AMAD-Horror Edition: Nomads

15 Oct

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cinemagrade bSo, this is the movie responsible for Predator, Die Hard and Hunt for Red October? In a way, yes it is. Those three films are all pinnacles of the action genre; peerless giants, and all three were directed by John McTiernan. Predator, in fact, would be made one year later and it’s this little supernatural thriller that nabbed John the job to helm that film. So, if you give it nothing else, give it that: it jumpstarted McTiernan’s career and got him a gig directing one of the seminal sci-fi action pics of our time. The good news is that Nomads is also a highly creepy, engaging thriller, well worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it.

Nomads opens up with a truly unsettling shot. The camera pans across a barren desert of ice and we see a figure standing in the center of the frame, far off. It looks like an Eskimo, but we can’t see any facial features under the hood; just a void of darkness. Slowly the camera creeps closer until that black void is filling the screen and a moment later we are deposited in the middle of night-time L.A.

In L.A., the film introduces two integral characters: Lesley Ann Downs young doctor, Flax, and Pierce Brosnan’s cultural anthropologist, Jean Pommier. When Flax meets Pommier, it’s because he’s been brought into the E.R. bleeding traumatically, writhing around in a presumably drug-induced hysteria and screaming in French. When Downs tries to quiet and calm him, he attacks and bites her. We aren’t talking a zombie chewing here, just a slight scratch on the neck. A moment later, Pommier is dead, and that night Flax starts having visions as though she were looking out of the dead man’s eyes. Through this narrative device, we get to re-live the last few days of Jean’s life along with Flax, who begins to realize he attracted the attention of something dangerous that stalks her now too.

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  That something dangerous is revealed to be the Inuat, nomadic wandering spirits of Eskimo legend; they frequent deserts, whether of ice, sand or rock, and while they are other-worldly they can take human form. In this human form they haunt the earth ceaselessly, causing mischief and harm and looking to draw in others to their cursed existence. Brosnan follows a group of street punks, led by Adam Ant, that vandalize his home. He watches them from afar, taking photos and documenting this bizarre tribe on their own turf. The gang never seems to sleep, or stop moving, and eventually the anthropologist witnesses them murder a man. 

When Jean attempts to develop his pictures he comes upon a shocking discovery—the gang isn’t in them. The pictures are perfectly fine but all Jean has are images of the places he visited, without any people present. The gang are the physical manifestations of the Inuat, and they may not be trying to harm Jean but draw him into their ranks.  Flax, following along as she receives the visions, finds her way to Jean’s widow, and together the two of them struggle to piece together the last bits of the mystery as the Inuat go on the hunt.

The cinematography in Nomads is impressive. Gritty and jarring when necessary and other times capable of tranquil glides over the L.A. skyline, the film evokes the wild, restless energy of “the city built on a desert”. The eerie soundscape that accompanies Jean’s night journeys into Inuat territory go a long way in creating an environment that could plausibly contain ancient, vengeful, demons. The decision to tell Jean’s story in flashback, and bring Flax along for the ride also serves the film. The entirety of Jean’s experiences would make a decent short story but don’t quite amount to a feature length. By adding Flax, McTiernan and co. not only have a chance to expand the story, but they get to give Brosnan’s widow a greater role in the story’s second half.

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My one complaint with Nomads is that 80s leather and eye-liner gangs can only be so scary. There are plenty of editing tricks and the film oozes atmosphere, but I would have preferred the Inuat to reveal themselves as something, I dunno, more primal. I think McTiernan is drawing on the subconscious dread of urban decay, but it hampers his evil spirits a bit when they can’t churn up a visage more menacing than Adam Ant. No matter, the film is plenty scary when it needs to be, and the escalation of Jean’s madness propels Nomads towards its final, haunting revelation. The last shot of the film is as lonely and unnerving as the first, which seems appropriate for a film about lost souls.

In 1986, Nomads was ahead of its time. It spins a strange ghost story set both in the urban jungle of Los Angeles and in the psychic dream-space of the main characters. Otherworldly and out-of-body psychological horror films wouldn’t come into prominence until some four years later when the theaters would be swarming with the likes of Ghost, Flatliners, Jacob’s Ladder, and Night Breed. For my money, Nomads does all of that better than three of those titles, and almost as well as Jacob’s Ladder. Based on the strong directing and editing work on display and the film’s ability to combine tense action thrills with a more subtle, creeping dread, it’s easy to see why McTiernan was picked up for Predator. Outside of some bizarre casting choices and Pierce Brosnan’s wacky French accent, Nomads is a top-shelf film. Pity that it never found its audience.

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One Response to “AMAD-Horror Edition: Nomads”

  1. xiphos0311 October 16, 2009 at 12:59 am #

    I don’t remember this movie at all. I need to give it a go sometime.

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