If the dead could talk, what would they say? Would they tell you about their lives, their loves, their losses? Would they tell you what’s on the other side? Would they ask you to reach out to a loved one and tell them goodbye? Or would they bend your ear with a dark secret or two? What if this dark secret was about you? And more importantly, what would you do with this information? This is the story behind The Nightshifter, a raw meat morality tale that’s chock-full of crimson-coated, nerve-jangling scares.
The Nightshifter, the feature-length debut of shorts filmmaker Dennison Ramalho, is the story of Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira), a meek and lowly morgue attendant who works the graveyard shift. At home, he fails at balancing a juvenile delinquent son, a daughter, and a wife who loathes his presence because he reeks of death. In between stitching up gang members and rioting soccer fans, he speaks to the dead … and they speak back. Usually, it’s drunks who think they took a wrong turn coming home from the bar, other time’s it’s gang members who want a little payback for their untimely demise. But just once, there’s a body who tells him an unpleasant truth, something that rattles his very foundation, and what he does with that information takes him down a road filled with gangs doling out retribution, grisly corpses missing their body parts, and ghosts seeking revenge.
Once the story kicks into high gear, the film reveals that it’s pocketing some nice scares up its sleeve. Unfortunately, they’re mostly sound-based startles, but there’s an inherent creepiness that gets under your skin. It’s on par with something like The Conjuring in giving you well-staged and unpredictable spooks. I love the way the shocks ratchet up as the film progresses, from the clichéd slamming doors to people being buried alive and shoved into stoves with the gas on, including a bit that’s particularly vicious—a red-tinted room filled with razor wire that calls to mind the lurid terrors of Suspiria. Ramalho directs these scenes with ferocity, the kind of craftsmanship that comes from having cut your teeth on numerous short films, and the scenes drip with atmosphere: all blues, yellows, and oranges illuminating the night scenes.
The Nightshifter feels like a mixtape of a feature-length Tales from the Crypt episode and Sam Raimi’s underrated Drag Me to Hell (there’s even a key item that’s central to stopping the unrelenting poltergeist), in that the story begins with our antihero making a selfish choice in the heat of the moment and spends the rest of the film being haunted by savage specters that force him to own up to their unscrupulous moral behavior and suffer for it. In the film, revenge leads to death and death leads to revenge. Like Tales from the Crypt or Drag Me to Hell, the retribution is wholly disproportionate—the ghost in the film starts as a jerk, sure, but by the end of the film, it becomes an unspeakable evil. It’s targeting everyone with full-throated violence on its mind, even Stenio’s children, when there’s not a sense of violence from the person when they were living.
The film moves along at a nice clip through the setup and gets you to the scary stuff quick, but as it reaches the end, it staggers past a natural ending, one I assumed would be the ending, and keeps plugging along for another 10 to 15 minutes. There’s nothing wrong with the “second ending,” so to speak—it’s particularly mean-spirited and has some grisly, practical body injury effects—but rather than feeling like subverting ending expectations we have with paranormal horror, it feels like tacking on another twist to mess with the audience. The ending is relatively muted, more metaphorical than outright gory, which is fine, but it feels like a tonal shift away from the just desserts plate Ramalho has been setting for 110 minutes—an especially egregious act, considering Ramalho’s previous filmmaking field is comprised of shorts, and those live and die on their impactful endings.
While Daniel de Oliveira makes the gradual progression of Stenio’s mania believable, one wishes that there would be a little more to chew on with the supporting characters like his son, seeing that there’s an emotional pain point with his ever-increasing delinquency, and sadly the daughter is practically non-existent, only serving as a reactionary character to the scares rather than anything else. The character of Lara is underserviced as well, as the film doesn’t really know what to do with her other than to tack her to a subplot about a dying mother. Every actor does a fine job, but I wish there’d been more thought put to the father/children relationships as much as they focused on the scares and horror stuff, which works quite well. Make no mistake though, The Nightshifter delivers plenty of frights to give you a plethora of sleepless nights.
Movie Score: 4/5
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