Bite Size: The Nesting (1981)

Armand Weston certainly wasn’t the first director from the porno chic era to take a swing at mainstream legitimacy. However, Weston’s project seemed better positioned than most to be successful in its aims. He had secured an architecturally unique historic home as a shooting location, and the recent success of The Amityville Horror had revived audience interest in haunted house terrors. The cast included both a beloved genre great (John Carradine) and an Old Hollywood grand dame (Gloria Grahame).

Lauren Cochran (Robin Graves) is a popular novelist, struggling with agoraphobia and recently beset by panic attacks. As her analyst thinks the hustle and bustle of New York might be aggravating her condition, Lauren packs her bags and rents a gorgeous old mansion in a small town upstate. Initially, the rural reset seems to have placed her on the road to conquering her phobias. She experiences a serious setback when she is suddenly plagued by odd hallucinations and eerily prescient dreams. The estate has a sordid and violent past as a wartime bordello, Lauren is soon convinced the deceased ladies of the evening are the ones turning her every waking minute into a nightmare.

Sounds fun, right? Vengeful sex workers wreaking havoc from beyond the grave is a delicious new flavor of seasoning on the familiar trope of a mentally fragile young woman forced to question her sanity in the midst of seemingly impossible events. Plus, the house’s history allows for some pleasing retro styling in the flashbacks of the ghosts in their original contexts.

Armand Weston was one of the more competent technicians in his era of erotica, and he does wring some proper atmosphere and aesthetics out of his limited locations. Lauren’s opening panic attack is stylishly shot, her run out of sync with the people around her, everything moving too fast as increasingly manic music cues rise on the soundtrack. There’s some solid visuals sprinkled throughout, including an aerial shot of terrified Lauren frantically clutching the ledge of the mansion’s domed roof as a ghost manically laughs at her predicament. Another standout has the perfectly concentric ripples of the lake sparkling in the fading sun as a victim of the spirits is dragged to their doom.

For what is essentially a slice of 80s gothic revival, the kills are also surprisingly gory. Amongst all of the dark corners and spooky noises, there are some sickles to the head, violent drownings and bloody visions of piles of bodies not typical to a shadowy chiller. While not shockingly gruesome to modern audiences, it was enough the land The Nesting onto section three —not prosecutable for obscenity, but able to be seized on a lesser charge— of the infamous video nasties list.

All of the essential ingredients are here for a satisfying small scale horror, but the proportions are all off. The spectral hookers stay fairly scarce through most of the runtime, other than an occasional cackle, big band record, or fragmented flashback. The idea of using agoraphobia to heighten the tension of a limited location movie is a smart one, forcing Lauren to choose the lesser of two evils. Is the danger whatever lurks inside the house? Or is she better off taking her chances in the outside world? This angle stays woefully underdeveloped, drifting in and out of the plot.

Even in the throes of terror, empathy is hard to muster for Lauren, a deeply unlikeable character. If her new neighbors are all varying sorts of hicksploitation style hillbilly caricatures, Lauren herself is a cartoonish embodiment of selfish big city pretensions, wearing both her novelist pedigree and her various neurosis like a sophisticates’ badge of honor. She even treats her therapist like her personal errand boy, demanding he visit her in her new home as the supernatural tensions rise.

The ideal scenario would have been to make a film that was essentially the love child of 1981’s The Prowler and 1978’s French Quarter. The hauntings, history and histrionics would seem more of a complete thought in the context of a dual timeline structure, and it would give the film more room for its mélange of textures and tones.

However, Armand Weston seems too caught up in his bid for conventional respectability, reluctant to lean in on the potentially downmarket slasher elements or to let the cast have too much camp fun in period costume. Instead, the script (co-written by Weston and Daria Price) goes for atmospheric buildup and a complicated backstory, a time traveling riff on 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death.

This approach sidelines The Nesting‘s most interesting actors. John Carradine spends the bulk of the runtime morosely slumped in a chair or convalescing in bed. As for the still glamorous Gloria Grahame —who would pass away 4 months after the film’s premiere, at the too young age of 57— her bordello madam character is mostly relegated to a silent shade in a form fitting red dress.

Meanwhile, the audience is forced to watch Lauren endlessly wander around the house being terrified by things. When she does gather the nerve to interact with the locals, they swerve from merely unfriendly to murderous. Occasionally, she gets to argue with her boring maybe boyfriend Mark (Christopher Loomis) or the equally boring (but slightly less obnoxious) physicist grandson of her new landlord, Daniel (Michael David Lally). Neither male lead really serves much narrative purpose other than to reinforce the idea that all of this might be in Lauren’s imagination….until it’s not.

Then, and only then, does The Nesting remember that Grahame and Carradine are in the film. A ton of runtime has been wasted in a fumbling, overlong attempt at psychological horror. The fractured storytelling slows an already meandering movie to a treacle trickle. This leaves the pair of seasoned professionals to deliver massive exposition dumps in the third act in an attempt to make any sense of it all.

To cast one of Old Hollywood’s queens of noir as a ghostly madam, only to utilize her as nothing more than a walking, talking, text crawl is perhaps the single biggest missed opportunity in a film absolutely lousy with them. Even the title is a misdirection, given that the heroine’s titular novel only appears on screen in one very brief moment in a bloated, nearly two hour runtime. Consider The Nesting better in theory than in practice.

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