An uneasy hybrid, JACK BE NIMBLE blends horror movie conventions with an often astute psychological portrait of siblings separated in childhood and permanently traumatized by their divergent destinies. Though not really a success, it's infinitely more ambitious than most fright films,
and contains moments of pure, horrifying poetry.
As the hanging laundry, whipped by an upcoming storm, slaps their distraught mother's face, two children watch with wide eyes, not knowing what exactly is wrong but aware that something very bad is happening. What they don't know is that things are about to get worse: following their mother's
suicide attempt, the siblings are placed by their father in an orphanage. The girl, Dora, is adopted by a kindly middle-class couple and raised in bourgeois luxury. Her brother, Jack, is taken by a hateful pair of hog farmers and taken to their squalid country homestead. Their four witch-like
daughters hate Jack, who becomes the whipping boy, metaphorically and literally, for all the family's miseries.
Years pass and Dora is attacked by a gang of bullies at school and pushed off a wall. The incident awakens powerful psychic abilities that torment her and drive her to the brink of madness. As an adult, Dora (Sarah Smuts-Kennedy) attempts suicide, but is stopped by Teddy (Bruno Lawrence), an
awkward loner with similar abilities, and they begin a tentative love affair. Meanwhile Jack (Alexis Arquette), relentlessly abused and traumatized, grows to vengeful manhood and creates a weird device, a contraption of wires and flashing lights, that casts people into a deep hypnotic trance. He
uses it to will his adoptive parents to suicide: his father lies down in front of traffic, while his mother ventures out on a high tree limb and goes crashing into a river. Jack then packs his machine and takes to the road in search of Dora.
The siblings' reunion is uneasy; Dora is delighted, but Jack's feelings are more complicated--he is jealously possessive (directed at Teddy) and resentful of her relatively happy upbringing. The two set out to search for their natural parents, unaware that Jack's four stepsisters are searching
for him. They first find their father, a fat sybarite who confesses that his ex-wife's nervous breakdown was the result of his infidelities, and that he abandoned his children because he didn't want them to get in the way of his having a good time. Jack retaliates by hypnotically compelling him to
do a thousand push-ups, which result in a fatal heart attack. They also track down their fragile mother, who's pathetically happy to see her children, but terrified by Jack's uncontrollable rage.
Later, Jack and Dora are forced off the road by a battered pick-up truck driven by the four sisters; when Dora regains consciousness, all that's left of Jack is a bloody hand print on the car. She persuades Teddy to help her find him, but they arrive too late at the filthy farm; the sisters have
killed Jack, and they murder Teddy as well. Dora uses her telekinetic powers to destroy them, and the film ends with her pregnant and living in Teddy's house, enjoying her new-found relationship with her mother.
Part family drama and part straight-out nightmarish horror movie, JACK BE NIMBLE is an uneven film. A gothic fairy tale from New Zealand, it recklessly combines realistic and fantastic elements, and ultimately asks audiences to accept one weird thing too many. But when it works, which is
surprisingly often, JACK BE NIMBLE is truly chilling, and it contains images that are horribly haunting: a battered jack-in-the-box clown, its eyes and mouth sewn crudely shut, a slaughtered pig hung up to bleed, the whirring hypnosis machine, the bloody hand print, and, above all, the four
sisters at various malicious ages. Always arranged in descending order of height, dressed identically, their hair in identical knotted tangles, they're figures from an atavistic nightmare, hellish siblings whose veins are filled with pure acid.
First-time writer/director Garth Maxwell's premise is an interesting and unusual one, and if he fails to solve all the story problems it generates, he establishes a chilling atmosphere of dread and potential violence, even in the midst of everyday events, that is profoundly effective. Working in
a genre that too often falls back on cliches, Maxwell has made a film that is never predictable. Feverish and filled with contradictions, JACK BE NIMBLE is a poetic parable about the consequences of neglect and violence that is never less than memorable. (Violence, alcohol abuse, profanity, sexualsituations.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: An uneasy hybrid, JACK BE NIMBLE blends horror movie conventions with an often astute psychological portrait of siblings separated in childhood and permanently traumatized by their divergent destinies. Though not really a success, it's infinitely more ambi… (more)