In 1974, an F5 tornado hit the downtown of Xenia, Ohio, killing thirty-four people and injuring 1,150. Tossed railcars obliterated the entire downtown and a school bus landed on the stage of the high school play. The damage from this tornado, surveyed by Richard M. Nixon (and prompting him to pass the Federal Disaster Relief Act) is considered one of the most significant twisters in U.S. history.
The Xenia tornado happened just a few miles from where I grew up. Though I was a small kid at the time, the tragic event was discussed in dark tones by the old and young for decades to follow. The idea that something so powerful could, without any warning, turn your surroundings upside down and, ahem, kill you, along with scores of others, sits at the primal heart of what scares people, particularly people in the middle swath of the United States.
Forget 1996’s “Twister,” or all those Weather Channel quote-unquote documentaries. Take just the pure force of a tornado and remove all meteorological mumbo jumbo, drain it of any chase or thrill-seeking, and just keep one thing: blind panic. Keep that and you have touched a nightmare that has no choice but to become a high-concept horror film. Do that and you’ll fill theatre seats from Baton Rouge to Chicago, from Topeka to D.C. Take the pure helplessness of storm travel and turn it into a collision with fate.
Take that, add a few monsters, and you have the new film, “Nailbiter.”
Director Patrick Rea – born and raised in tornado country – knows well the stomach-punch of warning sirens and the psychological effects of heavy winds and ominous clouds. Rea’s film recently played at L.A.’s big horror fest, where it won the best of the fest award. Already on the path to wider distribution and recognition, “Nailbiter” is a unique horror film in a land of copycat thrillers – variations on “Saw,” or “Paranormal Activity,” or the latest grindhouse de jour. (Only director Ti West – of “The House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers” – is able to wrestle a modicum of originality, with his slow burn, low-budget ventures, directed with precision and a solid point of view.) With “Nailbiter,” the charm is in the situation, concocted by screenwriter Kendal Sinn. There are characters (a bit close to type), and violence (much of it offscreen), and a bit of razzle-dazzle with the camera and the effects, plus a score that turns from nice to very naughty (music which, misleadingly, takes the bite out of the first twenty minutes, in arrangements that would stand alongside John Williams 80s work quite nicely.) But it’s none of these things that make “Nailbiter” a nailbiter.
It’s the plot. Just the simple hook:
A mom and three young daughters, en route to the airport, spot a tornado in the road. Busting for the nearest shelter, a seemingly abandoned farmhouse cellar, they’re soon locked in by barely-glimpsed creatures that, most likely, plan to eat them later. The action leaves the cellar from time to time, just enough to add a bit of “will they be found?” suspense, but, for the most part, it’s a film about being trapped in a storm. The family is resourceful and likeable and, probably, doomed, but as the storms continue to rage at intervals outside the house, you really do want to see how and if they get out of this mess.
If you’re naturally afraid of tornados – or monsters for that matter – best stay clear. But, on a night in the fall, possibly in the Midwest, when there’s wind and rain outside and a storm watch crawler moving across the television screen, “Nailbiter” is probably the perfect thing to switch on. If you’re not from Xenia, that is…
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels. His website is darrencallahan.com.