Atmosphere. The word elicits a Pavlovian response from me especially when used to describe horror movies. If a horror movie can credibly build atmosphere, I'm willing to overlook a great number of other elements that it may be lacking. Fortunately, When Night Falls requires no such compromise. With his directorial debut, Alex Galvin has given us a tense little murder mystery that features convincing performances in a progressively suffocating environment.
The film opens in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand in 1932 where we meet young Nurse Williams (Tania Nolan) who is exhausted and just a little frightened. Her exhaustion stems from the long hours she has spent taking care of Mr. Andrews (Kevin Keys) who is bedridden in his secluded country home. Her fear is a product of the newspaper headlines which claim that a deranged Dr. Leigh is suspected of stalking and murdering lonely nurses in neighboring towns ever since he was dismissed from Masterton Hospital for 'improper conduct'. Given her distracted mental state, we are not surprised to learn that she made a mistake with the patient's oxygen cylinder the night before. While not harming the patient, the mistake is a costly one since Mr. Jacobs (Gerald Bryan), the caretaker, will have to drive into town to obtain a replacement cylinder. This means that Nurse Williams will have to spend the night in the house with only Mrs. Jacobs (Sylvia Rands) and Nurse Davis (Rosella Hart) to keep her company. Nurse Davis has been called in to help take care of Mr. Andrews while giving Nurse Williams a bit of a break. It is unfortunate then that they just don't get along. Nurse Davis seems to disapprove of Nurse Williams' closeness to the patient and suspects that she has lost her objectivity. Thankfully nothing brings a bunch of nurses closer than a murderous lunatic who wants to strangle them.
The packaging for the movie pegs it as a psychological thriller but I find that it goes a bit further and stands firmly at the intersection of thriller and horror. The horror elements are slow to reveal themselves but they are definitely present. Everything starts out quaintly enough with a bit of tension being generated by the friction between stand-offish Nurse Davis and the considerably warmer Nurse Williams. From there, small and subtle details emerge that suggest all is not right in the Andrews house. A misplaced billiard ball, an overturned photograph; all things that could be explained away easily enough and yet they hang in the air begging us to look for more sinister reasons. As the sun goes down, we sense the panic that has crept into the house's residents. Not helping matters is Nurse Davis who can only seem to talk in ominous tones while making tiny power plays to assert dominance over Nurse Williams. This leads to an especially awkward dinner with both nurses and Mrs. Jacobs as the unseen specter of Dr. Leigh looms over them. The mounting dread of the women as they attempt to maintain an appearance of normalcy is tangible and helps dial up the tension another notch. By the time an unseen entity starts knocking loudly at the front door, we're practically at a breaking point with release nowhere in sight. At this point, the nurses still can't be sure if they are really in danger or if their shared hysteria is getting the best of them. This adds a delicious element of the unknown to a trek into a darkened basement late in the film. Much like Nurse Williams we don't know what to expect and the scene milks our uncertainty for all it is worth.
I've spoken of the film's atmosphere and its growing unease but the payoff is just as noteworthy for entirely different reasons. After spending more than an hour of its running time being a model of creepy restraint, it gives us a climax that is just a bit bonkers. We're talking people getting stabbed by large knives, piping hot liquids being thrown in faces, folks getting thrown out of windows. Did I mention that much of this action comes at the hands of Nurse Williams? She doesn't transform into John McClane but her desperation does give her an unpredictable edge. Tania Nolan's portrayal of Nurse Williams is a large part of what makes the over-the-top finale so satisfying. In fact, her performance is the binding agent that holds the entire movie together while giving us a character to really care about. She is in practically every frame of the film and absolutely sells the transformation of the character over the course of the night. It is to Rosella Hart's credit that she isn't overshadowed by Nolan while imbuing Nurse Davis with a detached otherworldliness. Watching her mask of cold composure slip as she gives in to her fear is utterly convincing.
If Nolan and Hart keep the onscreen horrors engaging, it is only because Alex Galvin and his crew have given them quite the sandbox to play in. In addition to directing the film, Galvin played the part of screenwriter and editor (under a pseudonym). Given how effortlessly he carries off these roles, this is nothing short of an impressive debut. He has taken a standard slasher framework and dressed it up with period detail, thus underlining its kinship to the older murder mysteries that were Agatha Christie's stock in trade. Rather than getting caught up in the stuffy seriousness of it all, he manages to have some fun with typical horror clichés. He clearly appreciates the value of a red herring since the film is littered with them. Suspicions are cast on practically every character at one point or another. While this isn't anything new in the world of murder mysteries, I give Galvin credit for manipulating the viewer's expectations in a pretty organic fashion. Also deserving of kudos is the film's cinematographer, Matthew Sharp. His shot compositions give the house a desolate and gothic quality. He also puts the mirrors in the house to good use, capturing the inner turmoil of both nurses when they are trying their hardest to mask it.
When Night Falls is for a very specific type of horror fan. If you need gore to spice things up or require a fast-paced premise that pays off early and often, this isn't the film for you. If you are willing to give yourself over to a tale that takes its time placing the noose around your neck before the final jerk, then you may have something here. In a way, the entire movie is an extended stalk and slash sequence. You just have to ask yourself which component is more important to you: the stalk or the slash?
The movie was presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The film was shot digitally but it seems like the transfer to DVD was problematic. We have a fairly noisy image which is especially visible in the solid backgrounds (walls etc.). The bright colors of the nurse uniforms appear blown out in a few scenes but other than that it is definitely watchable.
The English audio was presented in a 2.0 Stereo track. While I would have really appreciated a 5.1 audio mix for this film, the stereo track was perfectly adequate. It was free of any defects while allowing the actors voices to always come through clearly. It also showcased Tony Burt's excellent background score which progressively shifted from pleasantly orchestral to something more menacing over the course of the film. This is all quite impressive considering all the audio was recorded after the fact due to production difficulties. There were no subtitles on this release.
Given the small nature of this release, I was surprised to see any extras at all. While it isn't stuffed to the gills with features, it does have a few informative extras. First up we have an Audio Commentary by Alex Galvin. This audio track by the writer / director / editor of the film is comprehensive and chock full of information on the difficulties encountered and tricks employed during the filming of small, independent movies. Galvin is fairly direct about his intent on filming the movie as a calling card to garner further interest. He discusses his inspirations and reveals how much modern thrillers are indebted to the work of Agatha Christie. Especially interesting was talk of how a dozen different locations were employed to create the Andrews residence including the basement which was cobbled together from 3 different basements. The seamless nature of this aspect of the film is nothing short of astonishing. There is one other aspect of the film's production that I just can't get over. The entire film was shot in 10 days for a budget of $50,000. Now that's an accomplishment.
Rounding out the extras are Image Galleries for the Behind the Scenes and Production Stills and text based Director's Notes. While the image galleries are exactly what they sound like, the director's notes prove to be a nice companion piece to the commentary. The focus of these notes happens to be on Galvin's career prior to this film including his initial experiences with short films.
When Night Falls is a carefully paced murder mystery that sacrifices gore in order to cultivate a tense and suffocating atmosphere. In his debut feature, Alex Galvin has brought together a sharp crew and a compelling group of actors. The net result is an extended stalk and slash sequence fitted onto an Agatha Christie framework. Although the video presentation is sub-par, the informative extras make this a release worth watching. For the film alone, this release is Highly Recommended.