31 Days of Horror: Day 25 – The Nameless (1999)

I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.

I hate to see a movie waste a good premise. I hate even more to see a movie waste a good premise and cast. When The Nameless eventually wastes a good premise, cast, and terrific first act, it’s almost too depressing to write about, but here goes.

The film opens with the grisly discovery of a murdered little girl. Not only was the girl tortured before her death, most of the traditional methods used to identify her are rendered useless through the murderer’s use of acid to destroy the face and fingerprints and knocking out her teeth. The only things that Massera (Karra Elejalde)—the police detective on the case—has to go on are a bracelet found near the body and the fact that the victim has one leg that is a few centimeters longer than the other. Using these clues, it is determined that the girl is Angela, the missing daughter of Claudia (Emma Vilarasau). Because of the condition of the body, Massera advises against Claudia even trying to identify her daughter. Her killer is never found.

The film then jumps ahead five years. Claudia has done her best to put her life back together. She works as an editor at a publishing house and faces a looming deadline for her new project while dealing with the anniversary of Angela’s death. But when she gets a frantic phone call from a girl claiming to be Angela, begging to be rescued, Claudia goes to Massera for help.

It turns out Massera has just left the police force for personal reasons that are teased out through much of the first two acts. With nothing but time on his hands, he takes pity on Claudia and helps her investigate the remote chance that the call was not a prank and that Angela might still be alive.

This first act is suspenseful, well-acted, and punctuated with gruesome imagery that drives home the savagery of the killer. But then writer/director Jaume Balagueró (working from a novel by the great horror writer Ramsey Campbell) loses all control of his story. The investigation becomes more convoluted than necessary with the inclusion of a paranormal investigative journalist named Quiroga (Tristán Ulloa) and a cult leader (Carlos Lasarte) who has been locked away in an asylum. Does the cult have something to do with Angela’s disappearance? Is Angela really alive or is someone tormenting Claudia for their own sick reasons? Why is Claudia’s ex-boyfriend (Pep Tosar) so obsessed with keeping tabs on her? Only some of these questions are answered, but they are done so in a way that is so round-about, I had trouble keeping track of how the characters came to these conclusions.

There is so much to like about The Nameless, it’s a huge disappointment when the story fails to hold up. The cast is quite good with Vilarasau and Elejalde lending a true feeling of exhaustion and sadness to their haunted characters. The direction by Balagueró is excellent at building atmosphere, even while he is unable to guide the audience through the labyrinthine plot. There is a palpable sense of doom streaked through the film that hints to the audience that a happy ending is not a given. All these elements combine to keep the film watchable through the solving of the central mystery and its bleak climax.

But I keep coming back to the confusion I felt when trying to unravel the plot. The inability to piece together how Massera, Claudia, and Quiroga work their investigation and all manage to wind up at the same location for the climax is what brings the film down to a level where I can’t recommend it. I am not sure if the film was a victim of post-production tinkering by the distributor or if Balagueró cut it down to reduce the running time, but it feels like connective scenes are missing that would have explained a lot.

Balagueró has gone on to be a solid genre director in the years since The Nameless was released and much of his potential is on display here. But his script just wasn’t up to the level of his direction or his cast. No matter how impressive the other elements presented, a film built on a poor script is almost never going to work.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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