Sometimes it only takes one film to make an impression on an audience. With his 2019 film Vivarium, writer/director Lorcan Finnegan did exactly that via a tale that takes a dark view of the life cycle, trapping a couple in search of a home within an endless neighborhood and an unknown progeny. While not everything about the film worked for me, there’s no doubt that Finnegan instantly became a director to note, keeping a watchful eye for any upcoming projects. Enter Nocebo, a film, like Vivarium, that offers clues to its meaning and intent out in the open, like a warning or a dare, for audiences to decide for themselves if they’re brave enough to engage. Backed by XYZ Films (Something in the Dirt; Dual; The Execution), distributed by RLJE Films (Silent Night; Satanic Panic) and Shudder (Glorious; Mad God), Finnegan’s new film, written by Vivarium co-writer Garret Shanley, offers another dark tale this time exploring colonization and exploitation. Though an attentive viewer knows where the narrative is going very quickly, the execution of the story, the practical-appearing SFX, and the performances from the cast make Nocebo hard to look away from.
Everything is going wonderfully for fashion designer Christine (Eva Green). Her daughter Roberta (Billie Gadsdon), or Bobs, to her friends, is doing well in school; her husband Felix (Mark Strong) is busy with various marketing clients; and she’s about to launch a new fashion line. While in the middle of a work event, Christine encounters a chilling experience which kicks off months of memory loss, decreased energy, shakes, and more. Some eight months since it began, a knock at the door introduces Diana (Chai Fonacier) to Christine, ready to provide services that will assist in managing the home and perhaps elevate what ails Christine. Suspicious at the arrival of this stranger now living in their home, concerns are waved away, first, when reminded that Christine can’t remember calling for her and then, later, as some of Christine’s symptoms start to fade. But why did they appear in the first place and why do they recede now?
It’s no secret that I possess an affinity for any film that sports an XYZ Films logo. This isn’t to imply that they can do no wrong. Far from it. It’s merely that the presence of said logo implies that the adventure an audience is about to go on is going to be different in some form or another. It could be it’s a tale of identity and the pain of getting what you wish for wrapped in a sci-fi package. It could be an exploration of family, fear, and total annihilation set against a reunion at Christmas. Or, as with a recent favorite, an exploration of the selfish through a Lovecratian lens. These films possess elements that audiences have seen before but are told differently, freshly, as though to excite through their unique perspective and execution. Without delving into spoilers, Nocebo is a fine addition, a horror film in which the script hopes the audience can’t decide who is the victim and who is the predator until the end of the film.
To this end, the script plays on a certain xenophobia, not merely of someone from another culture coming into your home, but of taking over and obtaining control. Our way into this world is through Christine and her family: affluent, wanting for little, and portrayed by two admired actors (Green and Strong) for whom the audience is most likely to immediately root. The film appears to have been shot in Ireland, but could be anywhere colonization has taken place within the European nation based on the dialect spoken by the cast and the language they use to describe others. In one scene in particular, while enjoying a meal made by Diana, Felix attempts to compliment her cooking and (intentionally or not) the world-traveling marketing specialist does so in an entirely backhanded manner. His tone and words denoting a surprise and shock that the food he’s enjoying could possibly come from a place he’s unaware to have a reputation for delicious cooking. On the flip side, how many films have featured someone in need welcoming a stranger into their home, presenting themselves as friend when they are in-fact foe? It’s a trope used in thrillers frequently and one which Nocebo utilizes with aplomb. Fonacier gives a disquieting performance as Philippines native Diana, delivering dialogue that can either be a helping hand or a welded weapon depending on how the receiver responses or what the scene necessitates. Even the tools she uses to create relief for Christine, when looked at through a colonizer’s perspective, are fearful and unsettling, despite their common approach for a different community. Audiences have had different cultures coded as dangerous or deadly via films and novels for generations, which this script is well aware of, thereby weaponizing the audience’s subconscious bias to create a sense of unease where, possibly, there shouldn’t be any. Thus, Nocebo is a mystery wherein all involved could very well be a villain masquerading, the tension coming from each individual discovery. Thankfully, Green, Strong, and Fonacier each possess the chops to enthrall us all, no matter how presumptively good or nefarious we think they are in any given moment.
Cutting though the script is, strong though the performances are, what solidifies the disquieting nature of Nocebo are the special effects used to terrify. Given the SFX work done by Creatures Inc. Ltd (Alien: Covenant; Prometheus), as well as general digital FX work applied to physical objects, audiences can’t tell the difference between a digital construct, a digitally enhanced construct, and a very real creature wriggling its way across the screen. This blending of the real and the fiction enhances the already reality-bending aspects of Nocebo so even the awareness that we’re watching a film doesn’t protect the audience from that creepy-crawling sensation twisting our own senses in knots. One scene in particular takes advantage of Christine’s nightmares to create a cycle of vivid dreams wherein she wakes to one horrible visage before waking again to another before waking again. In these in between moments, Christine is wrecked with fear, paralyzed totally, unable to avoid that which is coming for her. The thing in question is not obscured in any way or affected to look frightening, but what it is and how it moves is chilling enough on its own that one will consider burning their sheets upon credits roll.
There is plenty to discuss about Nocebo that can’t be explicitly stated within a review seeking to maintain a spoiler-free analysis. But, once you’ve completed the film, I encourage you to take note of the message posted right after the song list, presented in the same deep red, all-caps font of the title card and on-screen credits. One search will provide all you need to know about the inspiration Shanley likely took from real-world events, itself an example of all that’s wrong with colonization and capitalism. It also may help explain or, at the very least, illuminate the approach to the film, which does have a clear statement regarding good and evil, regarding community, regarding the believe that one culture is superior to another simply by being born in one location versus another. Personally, I realized what the film was about too quickly, the information provided wisely and discreetly (though not-so-sneakily) and not confirmed until the conclusion. Yet, even with that information, as confirmation crystalized, the film as a whole still shocked and disquieted me, filling me with a sadness and rage in equal measure.
Well done, Mr. Finnegan. Until next time, sir.
In theaters November 4th, 2022.
Available on VOD and digital November 22nd, 2022.
For more information, head to the XYZ Films Nocebo webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.