Retro Review: Last Night

It’s the end of the world as we know, and this vision of the end is unfailingly polite.

Canada. Directed by Don McKellar, 1998. Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie. 95 minutes.

The world ends at midnight and the citizens of Toronto try to make the best of what few hours are left. Widowed architect Patrick (Don McKellar) wants to spend his final minutes by himself, much to the chagrin of his family, who commemorate the occasion with a Christmas celebration even though it’s not Christmas. Sandra (Sandra Oh), finding her car demolished by vandals, desperately tries to make it home to her husband. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) ticks items off of his sexual “bucket list,” including a black woman, a virgin, and his high school French teacher (Genevieve Bujold). And Duncan (David Cronenberg), a gas company executive, calls each and every one of his customers, wishing them a peaceful death and promising that service will remain until the very end.

McKellar also wrote and directed Last Night and his vision of the end is unfailingly polite. He tells us the streets are dangerous, implying that gangs of ruffians prowl the streets looking for unsuspecting victims. But he shows us mostly deserted streets, a bit of garbage, and the occasional destructive act. A woman and her young daughter sit unmolested for hours in a disabled streetcar–not something that indicates danger or threat. In Toronto–to misquote Bob Geldof–even the muggers are home by eight. (Yes, I realize this is probably a cost-cutting move; deserted streets are cheaper than huge crowds and wanton wreckage.)

Of course all these characters turn out to be connected in some way, which leads to what largely is my biggest issue with Last Night. Shifts in mood come radically: Duncan’s genteel good humor, Sandra’s increasing desperation, Patrick’s darkly comic pathos, and whatever Craig’s story is supposed to be like. Sometimes the film’s funny, sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s tragic, but McKellar never quite blends the various modes and tones together just right. The bombastic, flamboyant score, which always seems at cross-purposes to whatever the visuals are trying to accomplish, doesn’t help at all. Maybe that’s by design.

At any rate, the issue is largely counterbalanced by the excellent cast. I’m never going to be a huge fan of Oh, but she does very well here, particularly towards the end; her performance is what makes the risky “tell me something that will make me love you” sequences work as well as they do. Rennie’s take on Craig is particularly interesting; he’s the least horny horndog the moving pictures have yet seen, and it seems like he’s not so much fulfilling long-harbored fantasies as doing things because all rich, straight white guys are supposed to want to have done them. (The hint that he’s actually gay is one of the best things in the entire film.)

Cronenberg tends to use his measured calmness for evil (see Nightbreed and To Die For), but here it makes Duncan perhaps the most likable character in the film. That’s not to say I advise him to quit his day job, but it’s nice to see him stretch out a bit as an actor. Of the principals, McKellar is the weak link–he doesn’t seem to have the range to pull off one of the screenplay’s most complex characters. Most of the time he does just fine, though.

The supporting cast is also strong, including McKellar’s late wife Tracy Wright as one of Duncan’s co-workers. A young(ish) Sarah Polley makes an appearance as Patrick’s sister; she seems to be miscast (the role feels like it was written for an older actress), but she puts in a good performance nonetheless.

Although uneven in parts, Last Night is an enjoyably low-key, well-behaved, intimate and distinctly Canadian apocalypse. Won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but still worth checking out.

Last Night poster

Retro Review: The Nameless

Sometimes competent, sometimes a trainwreck, mostly mediocre

AKA Los sin nombre. Spain. Directed by Jaume Balagueró, 1999. Starring Emma Vilarasau, Karra Elejalde, Tristán Ulloa. 102 minutes. 4/10

In a water hole in an abandoned, desolate warehouse, the police make a gruesome discovery: the mutilated body of a young girl. Numerous puncture wounds and acid burns, inflicted while she was still alive, mar her skin. Her teeth destroyed, her fingerprints destroyed by corrosion, her remains are almost impossible to identify.Almost. The girl had a physical deformity: one of her legs was five centimeters shorter than the other. And a single personal affect–a bracelet–was found at the scene. Based on this evidence, the authorities determine the corpse is that of Ángela Gifford, whose parents, Marc and Claudia, recently reported her missing.Five years later, the Giffords’ marriage is ruins. Marc returned to London, while Claudia (Emma Vilarasaud) remained in Spain, working as an editor, fending off an obsessive suitor, addicted to tranquilizers, unable to come to terms with her daughter’s death.

One night, the phone rings. “It’s me, Mommy,” a voice–unmistakable–pleads. “Please, come get me.”

Ángela tells her mother she’s being held captive at an abandoned beachfront health clinic. Claudia arrives, finding the grounds deserted, but she finds clues indicating her daughter’s survival–and hints towards who took her. She teams up with Bruno Massera (Karra Elejalde), the now-retired police detective who investigated Ángela’s disappearance, and Quiroga (Tristan Ulloa), a writer for a Fortean magazine who holds another piece of the puzzle.

All the clues point to a horrible truth: Ángela is in the hands of the Nameless, a brutal and depraved cult dedicated to nothing less to discovering the essence of pure evil.

The Nameless is based on a 1981 novel by Ramsey Campbell, the legendary and prolific British horrorist. Not being familiar with that novel, or indeed the bulk of his written work (I’ve really only read his Cthulhu Mythos fiction), I can’t say how faithful this 1999 adaptation, the début feature from Spanish director Jaume Balagueró (who’d go on to co-create the [REC] franchise), is.

can say that the film is a god-damned mess, and on those grounds I hope it’s not particularly faithful.

The script is filled with logical flaws, weird leaps in logic, and incoherent storytelling. I immediately figured out why the Nameless took great pains to eliminate all identifying factors on the fake corpse except for what is arguably the most important one: the shorter leg. So I was a bit gobsmacked when the cops, who actually mention this incongruity in the dialogue, sweep it under the rug on some spurious grounds relating to the psychology of ritual murderers. (And, I should point out, something that was news to me, and I’ve actually researched ritual murder.)

Characters fade in and out of the narrative seemingly at random. I get the feeling that the film’s Big Bad is someone I’m supposed to recognize, but don’t. I also want to know what happened to the guy with the facial scar. Then there’s Claudia’s “ex-boyfriend” Toni, laughably underwritten and yet occupying more space in the narrative than he ought.

Let’s not forget bizarre scenes such as the following:

Massera (to Quiroga): I think you can help us.
Quiroga: But how?
(Massera walks away.)

As for the Nameless themselves…the dialogue tries too hard to suggest true menace. I didn’t count the number of times characters referred to the cult’s time at the Dachau death camp during World War II, but I think it was at least half a dozen. Even in 1999, evoking Nazis was a lazy tactic. The constant yammering about the “synthesis of evil” borders on silly technobabble. And when a clunky infodump reveals the cult’s ultimate goal, I found myself wondering, Why the fuck would anyone ever want to do that? Sorry, but “They’re evil! And also Dachau!” doesn’t cut it for me.

This is not a movie you watch for strong plotting, cracking storytelling or believable characters.

Thankfully, the rest of the production isn’t a complete wash. Balaguerós direction isn’t particularly inspired–it’s basically one part Seven and one part The Silence of the Lambs–but it’s at least competent, especially early on in the film. I doubt it’s likely to creep out anyone other than the easily creeped-out, but it just about does the job. The fake corpse is a gem of effects work and is the most effective thing the film has to offer.

And the cast is strong, with one or two exceptions. Vilarasau, Elejalde, Ulloa, and Carles Penyet (as the cult’s leader) do their best with what little they have, and their best is pretty damned good. Carlos Lasarte, who plays the cult’s imprisoned leader, steals his single scene and deserves a much better movie than this. The lone black mark comes from Pep Tosar (the protagonist of Nacho Cerdá’s notorious Aftermath), who plays Toni as a cartoonish asshole, too over-the-top to pose any real threat.

Profoundly flawed but getting a few important things right, The Nameless is hard to either love or hate. Indeed, it is neither good nor bad enough to stick in the memory for very long (corpse props and story issues notwithstanding). Considering the eponymous cult’s commitment to exploring the darkest depths of evil, the film’s mediocrity may well be its greatest sin.

The Nameless poster