melodrama, but there’s also a wry sense of humor that comes out of Christine’s family life before Diane completely indoctrinated her.
Finnegan’s previous feature films, Nameless and Vivariumare two lavish visual feasts that bombard the viewer with kaleidoscopic surreal scenes. Nocebo is no different, though vastly more understated than Finnegan’s earlier films; that is, until the final act where Nocebo really goes wild as Christine’s mental state reaches new peril. Finnegan’s trippy visuals are usually the selling point of his stories and so it’s encouraging to see the director try new tricks here and not just rely on what has worked in the past. In addition, by Jose Antonio Buencamino the plunky score is often the perfect tool to accentuate the growing dread of the film. There’s a quality to this music that feels tribal, primal and alien in nature, that matches Nocebo’s themes and fascination with mysticism.
Nocebo deserves credit for its larger idea that capitalism is the biggest monster of them all, but it’s not something that ever fully comes together. There’s a gruesome finale that effectively ties these themes together and proves that Finnegan is such a strong visual filmmaker. However, a little restraint can go a long way and Nocebo often comes across as bossy with his big ideas. It sounds like a story and script that would benefit from an additional tighter pass, which is frustrating because there are also a lot of compelling ideas in the film that remain a mystery and not overexplained. That being said, it is always difficult to argue with Nocebo’s message and the frightening final image it comes out on. At a time when the horror genre is teeming with remakes and sequels, the risks that Nocebo takes and the pockets of culture it showcases more than make up for the moments that fall flat.
“Nocebo” hits limited theaters on November 4.