Setting aside the hapless hilarity that would ensue should I ever attempt such a gig, you’ll never catch me intentionally taking on the role of a caretaker. For anything. Or for anyone, for that matter. I’ve seen too many horror movies, thrillers, and dramas. I already know the outcome. I’d end up insane and cavorting with ghosts like Jack Torrance in The Shining. Or, I’d end up becoming a vengeful family thief like Mrs. Mott in The Hand The Rocks the Cradle. Or maybe, just maybe, I’d end up the honest-to-god-I-just-need-a-job-right-now Mr. Nanny who is hired by a real-world Addams Family to care for their youngster; a youngster they mostly keep locked away in her bedroom because secrets. That’s the premise of writer Chris LaMont’s and writer/director Joe Russo’s new domestic thriller The Au Pair Nightmare, which premiered on the Lifetime network May 17 and is now available to stream on Vudu.
Taylor (Brytnee Ratledge) is an earnest young college student whose fiancé Brad (Micha McNeil) is killed in a horrific accident soon after he proposes. With hopes of moving on, Taylor takes time off from her studies and applies for a job as an au pair, or live-in nanny, for the Calebs. They are a reclusive family of three. The father, Dr. John Caleb (Tristan Thomas), is ready to accept Taylor at face value. The mother, Allesandra (Annie Heise), is not so sure. Allesandra is downright suspicious of and hateful to Taylor, who has no previous au pair experience. Allesandra has already dismissed her when 8-year-old daughter Emily (Gianna Gallegos) suddenly appears and takes an instant liking to Taylor. Emily’s enthusiasm causes John, in what later seems like an unusual act of courage for him, to override Allesandra and hire Taylor on the spot.
From there, things get stranger. Taylor discovers that Emily is mostly confined to her room, which remains locked at night because, as Dr. John explains, she sleepwalks. Taylor soon finds that Emily might not be as restricted as she seems when the cover of a celebrity gossip magazine featuring teen heartthrob Brad Hardwick (Trevor Donovan) suddenly goes missing from her suitcase. Yet more alarming is Allesandra’s increasingly erratic behavior and quirks, such as spying on her new hire, adding increasingly strict household rules that make little sense, and engaging in massive freakouts over movies and movie soundtracks. As her new world becomes increasingly threatening, Taylor pieces together clues that she uncovers about Allesandra’s behavior and the family’s predicament, ultimately revealing a secret that can only lead to a deadly confrontation.
The Au Pair Nightmare begins much like its caretaker predecessors. It establishes Taylor’s background and follows her progress in obtaining her new position. In this respect and at least one other, the story bears some superficial resemblance to The Shining. Russo and company manage to avoid getting bogged down in backstory by leading with Brad’s dramatic demise and by providing Taylor with a protective older sister named Kara (Elizabeth Saydah). She adds some lighthearted snark while helping to fill in some of the exposition. By the 20-minute mark, when the first real signs of trouble begin to emerge, viewers should find themselves invested in Taylor’s plight and rooting for her.
The Au Pair Nightmare is labeled a domestic thriller, not a horror film. However, Russo—who was a producer for the 2019 horror anthology Nightmare Cinema—has experience in the latter. He brings that to bear more than once. There’s a jump-scare, some good old-fashioned Hitchcockian camera work, and a seething, ticking timebomb of a primary antagonist. Allesandra can be as creepily charming as your old hermit aunt one second and go all Norman Bates on your ass the next. If you think that sounds melodramatic, you’re right. Heise is over-the-top in the best way, leaving the viewer on-edge and anticipating a meltdown every time she’s in a shot.
Similarly, The Au Pair Nightmare is neither subtle nor particularly nuanced in its storytelling. Like many works in its genre, that seems to have been the intent. It might not play well with audiences who are seeking more substance than entertainment. But if you want a fun temporary escape from the real world, you could do a lot worse.
I have one issue with the film. There are logical leaps in the third act. Characters slow to acknowledge warning signs suddenly and wholeheartedly accept the epiphany that comprises the climax. At least one of those characters has been stagnant for eight whole years. Allowing us to see a gradual persuasion toward truth is more satisfying storytelling. Even so, The Au Pair Nightmare remains a complete entertainment. There are twists and turns. There’s some humor, some sensuality, and some action. There’s also a nicely executed hallway dolly zoom.
Yes, there will be times when you’ll want to scream at the characters for their seeming naiveté. I think I would’ve fled the Calebs long before Taylor attempts to do so. But you won’t tune out.