SCRATCH OF THE SLAY
Director: Dennis Bartok
Screenplay: Tom Abrams, Dennis Bartok
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Leah McNamara, Ross Noble
Review: David Stephens
Some people’s idea of Hell – particularly those of an active persuasion – would be to be severely debilitated and at the dependence of others. So combine that scenario with the idea of a malevolent supernatural force that only you can see, and one that’s incessantly having a go at ending your life. Not a pleasant picture to be sure… That’s the general premise behind “Nails”. It’s directed and co-written by Dennis Bartok, and stars Shaun Macdonald who was so damned awesome in “The Descent” movies. It also features comedian Ross Noble, who was a hilariously evil clown in “Stitches” years before the latest Pennywise raised his rubber nose in the cinemas. After a theatrical release in the UK, it’s now available on DVD and VOD. So YGROY rocks one of those flappy hospital gowns and checks in for a viewing…
It starts with a short pre-credits prologue set in the world’s most depressing hospital. A lanky and gaunt-looking member of the medical staff pushes a trolley into a room, where a deceased child lies in repose. There he tenderly clips the nails of the young girl… and puts them into an envelope with her name on it. As you do. So far, so unsettling. Cut to the main character Dana Milgrom (Macdonald), who’s an athletic coach and practises what she preaches. Getting up early she’s chugging vitamins, limbering up with a yoga routine, and going for a god-knows-how-far run along the local shoreline. Unfortunately it’s cut short by a driver running a red-light and knocking seven bells out of her. The Bastard. (NB: Hit-&-Run drivers. Another good excuse not to overdo exercise.) Dana then finds herself waking up from a weeks-long induced coma with life changing injuries. She’s suffered brain damage, lost the use of her legs, can’t breathe unaided, and can’t even formulate a sentence together. The paralysed woman is in Hopewell Rehab Hospital for the foreseeable future and confined to her bed. To start with, she can only communicate with the aid of a speech machine, and her only human contact is with the affable male nurse Trevor (Noble) and her slightly feckless husband Steve (Steve Wall). But she soon finds herself aware of a malign presence that lurks near. A ghostly evil that only she can see, and is intent on ending her life for good…
“Nails” is never going to win shocker-of-the-year awards or break the mould for creativity, but it’s a decent enough Irish Indie with a couple of positives on its side. One of these is the presence of Macdonald. A strong and proven actress within the genre, it’s a slightly atypical role for her, away from the physical and emotionally empowered characters that she’s played in films like “The Descent” and “Howl”. But she nails (hah!) the part and provides some of the best moments. Mute for a good part of the film, she’s limited to body language and moans of desperation. The scenes where she just about manages to squeeze some words out are actually unexpectedly emotional. Check out the moment where she sadly mumbles; “Is that what I look like?” She also sells her distress and frustration really effectively, giving an extra layer to the film. The believable injury prosthetics help a great deal as well.
Another good element of the film is the appearance of “Nails” himself. There must have been a temptation to go full Freddy-Krueger with the boogeyman, and to be fair the scratched messages on the body and fingernails scraping on the corridor walls do come a bit too close to plagiarism. But despite a fairly meagre back-story and “origin”, the antagonist is actually pretty darned creepy. An amalgamation of a vampire and Slenderman, all exposed teeth with grey skin and glistening white eyes, he/it manages to be genuinely frightful. From the early brief glimpses to the later full-on revelations, “Nails” might not be charisma personified and have quips at the ready, but he does have a horrific heft to his presence that makes for ghastly threat to the cast. Especially as his filthy toenails scrape along the floor, and he scratches from inside wall cavities.
Aside from those elements, the film does feel a little lacking in direction and originality.
Noble isn’t really given the chance to use his comic timing or manic charms, apart from the line; “Nothing down here but piss and poo”, as he checks under the bed for Dana. But the main problem is that the villain is almost solely pre-occupied with Dana and about 80% of the film takes place in her room and from her perspective. Remember that episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” called “Killed by Death”? A feverish Buffy is the only one who can see a child-killing Grim Reaper that is offing kids in her ward (NB: You sometimes forget how dark that series could be!). Something along those lines would have opened up the scope a little, with an unbelieved and bed-ridden Dana witnessing “Nails” killing other patients. As it is, the narrative just feels a little too enclosed for its own good, with “training montages” of Dana trying to increase her strength feeling a little parodic.
This feeling is backed up, when the story gets its mojo revitalised for a nutty-but-great-fun final act. The events move out of that single room and people other than Dana are stalked and terrorised by the titular character. It’s at this point that the potential of “Nails” himself is realised and it becomes an enjoyable (if daft) romp. It does go against the sombre and serious moments before, but it works as a lively finisher to the narrative. It also allows one of the main characters to say “bat-shit crazy” at precisely the right moment. Special mention must also go to a great jump scare that happens with another patient earlier in the story.
This makes up for some head-scratching issues with the logic of the plot. The hospital pays for (surely expensive) monitoring equipment in Dana’s room - bafflingly including some microphones so she can hear people talking shit about her behind her back – instead of posting a guard or simply sedating the patient. Details like that (and Dana using the speak function on her diary entries for no reason) simply seem to be there for exposition only. Needless elements like her husband’s questionable fidelity also seem to be shoehorned in a little. Apart from Macdonald (and Richard Foster-King as “Nails” himself), nobody is really given the chance to shine or have memorable dialogue.
But despite that, the frantic climax, a couple of very effective stalking scenes, the monster, and Macdonald herself, make it a worthwhile watch and a good piece of Shamrock scariness. It’s certainly no franchise-starter and it’s not a classic, but you’ll find yourself drawn to Dana and her tormentor, and it whiles away the time nicely. Not as hard as nails, but you won’t feel a tool for viewing it…
DVD Extras: A decent 10-minute making-of feature.