Like a good number of 90s kids, my first introduction to the concept of anthology horror in cinema was the 1990 film Tales from the Darkside. It was a lean little picture with a great wraparound story featuring a child-eating Deborah Harry and a very young Matthew Lawrence using a book of scary stories to stall his impending doom. Something about it always stuck with me, likely in no small part due to the fantastic wraparound, that offered cheek and gallows humor in abundance…
A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio, which recently played at 2019’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, attempts that elusive wraparound with directors Nicolas and Luciano Onetti using late-night radio show host Rod Wilson (James Wright), posted up alone on a stormy night in the station, taking calls and telling stories. In the years since Tales from the Darkside other films have attempted to duplicate the formula to varying degrees of success. Some rising to the occasion while others fell flat. Unfortunately, it’s in this latter category that I find myself compelled to place Nightmare Radio’s framework. The writing is clunkier than a bag of billiard balls in a spin dryer and not nearly as interesting to watch. Though credit is due to those involved with the lighting, production design, and photography as they do their absolute best to elevate the material.
The 2010s have seen an influx of horror anthologies that really kicked off with the success of the 2012 breakout V/H/S, which capitalized on the continued success of found-footage horror. V/H/S showcased shorts from indie horror talents Adam Wingard, Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Simon Barrett, and the collective Radio Silence. Nightmare Radio cribs this format while refreshingly leaving the found-footage aspect behind. The segments range from the super-mundane to the supernatural but rarely succeed at outdoing their anthological contemporaries.
The first segment, Post Mortem Mary, directed by Joshua Long, kicks things off with a rustic flair. An ailing post-mortem photographer and her daughter arrive at a prairie home to create one last memory of an only child for her grieving parents. Naturally things take a spooky turn when the girl’s corpse appears to move with sinister intent.
Each short is punctuated with a brief interlude at the radio station where Rod Wilson hands out ham-fisted horror platitudes like Halloween candy. Some shorts, Post Mortem Mary among them, fall into the middling range while others like A Little Off the Top, directed by Adam O’Brien, a criminally tedious story about a psychotic middle-aged stylist scalping a celebrity client to make hair extensions, belong sequestered in the dog house. The third short, The Disappearance of Willie Bingham, directed by Matt Richards, suggests a future where the surviving family of victims of violent crimes can dictate the extent to which the incarcerated perpetrator is dismembered via surgical amputations. I found myself more horrified by the cost logistics of such a program than the actual events unfolding.
Despite some of the detritus, there are in fact a few stand-outs. The first of the segments to actually inflict some startles and spooks was the fourth, Drops, directed by Sergio Morcillo. While light on narrative it does what it can with subtext and cinematography. It’s the story of a dancer plagued by abdominal pains, phantasmal sounds, and an overbearing brother after their parents have passed away. This Spanish-language short mines its brief runtime for subtext and uses what is hands-down the creepiest haunt in the whole anthology as a stand-in for incestual sexual abuse.
The other MVP, The Smiling Man, directed by A.J. Briones, will be familiar to those who follow horror pages that post compelling shorts. The titular Smiling Man has haunted my timeline for the better part of two years but it wasn’t until Nightmare Radio that I was able to see it in its entirety. And worth the wait it was. While there’s more or less no real narrative, Briones uses his child actor, set pieces, and makeup design to full effect creating a thoroughly chilling bogeyman whose visage is likely to keep many, myself included, up well past midnight.
Taken in pieces Nightmare Radio is pick-n-mix of gourmet confections and unfortunate grandma candies parading as the former. As a whole, it doesn’t hold up, its better parts not quite sturdy enough to hold the center. I can’t entirely discount this anthology outing, but I’d say you’re better served searching out the individual pieces than putting yourself through 95 minutes of inconsistent thrills.
By Paul Bauer