Warning: This review contains extensive spoilers!
“There are places with pasts, Pommier. Places with secrets. Things … collect.”
John McTiernan, huh? He had quite the career before it disintegrated in a veritable shitstorm of illegal wiretaps, perjury, prison time, and bankruptcy. Still, Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October make for a triumvirate of classic action films starring some of the real heavyweights of the 80’s, and would have been a hell of an opening salvo from the director – except he already had one under his belt: Nomads.
Written by McTiernan himself, the film is a modern horror which was critically derided upon release; even star Lesley-Anne Down later described it as “plainly fucking stupid”. Arnold Schwarzenegger liked it enough to persuade the producers of Predator to hire McTiernan as director though, according to his memoirs anyway. Shamefully, I’d watched that film a million times before I even considered what he had made before, so it’s beyond time to discover how his directorial debut fares.
The film opens on a black and white photograph of an Inuit man, his face darkened in shadow. The lens zooms into the black void, enveloping the screen, before the lights of Los Angeles glimmer onto the frame.
Doctor Eileen Flax (Down) is 32 hours into a 36 hour shift in the emergency room when a man is dragged in by the police, deranged and bedraggled and screaming in French. He manages to whisper something to Dr Flax before he collapses and dies, depicted with some striking camera work I was rather impressed by.
Unfortunately, those whispered words seemingly possess Eileen with her patient’s memories, and her reality swiftly falls to pieces. Her colleagues think she’s having a brain haemorrhage, but she’s really re-living the final days of the man’s life. McTiernan uses the subjective experience of the doctor to imbue the rest of the film with the disjointed logic and fluid narrative of a dream, and also helpfully obscure some of the more daffy parts of his tale.
The dead man is revealed to be Jean-Charles Pommier – Pierce Brosnan in his first speaking cinematic role (he is wordless but memorable in the closing scene of 1980’s The Long Good Friday). Sporting a beard and an outrageous French accent appropriate for an Irishman to try on – he is a world-travelled anthropologist newly arrived in the city with his wife, Niki (Anna Maria Monticelli), ready to settle down and teach.
During the night in their new home (which the realtor forgets to mention was the site of a double child murder), a mysterious gang of leather-clad youths leave a Manson family-style scrawl of graffiti on their garage door: SEX DEATH PIGS KILL. Intrigued by their transient lifestyle – he’s an anthropologist, dammit! – Pommier follows them with his camera. They trawl through the city in their black van and on motorcycles, their violent antics scored with a metal soundtrack composed by Ted Nugent and served a stuffed crust full of painfully on-the-nose lyrics. The men and women of this gang are urban nomads, Pommier reasons, similar to various cultures he has studied across the globe.
Through many days and sleepless nights he follows, then mingles amongst them. Dancing Mary – played by cult film star Mary Woronov – dances for his lens only to disappear when the film is developed. Death seemingly follows them everywhere. Ghostly nuns in an abandoned insane asylum expose their breasts before turning into skeletons. He bludgeons the leader of the gang – played silently by Prince Charming himself, Adam Ant – or does he? A mysterious blind woman who knows his name warns Pommier to run, whilst he still can.
Jean-Charles realises they are more than wanderers. He recognises them as ‘Inuat’ – hostile spirits thought to haunt places of calamity and who bring disaster to any humans who fall in with them. Unfortunately, now that he knows them, they know him. And they won’t let him go.
Eileen awakes in Pommier’s bed, having escaped the hospital in her delirium, unsure how she ended up sleeping next to his wife, full of his memories. Somehow the Inuat intuit her mind, so to speak, and soon arrive on mass to besiege the house. The gang multiply and attack, only to disappear with the dawn, as inexplicably as Hitchcock’s birds.
Eileen knows she must escape L.A. with Niki before night falls again if either are to survive. As they near the city limits a single biker overtakes their car. To their horror they recognise their silent escort as poor Jean-Charles, now one of the Inuat himself.
This is a curiously scuffed trinket of a movie, small and weird and certainly not indicative of the overblown action McTiernan would subsequently become known for during the closing years of the decade. The otherworldly gang of outsiders helmed by an 80’s music star certainly reminds me of Prince of Darkness, and the film does echo those half-successful Carpenter efforts that riff off the Cthulhu mythos. There are certainly things to recommend giving the film a watch: the L.A. setting makes it feel like an episode of the Twilight Zone shot through the lens of early Michael Mann, whilst effective dubbing of natural sounds – from the rising tempo of a frightened heartbeat to the desperate breathing of a dying man – produce nice moments of chill. Overall though, it’s a thin plot that feels awfully stretched even at a clipped pace of ninety two minutes.
Pommier was originally written for Gerard Depardeiu, but he turned it down.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the film accurately depict Jean-Charles running out of film in his camera, something directors would often conveniently forget when it came to 35mm cameras. A minor detail that always manages to rip my knitting when ignored!
The realtor who sells the cursed home to the Pommiers is played by Nina Foch, a Hollywood veteran whose first role was alongside Bela Lugosi in 1943’s Return of the Vampire.
Dr Flax wakes up naked in Pommier’s bedroom, next to Niki, who awkwardly explains that she slept on the couch. Considering that immediately before Eileen was reliving the memory of having sex with Jean-Charles’s wife, this scene seems pointedly strange, yet unremarked upon. I kinda hope that after escaping California they start a new life together.
Adam Ant is named Number One because he has a number one tattooed on his arm, but it could also be a nice nod, I guess, to the unseen master and manipulator of Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner.
Well, if you made it this far, thanks for reading! And if you’ve watched the film, spill the deets in the comments!