Mike Sutton reviews the recently released R1 disc of “The Nameless”, an interesting and genuinely unnerving adaptation of a novel by Ramsey Campbell which errs by diverging from its source and becoming all too familiar.
It’s somewhat surprising that the work of Ramsey Campbell has been largely ignored by filmmakers. His stories, strong on atmospheric detail and filled with exquisitely drawn-out scenes of suspense, would seem to make ideal material for the screen and films such as Session Nine and The Forgotten seem to have one foot in Campbell’s work. But until 1999 there were no films based directly on his writing – rumours that John Carpenter might make a film of “The Hungry Moon” seem to have come to nothing, even though the material would seem to be perfect for him. It is in this context that one welcomes The Nameless with, perhaps, a little more enthusiasm than the finished product deserves. It’s a messy, rather unsatisfying film but it looks stunning, contains some good performances and, gratifyingly, captures the underlying sense of dread that underpins all of Campbell’s best work.
The film takes off from a similar point to the book. A mother’s life is shattered when her daughter is abducted and subsequently found dead, the body too mutilated to be easily recognised. Five years later, she is astounded to get a phone call from her daughter, claiming to still be alive and in the clutches of a mysterious cult. Further investigation, in which the mother is assisted by a retired detective and a young journalist, shows that everything seems to revolve around a strange cult, ‘The Nameless’, that ritualises acts of mutilation and rape for reasons unknown to the outside world.
However, it soon becomes apparent that Balaguero has little interest in the original novel beyond its basic concept. Ramsey Campbell is the natural heir to M.R. James, a master of suggestion who relishes the grey areas between the everyday and the supernatural. His novel is fascinating for its refusal to conform to the reader’s expectations and the ending comes as a shock not because it is unexpected but because it is so cruel and logical. Jaume Balaguero, the writer-director who made his debut with this film, has no time for this sort of thing, preferring tediously attenuated Fincheresque stylistics and plotting which relies upon characters spouting endless exposition, particularly towards the end. That’s not to say that the film isn’t effective on its own terms – indeed, it’s often very frightening in a ‘jumpy’ sort of way. Balaguero’s strength is his willingness to lose audience sympathy by casual acts of brutality towards likeable characters and his exploitation of vulnerability. One can imagine Ramsey Campbell responding to this very positively as it’s not dissimilar to his treatment of children in books such as “Incarnate” and some of his nastier short stories (particularly the unforgettable “The Man In The Underpass”). Indeed, although the ending depends on three otherwise reasonably intelligent characters behaving in the most idiotic way possible – a way which will make long-time slasher movie fans yawn with recognition – it just about manages to wrap up the loose ends without cheating and the final moments are genuinely shocking
The problem is, however, that we’ve seen all of this many times before. By being too explicit about the nature of the cult and the reasons for their actions, Balaguero’s screenplay loses the sense of a world fragmenting into madness that makes Ramsey Campbell’s work so memorable. The central characters lack definition, fitting neatly into stereotypes – the hysterical mother, the cynical detective, the inquisitive reporter, the cage-encased nutter – and it’s hard to identify as closely with Claudia’s situation as we should do. The decision to include the journalist character was misguided, I think, adding an extra layer of narrative which doesn’t add a great deal to the film. Although Balaguero gets good performances from his cast, they aren’t given enough to work with, although Emma Vilarasau gives the character of the mother everything she’s got. Character threads are developed and then ignored; the mother’s addiction to tranquillisers for example, which could have been used to make her question the reality of what she is discovering.There is also a tendency to rely on gore when the plot shows signs of flagging. The more visceral unpleasantness is certainly arresting but it tends to be either lingered upon so that it becomes off-putting or so over-the-top that it becomes hysterical.
The best reason to watch the film, apart from Xavi Gimenez’s stunningly chilly cinematography, is for the atmosphere, which is as grim and clammy as any genre fan could desire. This is not, by any measure, a pleasant film and it has a kind of uncompromisingly adult quality which we don’t see often enough. Balaguero seems to have a knack of inducing a sense of baseless fear through the most innocuous locations and when he actually sets to work on our nerves in some of the quietly creepy set-pieces – the visit to the abandoned beach house being my favourite – he scores a perfect ten. At some points in the film, I was gratifyingly reminded of The House With The Laughing Windows, one of the all-time great exercises in making you irrationally scared to look at the screen. The Nameless can’t compete with that masterwork but it does enough to make it rewarding viewing for fans of horror.
Six years after its first release in Europe, Miramax have finally released The Nameless on DVD in Region 1. It remains unreleased in the UK despite receiving enthusiastic receptions at various film festivals.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a pretty good transfer, capturing the range of visual styles used in the film. The image is often very soft, rather more so than intended by the cinematographer, and there’s a lack of detail throughout. Colours vary from excellent, mostly in the exterior scenes, to muddy in the interiors, although since these are often very dark it’s difficult to make a judgement on how intentional this is. There is little excess grain apparent but some artifacting is visible at times. Having seen this in the cinema, I remember it as looking more atmospheric than it does here but it’s certainly not a disastrous effort.
The soundtrack is slightly odd. The original Spanish language track is in Dolby Digital 2.0 while an English dub is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The strange thing about this is that the English dub is by far the more interesting and effective track, enfolding the viewer in layers of ambient effects and music that work incredibly well. But in order to enjoy this, you have to put up with a very mediocre dubbing job. The Spanish track is naturally better as far as the dialogue is concerned but lacks the directional effects which make the English track so effective. On a second viewing, I switched between the two depending on the amount of dialogue in a scene but it’s an unsatisfactory compromise.
There are no extras apart from trailers for Cursed and Darkness which play on start-up but cannot be accessed any other way. The film is divided into 14 chapters and English subtitles are available.
The Nameless, despite being nothing like as good as the original novel, is certainly worth watching, especially late at night in a deserted house. If you scare easily then it will stay with you for some time. Even if you don’t, then it’s likely to give you a few pleasurable chills.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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