Eva Green gives another odd-duck performance in body-horrorish thriller Nocebo (now on Shudder), from director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley, who previously collaborated on the very weird parable-horror film Vivarium. Well, this one’s weird too, so it’s right in Green’s wheelhouse; she plays a woman of privilege who finds herself battling a very, very ugly little tick – and maybe her own conscience.
NOCEBO: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Christine (Green) is smack in the middle of a fashion show showcasing her children’s clothing designs when she gets a phone call. Something awful has happened. Something to do with “bodies” – we’re not privy to specifics. Before she even hangs up she sees something that looks like a hallucination from Sarah McLachlan’s most nightmarish TV commercial: A mangy dog with mottled eyes and large sores that are crawling with massive, plump ticks. It approaches her and shakes itself and one of the ticks lands on the back of her neck and gets to burrowin’. Lovely!
Title card: EIGHT MONTHS LATER. Christina’s in rough shape. She sleeps wearing a ventilator mask whose design is apparently inspired by the Alien facehugger. She’s a clammy mess. The tick lives with her now, lugging its big bloated gloop-filled abdomen near the vents of her massive house, although she doesn’t seem aware of it. Her hands shake as she opens a bottle of pills and pops one in her mouth and CHEWS it like a total maniac. She cleans up, puts on her “lucky” red shoes, grabs her portfolio and heads out to hopefully secure some work. The shoes don’t work. Her pitch flops.
Ding-dong. That’s her doorbell. There stands Diana (Chai Fonacier). Christine apparently hired her to help out around the house, but she doesn’t remember. She’s been having memory lapses. Her husband Felix (Mark Strong) didn’t know about it either, and seems concerned. They set up Diana in the spare bedroom, where boxes of Christine’s Tykie Couture clothing sit in the background. Diana gets along smashingly with their daughter Roberta (Billie Gadsdon), or Bobs for short. Diana is more than just a nanny, though. She cooks some mean Filipino dishes, part of her heritage. She’s apparently a tick whisperer; she lures the resident arachnid into a matchbox and hides it away, which is far friendlier than smashing it with a boot. And she may have some folksy remedies to help Christine’s mysterious condition. When Christine hits the floor, wracked with sudden pain, Diana jumps in and – well, she tickles Christine. And it helps. How about that.
All this time, the musical score wants us to be unsettled, what with the CLANGs and woodblock TOCKs and slow eerie swells that suggest maybe a tick bit the synthesizer. We get a few flashbacks to happier, pre-tick-bite times, when Christine’s business prospered on the backs of sweatshop workers, who she refers to as “little helpers.” (Yes, ugh.) So that’s how she can afford that big old house, eh? In the present, her absent-minded dizziness, general malaise and weird hallucinations that might not be hallucinations but for her sake we hope are hallucinations, aren’t getting any better. So Diana gets to work, giving her mud baths and acupuncture treatments, and collecting her hair and toenail clippings for – well, if that doesn’t give you some voodoo vibes, then I don’t know what will. I think that means Christine’s past the point where tickle therapy will soothe what ails her.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Didn’t Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny recently cover some of this territory? Yes, yes it did.
Performance Worth Watching: Green is perfect for this type of off-kilter horror, where you’re not sure how seriously we should take any of this. She modulates her significant capacity for camp and finds a tone that fits the picture perfectly.
Memorable Dialogue: “What’s important is you believe in the medicine.” – Diana says some shit a doctor would never say
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Of course, Diana’s treatments reflect the title of the film. And without giving too much away, if Christine did something bad in the past – “little helpers” is the hint that cements the plot’s predictable obviousness – perhaps she fully expects to suffer for her sins via the needle pokes and whatnot with the toenails, and voila, her ailments get worse. Problem is, Nocebo’s provocative hodgepodge of oozing sores, mysterious folklore and psychological distress never really cohere. There’s a fine line between tantalizing suggestiveness and outright explanation, and Finnegan and Shanley err on the side of vagueness. Are supernatural forces at play? Or is it, to paraphrase a contentious dialogue exchange, “all in the mind”? Verily, I say meh.
The filmmakers do have an agenda here, a message about capitalist exploitation that’s righteous but about as subtle as a patio brick through the bay window. Between that somewhat tiresome shirt-tailing on the social-horror trend and the loosey-goosey plotting, we’re thankful that Finnegan is a strong visual filmmaker capable of manipulating our bug-o-phobia, or finding keen textural contrast between vibrant flashback scenes in the Philippines and the airless poshness of Christine’s upper-crust life. Additionally, Green and Fonacier enjoy enough elbow room to execute performances that exploit the troubling fringes of their The Help-ish dynamic: What happens when the power dynamic shifts and tips? Pretty much exactly what you think happens.
Our Call: Nocebo’s positive attributes – Green, Fonacier, visual acumen – perfectly balance out its flaws and inconsistencies. So it’s not bad, and not great, and thoroughly watchable, so STREAM IT, I guess.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
By: Ny Post