Judge Daryl Loomis cannot deny it: he likes nurses and he likes to see them fight.
When you lock out, you lock in.
Inside a country home in Wairarapa, New Zealand, a pair of young nurses cares for an ailing man. Outside, a killer has spent the last several weeks stalking nurses and strangling them. Alone and afraid, the two women lock tight all the doors and windows. They believe they are safe, but as day becomes night, they notice objects have moved and the patient's oxygen tank is suddenly depleted. They could just be paranoid, but they start to wonder; when they locked themselves in the house, did they lock the killer in with them?
When Night Falls is the little thriller that could; a tight little suspense package shot for under $35,000 that hits all the right notes and even manages a few effective twists and turns along the way. This may be writer/director/producer/editor Alex Galvin's debut feature, but the New Zealander has skill. Given his minimal budget, the film boasts an unpredictable story, strong performances, and surprisingly good audio and visual effects.
The story goes down in 1932, and the film has a very nice period quality. If not for the creepy music and opening montage, it would be very easy to mistake this for an historical film about the budding love between nurse and patient. The costumes (designed specifically for the film; increasingly rare for even big budget films these days), cars, and house dressing all look authentic. This makes the film immersive, and helps it work its way into our heads to break down our defenses and then really stick it to us. It's a slow burn, but the suspense is built through the character development. Galvin tosses in a few red herrings; plays around with well-established, often cheesy, genre conventions; and has generally delivered quite an entertaining, twisty thriller.
The first nurse we meet is Louise (Tania Nolan), who has been at the house for some time. She has really taken a shine to her patient, Mr. Andrews (Kevin Keys), and the feeling is definitely mutual. A rare mistake from Louise makes people think she is overworked, so a second nurse gets sent in to help. Nurse Davis (Rosella Hart) is a very different kind of nurse. Stern, orderly, and generally a pain to deal with; she is only there because of a mistake by Louise. She doesn't trust Louise and finds her unprofessional, especially considering her feelings for the patient. As the junior nurse, Louise does her best to take it in stride, but they snipe constantly. It might be easy, given the conflict, to believe that Nurse Davis is the killer. While it would make some sense within the story, the opening of the film establishes that the killer is a man. Authorities even have a suspect in mind: a disgruntled former doctor taking revenge on the nurses from his old hospital. As one of those nurses, Nurse Davis instead is a likely victim.
Still, with what transpires on screen, at a certain point it seems like the only option. That's not true just for her, either. Like a good Agatha Christie story (a name he often invokes in his commentary), Galvin presents us with possibilities before he shows his hand. He lets us believe that each character could actually be the killer. At one point, however briefly, I even thought that the patient was guilty. That's a pretty big stretch, and I knew it at the time, but Galvin sells it well. Up to the very last seconds of the film, the outcome is in doubt. That's awfully tough to do on a film of any budget; and with a debut feature like this, it's pretty stunning.
Galvin doesn't do it alone, though; there's clearly some talent in New Zealand. Galvin does much of the technical work, but the moody cinematography by Matt Sharp has a nice, old time feel, with plenty of long takes that help enhance the sense of dread. Tony Burt's score is spot on, as well. What sells the film most, though, is the performances. The cast is very small, but the characters are strong with especially good turns from the two leads. Together, they are the only performers on screen the vast majority of the time, but they work great together. When they're on the same team, they're a lot of fun. Things get weirder and they progressively get the other more freaked out. As enemies, though, they're dynamite. There is a realistic animosity there that escalates as the story goes. This culminates in a huge fight between the nurses that is simply awesome. These women seriously throw down, brawling from one end of the house to the other. It's not only unexpected, it's really well done. In every aspect, they put their all into the performances, making for living characters and capping off a damn fine thriller.
Good as the film is, enjoyment of it is stunted by a bottom-level release from Seminal Films. I'm not familiar with the company and I can see why. This is truly one of the worst looking transfers I have ever seen. I didn't realize that current technology could even allow this much digital noise, but now I know better. On the plus side, the image is grain-free and anamorphic but, sadly, it's nearly unwatchable. The sound is a big improvement, which is to call it mediocre. Next to the image, that's a success. The stereo mix is hiss-free and there is a little separation between the speakers. For extras, we start with a very good audio commentary from Galvin, in which the director discusses in great detail the trouble with making such a low budget film. A still gallery and some text-based director's notes close us out of one of the more enjoyable thrillers I've seen in a long time.
Not guilty; highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Seminal Films
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