There’s no greater natural contraceptive than a ‘creepy child’ film. From Rosemary’s Baby to ancient folklore of faeries stealing children, any horror that preys on the fears that an otherworldly force could be snatching kids utilises a timelessly terrifying device. James Suttles’ The Nest, a bug-horror-come-family-drama, is certainly no exception to this, but will it secure itself a place amongst all the other frightful familial flicks?
The Nest follows a loving but fraught family made up of Beth (Sarah Navratil), Jack (Kevin Patrick Murphy) and their daughter Meg (Maple Suttles). They have moved into the home of a recently departed relative in one of the more isolated corners of America. This is all to escape Beth’s mysterious troubles in the past, which we’re constantly reminded are always hanging over the family, especially since they cost her a beloved teaching job. That’s not all that’s hanging over them, though. After Meg has a traumatic accident involving her new, deeply unsettling teddy bear, she develops extreme separation anxiety and strange bug-like behaviour. All the while, Beth has nightmares of parasitic creatures threatening to consume her and her loved ones.
Things escalate when Jack and family friend Marisa, played by the legendary Dee Wallace, start showing the same behaviour. Jennifer Trudrung’s debut feature script does a great job at leaving you guessing whether there is really a parasitic insect invasion or if it’s just a delusion brought on by Beth’s guilt. You’re kept wondering right up until the final ten minutes of the movie.
The film uses its first 40 minutes to settle into the beats of a family drama, with nods and snippets of horror. Suttles uses this time to dive deep into each character, showing us what their place in the family is, and what stakes their involvement brings. This first act is still horror through and through, but the terror comes from a much more domestic place and lets the audience get to know the cast. The second and third acts are spent dialing up the creature horror, as the parasites slowly work their way around the rest of the family. The Nest finds a natural balance between creature horror and kitchen sink drama. It feels as though if one of these elements was removed, we’d still have a competent film remaining. The horror doesn’t just come from the horrible insects slowly taking over the family, or The Nest‘s undeniable similarity to Invasion of the Body Snatchers if David Cronenberg was at the wheel. It also comes from Beth’s realisation that her daughter no longer trusts her, and the slow, atmospheric build of the first forty minutes solidifies why we should be caring about this.
The movie boasts some brilliant monster effects, from the almost Harryhausen-like animation of the bugs to the simple but effective teddy that looks like an Ewok from the Coraline universe. The use of effects is subtle right up until the third act, where we get to see one of the most unnerving stuffed-animal-based set-pieces ever seen in horror. Keeping the foot off the pedal with the effects was clearly intended to focus on the familial drama aspects of the plot. However, this pays off because it means that when we finally get to see a glimpse of those bugs in all their chitinous glory, they strike us even more.
It’s all well and good using effects sparingly, but they must still look convincing. This is something that special effects supervisor John Lauterbach has pulled off in spades. From the glint in Ricky the bear’s oversized eyes to the visceral shock of insect nests, The Nest is head and shoulders above its indie film peers in the FX department.
The Nest is also elevated by its superb cinematography and sound design, which takes an already effective premise and shoots it with a striking but bleak eye that drenches the film in a grey and blue hue. We are provided with a fly-on-the-wall insight into a family falling apart at the seams. The sound design makes sure that, even though the bug appearances are spread out, the audience is still unnerved by these insectoid invaders. We get to listen to how they communicate and move around without any dialogue, just a harsh clicking noise that will make your skin crawl like whatever is moving around inside Rick the bear’s belly.
Some performances do feel a little flat, mostly from any character playing host to a mind-sucking scorpion. This is ultimately because a parasitic take-over traditionally leads to a monotonous voice from the host. Unfortunately, there are times when this intention isn’t entirely clear, and it just seems like they’re struggling to inject emotion into their lines. There are a lot of heavy and emotional exchanges in The Nest, and these scenes really lose their edge when delivered woodenly. In addition to the delivery choices, some of the dialogue itself comes off a little shallow, in that everyone’s motivation is explained to us very directly. For an offering that balances the tone of family drama and horror so effectively, it would have been nice to see a bit more subtlety in the dialogue.
The Nest takes a bold risk by selling itself as a hybrid of genres. This is not uncharted territory but can be notoriously difficult to achieve. Despite this, The Nest rises to the challenge and then some, setting the mould on how to balance these otherwise disparate schools of filmmaking. There are so many twists and turns that it will keep you wondering what on earth could happen next, and you’ll be thrilled that what’s coming next is either highly unsettling, emotionally impactful, or just a really well executed practical effect.