Stênio talks to the dead, and the dead talk back. A coroner in the crime-ridden city of São Paulo, he’s not lacking for people to chat with either. Night after night, Stênio’s strange ability gives him a unique perspective into São Paulo’s violent underbelly as he chats with its latest victims. But when Stênio acts on the knowledge he gains from his nocturnal chats, his life begins to spiral out of control. Thus begins Dennison Ramalho’s debut feature, a creative but confused horror-thriller that keeps you on your toes about what kind of movie you’re actually watching. This makes it an interesting watch, but there’s also enough clumsiness in its handling of genre and formula to keep it from being great.
The premise of the film could have been used in a variety of ways, and The Nightshifter seems to know that. Rather than comfortably settling into any one lane, the film seems to play fast and loose about where it actually wants to go with its premise. Early on, Stênio’s gift alerts him to his wife’s adultery, causing him to act on his actions for the first time. After his plan for revenge backfires horribly, it becomes a more traditional haunting movie as a vengeful spirit begins to attack Stênio and his family. The end result feels muddled, blurring the line between ghost movie, revenge thriller, crime film and even vigilante movie. In some scenarios, this could have made for an interesting exercise in genre hybridity, but in this case, the end result feels more like a muddy soup of ideas than a deft genre exercise. This lack of clarity isn’t quite helped by a frustrating lack of internal logic.
Getting paranormal movies to make sense is a tricky business. Too many rules and you lose the mystique and uncertainty that comes with a lot of horror. Too few and the events of the film begin to feel arbitrary. Nightshifter falls into the latter category, and the paranormal side of the film feels inconsistent and ill-defined.
If the film loses points for its script, however, it makes a fair bit of that ground back in the visual department. The film’s presentation is top-notch, deftly pulling audiences into its environment and crafting a wonderful portrait of the Brazilian metropolis. The film also doesn’t shy away from gore, taking full advantage of the morgue setting to show off some very impressive prosthetic effects.
Sadly the film also falls prey to a trope that longtime horror fans might find themselves groaning at by relying on a tendency towards annoying and overblown soundtrack stings that announce every scare or creepy moment. There’ll be a sudden crash of noise, announcing to the audience that this is the appropriate time to be frightened, a move that almost invariably feels cheap and overplayed.
The Nightshifter is a strong first effort from Ramalho, but feels unsure of itself where it should be confident and brazen. You’re never quite sure where it’s heading, or how it intends to get there. This can, and has, made for some good horror experiences in the past, but in this case, it just leads to a film that feels uncertain of itself.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 12 – August 2. Visit the official website for more information.