Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Nest

(R, 1988, Shout! Factory, street date: February 19, 2013, SRP: $26.99)


I remember when MTV aired a 30-minute infomercial in 1996 for their first foray into feature-film production, an adaptation of the short subject Joe's Apartment, hosted by none other than Ralph and Rodney Roach, themselves. There was a mini-montage of prior movies that included memorable cockroach cameos: William Castle's Bug (1975), David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991), the classic transformation scene from Renny Harlin's A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), and, the alpha itself, 1982's Creepshow, whose grisly comeuppance for E.G. Marshall's Upson Pratt was amazingly broadcast in all its gross glory. Strangely enough, I had rented the 1988 Corman company castaway The Nest on VHS by this time, so I was quick to notice a glaring omission. If they could air Tom Savini's air-pumped money shot of Pratt's chest bursting with bloody bugs, then why not the wild reveal of the mayor morphing into a mansect? Maybe Harlin's film did it better in the same year, but for completists like me who can recall eyeball-squishing goodness at the drop of a dime, I found it to be duly missed.

Did I actually miss The Nest in the years since then? Nostalgically, yes, but impartially, no.

Produced by Julie Corman under the Concorde Pictures banner, The Nest is an old-fashioned Jaws knock-off in the proud tradition of movies as delightful as Piranha or as disposable as Up from the Depths. The Spielbergian template remains as does the memorably subversive tweaks of John Sayles and Joe Dante. Take a coastal tourist town of very little urgent disaster (missing pets, pages and past paramours), throw in a compromising position that allows a biologically-advanced outsider menace free reign, film copious ground-level tracking shots set to discordant sound can you miss with a list like this?

Chief Martin Brody of Amity Island is now Sheriff Richard Tarbell of North Port, here played by Franc Luz as the slovenly heir of a proud patriarch in the police department. Currently betrothed to café owner Lillian (Nancy Morgan), daughter of wacky beach hermit/junkman Shakey Jake (Jack Collins), Tarbell reluctantly greets the return of mayor's daughter Elizabeth Johnson (Lisa Langlois), whose troubled history with her father in the wake of mom's "accidental overdose" still lies irreconciled. Daddy's too busy, it seems, renovating his town at the expense of providing the mysterious Intec Corporation private research property for who cares what.

If North Port's obvious cockroach infestation offers any clue, the town's fate is sealed when first a watchdog and then Jake are devoured whole by a hissing horde of creepy, crawly predators. Tarbell's investigative instincts are further triggered by the appearances of black droppings in the local market's meat department and shady ex-MIT biologist Dr. Morgan Hubbard (Terri Treas), whose research into the development of genetically-altered breed of cockroach progresses in such supernatural ways that Hubbard herself seems ever ready to pupate.

Mayor Johnson (Robert Lansing) surrendered his town to Intec in the hope that there would be a temporary, effective solution to the growing roach population. Trouble is the result is now making the 700-strong citizen count decline steadily. North Port is now the latest and greatest model of the roach motel: The roaches are checking in, and no one else may be checking out.

This is an unusually modest exploitation effort than one would expect from the Roger Corman factory, devoid entirely of nudity or any accidental if acerbic wit. The movie plays off one particular phobia, man's orderly disgust of big, ugly insects, at the expense of any real innovation in terms of story or production. The script is very indebted to Jaws in a backdated manner not unlike watching some post-Tarantino bastard child a decade removed from Reservoir Dogs, and that the script seems so lackadaisical in regards to characters and plotting only makes such too-familiar beats (there are times when one's mind wanders adrift to mid-1980s memories of Re-Animator and The Fly, as well) come across as just lazy instead of playful.

The people in this movie are but plain, simple types of little discernible color. You've got the hometown girl returning from the city to face her familial demons and reacquaint herself with a jilted lover, only the whole love triangle aspect with the sassy diner woman doesn't have any traction. There's the noble policeman protagonist who can't help but look homely and humble as he surrenders his badge and heart with equal dignity. There's the hopeless government official who gets more than he bargained for and places his island populace's lives, not just his already conflicted daughter, in collective jeopardy. And here's the ice queen scientist who loves her work way too much in polite company to the point where anyone with the smallest fraction of a brain would quickly take the next ferryboat out. The actors do okay in these parts, particularly Franc Luz, Terri Treas and the wiry Stephen Davies as the bumbling but brilliant exterminator (that's "independent pest control agent" to you!) Homer Birum, even if they're no match for the entertaining quirks of Bradford Dillman, Kevin McCarthy or Barbara Steele.

Comedic elements are equally passed on second-hand, as for every amusing mass roach massacre set to "La Cucaracha" incorporating blenders and fry vats, there's a stale shit-eating throwaway gag or oblivious teen girl whose headphones drown out her aunt's screams for help as syrup-scented roaches eat her alive. The movie doesn't milk this dopey scenario to the wittiest of its advantage, which is where Spielberg once again proves victorious thanks to the release of Arachnophobia years later.

Telegraphed regularly and tonally under-thought, The Nest threatens to skitter away from consciousness but doesn't quite due to the charm of its practical effects work. Aside from some unpleasant kitty and canine corpses as well as a few severed arms, there are a couple gory creature designs which arrive way too late in the game to make you pay fervent attention, but attend to it, you do. There is an outlandishness in their reveal that is irresistibly gross but also kind of hilarious. Somehow, these invincible, innocuous little pests become The Thing, absorbing the genes of their victims and passing them onto their progeny. You can bet that by the end, one unlucky character is going to bug out for real, preferably starting with their eyeballs.

Director Terence H. Winkless provides an audio commentary track (the sole bonus feature in this set) that is criminally more charming and self-effacing than the finished film. Every Roger Corman production is a trial by fire, and the best participants see the humor of their opportunistic scenario as well as the ingenuity. Winkless knows this and offers up tons of details from the script on down to roach wrangling and finally the editing with true amusement. Inserts and location specifics are diverse, plentiful and delivered with mirth, as is the reveal of him having to repurpose one small detail so that random stock footage of an explosion could be properly recycled despite a hilariously dumb continuity error.

Scream! Factory issues The Nest on combo pack BD/DVD, although only in the standard-def format do you get both 5.1 and 2.0 audio mixes in Dolby Digital. The BD is strictly DTS Master Audio 2.0 mono, which is admirably clean if flawed on budgetary principle, but the magnificently sharp 1.78:1 HD image alone is enough to make any copy of the old New Concorde disc in its vicinity grow some hinders and scamper away.

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