Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1986)
John McTiernan was the top action director in Hollywood. "Predator" and "Die Hard" were huge hits, their influence reverberating through the genre for years. McTiernan's action credits are frequently fantastic and he had a knack for explosions and bullet wounds. However, his career is a little more diverse than that, expanding into horror, thriller, and even character-oriented drama. We'll cover it all over the course of this Director Report Card, exploring the rise, prime, and downfall of this action auteur.
In the early eighties, nobody knew who John McTiernan was. While attending Julliard and the AFI Conservatory, he directed two short films called “Watcher” and “The Demon’s Daughter.” However, there’s almost zero information about these films, both apparently in the horror genre, and neither have ever been released to the public at large. To most eyes, it would appear McTiernan emerged out of nowhere with “Nomads,” which he both wrote and direct. An eccentric supernatural thriller most notable for being Pierce Brosnan’s first leading role, few people paid attention to the movie when it was released in 1986. Though a cult following of sorts would eventually form, the film is still an unlikely debut for the man who would soon become the leading action director of the decade.
Dr. Eilleen Flax is an E.R. doctor. The normal stress of her work night becomes a different type of stress when a delirious man, bleeding and screaming in French, appears in her emergency room. Before he dies, the man attacks Flax. The next day, she begins to have visions of the man’s memories. She learns that his name is Pommier, a photographer and an anthropologist. Specializing in the topic of nomadic tribes, an encounter with a strange street gang leads to an obsession. Retracing his steps and memories, Flax discovers that Pommier stumbled upon an ancient curse.
“Nomads” is inspired by a simple idea. The script compares the nomadic tribes of the primitive world with modern day biker gangs. From that clever but concise idea, “Nomads” builds an interesting mythology. The titular spirits are old entities, found wandering either the hot deserts of Africa or the icy deserts of the Arctic. Where ever the nomads roam, they take on a new appearance, fitting to that location. The biker gangs are not only a modern day parallel of an older culture but literally the modern equivalent. Everywhere they go, their numbers increase, more people being drawn into their tribe. They possess victims’ minds before literally possessing their bodies. It’s an interesting idea, one the film doesn’t entirely develop into a coherent concept. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating foundation for “Nomads” to build its dreamy atmosphere upon.
The story “Nomads” is actually here to tell is Pommier’s encounter with the nomadic spirits. “Nomads” is a possession film that tells its story from the point of view of the possessed. The first glance we get of the spirits set them up as a Mansion family cult. They sprawl the words “Pig,” “Sex,” and “Death” in blood on the outside walls of Pommier’s home. As the man catches glimpses of them, he slowly becomes obsessed. It starts subtly, snapping pictures of the gang from a distance. Soon, he’s out all hours of the night and day, tracking and photographing the tribe. The possession comes slowly, Pommier loosing track of time and place as he pursues his targets. One of the most effective moments in the film concerns Pommier returning to his home, stripping nude, in a trance as he lays with his wife. He awakens the next morning, not entirely certain what happened the night before.
Many of the best moments in “Nomads” function on a similar wavelength. As a horror movie, the film rarely goes for outright scares. Instead, “Nomads” focuses on creating moments of slowly building dread. An especially effective scene involves Pommier observing the nomads from a distance as they harass a man on a beach. Later, he tracks them to an alleyway, where they attack another innocent bystander. The suspense generates from whether or not he’ll be noticed, what will happen if they do. The best scene in the film, the only time it’s one hundred percent successful in generating the suspense its after, is when Pommier and his wife are atop a New York skyscraper. As they overlook the city, he’s approached by one of the spirits, tossing him over the railing. These sequences are low on dialogue, instead counting on the slow movements of the cameras and the creeping music to generate tension.
Like I said, “Nomads” doesn’t go for the kind of big scares most horror films trade in. Occasionally, however, a more typically creepy image will saunter on-screen. For example, after escaping the clan of nomads, Pommier walks into what he thinks is an abandoned building. Inside, he discovers a colony of blind nuns, living in the darkness. The sequence is a dream of some sort, the Mother Superior providing some insight into what the nomads are. It’s the closest an oblique film comes to providing answers. Frances Bay, otherwise known as Happy Gilmore’s grandma, plays the lead nun, imbues the part of the nun with an off-beat spookiness. That builds to the sequence’s end, where the nuns run through the halls of the dark building, stripping nude, yelling in insanity. It doesn’t make much sense, like a lot of “Nomad.” But it’s interesting and effective.
Though “Nomads” is more focused on low-key suspense, there are other times it front-loads its creepiness. Pommier is accosted outside his home by one of the spirits, wielding a tire iron. The fight that follows is more awkward than you’d expect from a director who would get famous for action movies. However, the sequence has a dreaminess to it, pushing into the realm of nightmare. During its climax, “Nomads” finally develops a sense of propulsive thrills. After Flax and Pommier’s wife meet at her home, both see the nomads outside. They ride motorcycles through the front walls of the home, drop down through the glass ceilings, and chase the two women into the attic. As soon as the sequence builds up some real intensity, it fizzles out at the end.
Another problem is its uneven collection of performances. “Nomads” would be the first film lead for Pierce Brosnan. At the time, the future Bond was better known for his TV series, “Remington Steele.” Pommier is a very different character than either of the suave men of action Brosnan found fame for playing. He’s a sweaty, obsessed man driven to the edge of madness. Most bizarrely, Brosnan sports an unconvincing French accent. In some scenes, the accent is so thick, you can’t truly understand what he’s saying. By the same accord, Brosnan never convincingly sounds French. Lesley Anne Down, unfortunately, doesn’t get much of a character arc of her own. The opening scene, of her trying to catch a nap at work, is charming but Down’s story line is directed by other members of the cast.
“Nomads” has an interesting musical score. Bill Conti’s music is a combination of creeping synth and wailing rock guitars. The synth, which features a deep, resounding note, is pretty damn good. The screaming guitars were provided by Ted Nuget, of all people. The rock music angle provides some energy throughout the film, while also being slightly distracting. Despite working on the score, Nuget doesn’t actually sing on the film’s theme song, “Strangers.” A decent rocker, it pops up throughout the film a few times. Another pop star, Adam Ant, plays one of the nomads but doesn’t sing either.
catch the attention of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Impressed that McTiernan could create such a creepy atmosphere on a low budget, he hired the man to direct his next movie. As a directorial calling card, I’d say that worked out pretty well. [Grade: B-]