Nomads (1986)

I have, in my lifetime, witnessed through the magic of film many horrifying sights, reels of celluloid wreathed in blood and viscera, twisted images of the macabre and terrible that make grown men scream like big girls’ blouses. But none, NONE of these compare to Nomads, which introduced me to something so ghastly, so frightening that there were times I caught my trembling hand tentatively reaching for the standby switch on my remote control as I feared my very mind would become unhinged, so unprepared was I for this nightmare.

No, I’m not talking about Pierce Brosnan’s acting. I’m talking about Pierce Brosnan’s acting AND his French accent. AAAAAAaaaaaarghhh! Seriously, there are times it’s so much like Pepe LePew that it’s painful.

John McTiernan would later helm Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988) but this, his first film, is overall something of a clunker, the shame of it being that there are some nice touches here and there that suggest there was a good film waiting to burst out but the script (also by McTiernan) could have used some refinement before shooting began (although the fault could be with the source material, a book of the same name by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro).

It opens well, with Lesley-Anne Down playing a doctor who whilst on duty in the ER comes across a bloodied, beaten man, delirious and raving in French. This turns out to be noted anthropologist Jean-Claude Pommier (Brosnan) and with his dying whisper he somehow transfers every memory of the last few weeks of his life into her head. From this point forward, Dr. Flax is living in a kind of waking dream, re-living Pommier’s life through flashback, partly involuntary and partly fuelled by a desire to get to the bottom of what’s happening to her, a mystery at the centre of which is an inner-city gang whose lifestyle so resembles that of the nomadic peoples found in other cultures that Pommier, who had spent his life studying them, could not help but be fascinated and caught up in their strange existence. Along the way, Pommier began to suspect that there’s something otherworldly, perhaps supernatural, about these beings as he learns of an Inuit legend of malevolent nomadic spirits who bring with them madness and death in their wake to any human unfortunate enough to make contact with them…

McTiernan’s movie is at its strongest towards the beginning, when the changes Lesley-Anne Down’s doctor is experiencing are strange, hallucinatory and confusing and the flashbacks to the Pommier storyline are purposely sporadic, but somewhere towards the middle of the film the flashback part takes over and becomes the dominant storyline and it’s at this point it becomes dull, with Brosnan’s character following around the gang for what seems like an interminable time with very little happening. There’s one nicely atmospheric exception to this, when Pommier stumbles upon a sufficiently creepy old house and inside has an encounter with an apparition who reveals to him the possible sinister nature of the nomads via the retelling of the Inuit myth, but as with all the moments where there is some atmosphere or tension, they’re just moments lost in the overall soup of unevenness.

Take this myth for example – it is, in fact, a very good idea and subtly creepy and could have worked as an interesting slant on the vampire mythos, but that’s all it remains from that point on, an idea, there’s never anything done with it to give the gang the air of menace that’s needed to give it teeth and dramatic impact for the viewer. The one time it approaches its potential is towards the movie’s conclusion and is a case of too little, too late. Furthermore, by the same token that the Lesley-Anne Down storyline is sadly sidelined for far too long (and when it re-emerges, again not much happens), when this more action-oriented set piece occurs it seems to come out of nowhere and is totally at odds with the tone set by the rest of the film, and whilst it probably could have worked by being a deliberately contrasting, adrenaline-filled denouement, it just feels tacked-on, ending the film abruptly after meandering about doing very little for far too long. There are times when it tries to blur the line between reality and what could be the supernatural, deliberately obfuscating whether they’re even really happening or whether Pommier is indeed mad, but these are abandoned and underdeveloped. The other main problem the movie cannot overcome is Brosnan, who’s so wooden he goes from teak to mahogany in 5.2 seconds. Even were it not for Brosnan needing a fresh coat of varnish, there’s just far too much time spent on his character and not on the gang (wasting the appearances of Adam Ant and Mary Woronov), so there’s no real feeling of dread from them which is essential to giving the movie the tension it needs, and it also disconnects for too long from the Dr. Flax link in the storyline, making it a plot device to tell the lion’s share of the narrative in flashback, which is clumsy.

In many ways I was often reminded upon re-watching this of Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil (1992) – lovely big ideas and potential in its own creepy internal mythology which it never quite lives up to, some nice atmospheric moments and imagery, but ultimately the plodding pace and aimless direction take their toll, leaving it with some interesting touches but far, far too dull and pointless overall. Maybe worth a watch if it comes on the box one night, but be prepared to fall asleep before the credits roll.

Rating: ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

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