Lorcan Finnegan’s ‘Nocebo’ subverts the wicked nanny subgenre with a haunting horror story with a ruthless, relevant message.
“I am here with you.”
There are few bonds that are more innate and eternal than those between family. These fundamental connections can push the most ordinary of individuals to do impossible things. Parenthood–whether it’s the stresses that surround this responsibility or the idea that someone else doesn’t deserve it–is subject matter that frequently finds itself at the center of the horror genre. There is no shortage of evil nanny or creepy kid horror movies, but Lorcan Finnegan’s Nocebo strives for something more with this surreal, visceral Irish/Filipino hybrid horror story that contains some of the most haunting visuals of the year. It’s a powerful gut punch of a film that feels like M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant meets The Babadook meets Inside.
Nocebo begins in fairly familiar territory as Christine (Eva Green) and her husband Felix (Mark Strong) go about their ordinary, albeit overworked lives while they attempt to provide their son with the best that life has to offer. This simplistic existence spins off its axis when a caregiver, Diana (Chai Fonacier), shows up–seemingly out of nowhere–and becomes the essential godsend that Christine never knew she was missing. Nocebo lives in the tension of whether Christine actually hired Diana or if this helper has significantly more sinister intentions. A lot of Nocebo’s success relies upon not only if audiences buy into this central relationship, but if the payoff of where this all goes is actually worth the effort. Recent horror movies like Barbarian are proof that viewers can be patient when it comes to answers and while Nocebo never reaches those heights, it still goes out on a surprising turn that’s likely to leave more audiences satisfied than aggravated.
Nocebo is technically a fantasy horror movie, but so much of its material examines the survival of capitalism through the exploitation–and vilification–of overseas workers, which in this case narrows in on Filipino culture. The horror of the “other” has unfortunately been alive and well in the horror genre for decades. Nocebo wags these tired archetypes in the audience’s face, but what’s encouraging about the film is that there’s a level of authenticity here that comes from Filipino screenwriter, Garrett Shanley. Nocebo and its vilified “other,” Diana, intentionally mock and subvert horror’s fascination with token mysticism. It’s no coincidence that Christine’s job centers around the exploitation of children and Felix is a marketing strategist who only views people in terms of dollar signs.
The growing schism between Christine and Diana fuels most of Nocebo’s story and there’s interesting material that’s born out of Christine’s superstitious, susceptible disposition. Finnegan concocts some frightening recurring symbols throughout this cat and mouse feud (a thriving tick is a recurring image that’s used to excellent effect and triggers several of Nocebo’s strongest scenes) that only become more overbearing to these characters. There’s a fascinating karmic connection between Christine and Diana that’s perpetually in flux and leads to some draining, harrowing performances. Eva Green’s fragile mental state in Nocebo’s final act is enough of a reason to check out the movie (even if it does occasionally feel like “Resurrection light”). Nocebo is a film 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 fully indoctrinates it.
Finnegan’s previous feature films, Without Name and Vivarium, are both sumptuous visual feasts that bombard the viewer with kaleidoscopic surreal scenes. Nocebo is no different, although it’s largely more restrained than Finnegan’s previous films; that is until the final act when Nocebo really gets to go wild as Christine’s mental state reaches newfound peril. Finnegan’s trippy visuals are usually the selling point to his stories and so it’s encouraging to see the director attempt new tricks here and not purely rely on what’s worked in the past. Additionally, Jose Antonio Buencamino’s plunky score is often the perfect tool to accentuate the movie’s mounting dread. There’s a quality to this music that feels tribal, primal, and foreign in nature, which fits with Nocebo’s themes and fascination with mysticism.
Nocebo deserves credit for its broader idea that capitalism is the greatest monster of them all, but it’s not something that ever fully comes together. There’s a horrific 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 heavy-handed with its grander ideas. It feels like a story and script that would benefit from a tighter additional pass, which is frustrating since there are also plenty of compelling ideas in the movie that are left a mystery and not overexplained. That being said, it’s still hard to argue with Nocebo’s message and the chilling final image that it goes out on. During a time where the horror genre is crowded with remakes and sequels, the risks that Nocebo takes and the pockets of culture that it highlights more than make up for the moments that fall flat.
‘Nocebo’ releases in limited theaters on November 4th.