Nocebo (Review) – An Unbalanced Psychological Horror

DIRECTOR: Lorcan Finnegan

CAST: Eva Green, Mark Strong, Chai Fonacier, Billie Gadsdon, Cathy Belton

RUNNING TIME: 96 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A family is slowly torn apart by their new Filipina carer (Fonancier)…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

That classic YouTube re-edit of Mary Poppins as a horror movie trailer seems to have been a major source of inspiration for director Lorcan Finnegan’s latest film Nocebo, which harbours a similar-ish premise to the classic Disney movie – mostly the mysterious carer coming to “fix” a reasonably well-off family – but instead of whimsical adventures with animated penguins and singing chimneysweepers, here we have creepy giant ticks, dogs with rotting flesh, and small bird creatures climbing out of dying people’s mouths.

In other words, Nocebo may in fact be the feature adaptation of that hilarious YouTube video that we never knew we wanted – but beyond the compelling set-up, it’s a horror film that can’t quite break past some of its genre trappings, or even elements of its own logic.

The film opens with Christine (Eva Green), a fashion designer for a top-market kids’ clothing label, suddenly coming down with a mysterious illness after experiencing a disturbing vision of said rotting dog with ticks to spare. The illness leaves her cognitively and physically vulnerable, much to the frustration of her husband Felix (Mark Strong) and their young daughter Bobs (Billie Gadsdon), but out of the blue a young Filipina woman named Diana (Chai Fonacier) comes knocking at her door, claiming to a forgetful Christine that she was hired to take care of her. Diana soon introduces Christine to a program of unorthodox methods to help treat her illness, which she soon becomes reliant upon when the effects become more and more positive – however, it’s clear that Diana is hiding a more sinister motive, which is gradually revealed through flashbacks showing her surprisingly supernatural origins, leading to a revelation that threatens to tear the family apart.

With Nocebo, Finnegan continues to show a vivid and at times chilling style that he brought to his previous feature Vivarium, although this film isn’t quite as insane or even as scary as that film could get (for one, the kid in this film is nowhere near as creepy as the oddly-voiced demon spawn in Vivarium). However, the filmmaker does still have moments where he and writer Garret Shanley (who also wrote Vivarium as well as Finnegan’s debut feature Without Name) manage to generate some truly sinister and occasionally surreal imagery, much of it coming from the increasingly odd rituals that Chai Fonacier’s Diana performs with Eva Green’s Christine as her all-too willing guinea pig. Some scenes, notably ones with the aforementioned giant tick, are effectively shot and paced, lending a genuine sense of dread and fear that are able to get across just enough of the tone that Finnegan and Shanley are aiming for, which are also conveyed through some committed turns by Fonacier and Green that get gleefully crazier the more things unfold.

Where the film loses itself, though, is in its ultimately political message. With one of its toes dipped into the world of high-street fashion, and knowing some of the dire truths that come with overseas production, it’s not difficult to piece together what kind of stuff it wants to condemn the industry for. It isn’t that what it’s trying to say is misguided or even wrong, but it’s that you’ve simply seen these themes before, and done in much more effective and memorable ways that better get across the point. Here, its big revelations come across as much less unsurprising as the filmmakers perhaps want them to be, especially with a twist involving at least one of the main characters that is telegraphed early on and thus removes much of the psychological tension, because almost right away you know exactly what this person’s true intentions are.

It’s also the kind of horror movie where you will often be trying to piece together the logic behind most of it, and finding parts surprisingly difficult to comprehend. Of course, logic often tends to throw itself out the window in even the best examples of horror cinema, but Nocebo is one that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief to accept why certain characters make ill-advised decisions towards the end, or how others simply accept obvious mistruths without so much as a deeper look beyond what is right in front of them. Sometimes, it can have a decent effect (that giant tick, man), but the more one thinks about it afterward, the more it really doesn’t add up, and you really wish that it was tighter with some of its characters and their questionable motivations to make it okay that things often don’t make a whole lot of sense.

Although it may not be as consistently terrifying as the director’s previous work (and coming after Vivarium, this is a bit of a step backwards for the filmmaker), you can still spot a number of strong elements within Nocebo that may be underwritten but are at least still there. One more rewrite, just to tidy certain things up and land the film on a much firmer conclusion than it does, and it might have been pretty damn good; as is, it’s a messy but interesting enough effort that, if nothing else, is the closest we’ve come yet to a full-on Mary Poppins horror.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Nocebo is an unbalanced horror that occasionally offers some genuinely creepy imagery and some committed performances, but relies too heavily on an obvious political message and a lack of logic to ever be scary.

Nocebo is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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