John Carpenter’s 1978 independent horror breakthrough Halloween is a legend for many reasons: its budget, its murderer, the launch of its star’s career, its Donald Pleasance casting coupe, and its soundtrack, among other things. Just as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho launched an era of horror movies that had to have a shower scene, Carpenter’s Halloween launched scads of imitators. None–not even the film’s sequels–have come anywhere close to capturing the atmosphere and the mystique of the original.
So when an indie horror film about a babysitter who comes face-to-face with unspeakable horrors lists Halloween as its source of inspiration, I am immediately skeptical. Oh, it’s another masked killer on the loose slashing up teenagers until the final girl somehow manages to stop him…or does she? Then “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Nature Trail To Hell” starts playing in my head and all serious consideration of what’s being presented is lost. Fortunately, such was not the case with directing duo Christopher A. Micklos and Jay Sapiro’s babysitter horror film The Nursery (2018, Three Tortured Minds Productions).
Although the film’s marketing claims that the Carpenter classic inspires The Nursery, The Nursery is much more ghost story than slasher flick. Ranae (Madeline Conway) is a morose young woman who carries a certain amount of guilt over the death of her mother. So heavy is her conscience in fact that she has moved far away from the rest of her family, including her younger brother, and refuses to return for family gatherings. Needing to supplement her income, Ranae accepts a babysitting job for a couple with a 3-month-old child. Soon after the infant’s parents leave for their night out, strange and frightening events unfold, terrifying Ranae.
The Nursery has several successful horror movie ingredients in its mix: the well-meaning protagonist babysitter, her nonchalant friends who pop in on her gig without asking, a mystery surrounding the death of a child, and a Samara-looking supernatural creature wreaking paranormal havoc on believers and skeptics alike. The film is well cast and has an appropriately tense soundtrack (although it is more symphonic than Carpenter-esque synth). It also manages to deftly avoid a few modern horror film traps like unrealistic use of technology and emergency phone services. That alone is an indicator that the writers and directors put some thought into this project. I was surprised and delighted when I realized that I wasn’t watching just another Halloween rip-off.
However, there are a few frustrating flaws in The Nursery that will most likely prevent me from viewing it a second time. Although I was impressed by the apparent thought the writers gave the plot, setting, and characters, I was much less impressed by the writing itself. In many places throughout the film, the dialogue comes off as unnatural, if not wholly unnecessary. In real life, we probably ask each other to repeat information more often that we should. However, it is not necessary to include that bit of realism in a script. I found myself annoyed by the number of times a character asks another character to repeat themselves. On film, these instances feel forced, as if the writers were afraid the audience would be too disinterested to catch the critical bit of exposition in the dialogue the first time around.
There are also unlikely motivations and silly to the point of annoying arguments among the young folks. For example, when Grace (Carly Rae James Sauer), who has been skeptical of Ranae’s ghostly sightings and suspicions all night long, suddenly sees the creepy entity herself, she and Ranae end up spending a ridiculous amount of time asking each other to “tell me what you saw” and then denying to each other that they saw anything. This makes no sense given that Grace now has a reason to believe Ranae has seen some kind of entity. Why wouldn’t she just come out and say what she thought she saw? Or, if not Grace, why wouldn’t Ranae? She’s already been vocally worrying about it all night. Why the sudden shyness?
The cinematography, special effects, and makeup in The Nursery were all well done. My one criticism of the camera work is the length of time the lens lingered on things like the text messages on smartphone screens. Yes, it is essential that the audience has time to process those messages, but The Nursery’s filmmakers give you just a little too much time to process what you’re seeing. These extra seconds pull you out of the story because you start to wonder if your internet connectivity suddenly got interrupted and froze the stream.
All in all, The Nursery is an excellent effort at a babysitter horror film. With some polishing up of the dialogue and a little less lingering on expositional objects, it could be an even better one.