Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Nomads (1986)

Directed by:
John McTiernan

Formed in the mid 70s by Thomas Coleman and Michael Rosenblatt, Atlantic Releasing Corporation started life as a distributor of foreign "art" films here in America before branching out into film production themselves. Among their earlier releases were the critically acclaimed Picnic at Hanging Rock (1974), the 1978 German sex comedy Boarding School (released here in 1983 to capitalize on the skyrocketing popularity of Nastassja Kinski) and the Sonia Braga vehicle I Love You (1981), which had been a big hit in Brazil. Like many other fledgling companies, ARC had their successes and had their failures, but it was small scale enough in the beginning where they could absorb the small losses and balance everything out with the small gains. That all changed when the company began to expand and tried to compete with the big boys. In 1983, they backed a modest, 350K-budgeted comedy called Valley Girl, which ended up becoming one of the surprise sleeper hits of it year, grossing over 17 million in less than 450 theaters. Seeing how teenagers took to the whole valley girl craze, they then financed a horror / sci-fi / valley girl comedy called Night of the Comet (1984). Comet became the first film Atlantic put into over 1000 theaters and it did a very respectable 14+ million on a 700K budget; almost managing to out-gross the heavily-promoted King adaptations Children of the Corn and Firestarter in the process.

1985 turned out to be ARC's most lucrative year to date and that was all because of another surprise hit that was geared specifically toward teenagers: the high school werewolf comedy Teen Wolf (1985). Wolf went on to become the 26th highest-grossing film of the year, netting over 33 million dollars at the U.S. box office alone. That was enough to offset a major failure from the same year; the 15-million-budgeted 3D animated flop Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, which was put into 1000+ theaters but didn't even gross 4 million. The film, released through ARC's family film subdivision Clubhouse Pictures, also had South Korean backing and flopped there, too. It was around this same time that ARC struck up a deal with Paramount; they'd get financial backing for future releases while Paramount would get the home video and television distribution rights. Things seemed to be looking up but, almost as quickly, everything came crashing down.

Taking a gander at their slate of 1986 releases, you can see just where everything started to unravel. For starters, their choice for a 1000+ wide theater release was the disastrous Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords, which couldn't even muster up 2 million dollars in ticket sales. Their only success of the year, and a minor one at that, was Extremities, a sensationalist rape-revenge film adapted from a popular stage play, which was their only film to make the Top 100 by year's end. Other releases like The Men's Club, The Good Wife, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, Modern Girls and the film we'll be discussing here in a bit, were put into hundreds of theaters apiece and all did dismal business. In an effort to regain their footing the following year, they sunk a lot of money into what they probably thought was a surefire winner. Unfortunately, the God awful Teen Wolf Too (1987) was slated by critics and audiences didn't care much for it either. It was placed in over 1500 theaters, making it ARC's widest-release ever, but only grossed 7.8 million. The final nail in the coffin occurred the following year when ARC went for broke and sank 37 million dollars into the Vietnam war drama 1969 (1988), which ended up tanking miserably and grossing only 5.9 million dollars. By the summer of 1989, ARC had debts in excess of 45 million and were forced to sell their library and permanently close up shop.

While Nomads itself probably didn't do the company too much damage overall, it was still a bizarre choice for a major genre release as there's nothing about this strange, obtuse, confusing, pseudo-surreal film that screamed potential box office champ. What the distributors probably banked on was its star: Pierce Brosnan, who became a major 80s heartthrob here due to the TV show Remington Steele. This was Brosnan's first lead role and made back when his potential box office clout had yet to be tested. The ads (“The star of Remington Steele, Pierce Brosnan... like you've never seen him before!”) even confirm the producers' hope his name would carry it. But would Brosnan's millions of TV fans and legion of female admirers flock to theaters to see his handsome mug on the big screen? Short answer: No.

At a hospital in L.A., a delirious, blood-covered Frenchman (Brosnan) is brought in and tied down to a bed. Pretty young doctor Eileen Flax (Lesley-Anne Down), who's new to town and having a hard time adjusting to the late hours and long work shifts, is seeing to him when he breaks from his restraints, whispers something in her ear, cuts her neck and then keels over dead. She's stitched up and sent home, where she has the first of many strange visions that will begin haunting and consuming her entire life. Though the hospital staff assumed the Frenchman was all doped up on hallucinogens, no traces of drugs are found in his system during the autopsy. It's also revealed that this man isn't a vagrant or some nut with a history of psychological problems. In fact, he was a respected, world-famous anthropologist and UCLA professor named Jean Charles Pommier. Jean Charles and his wife Niki (Anna Maria Monticelli), had only been back in the U.S. for a week from one of their various trips abroad when whatever happened to him happened and led to his death.

Strange voices and strange visions are soon overtaking Dr. Flax, causing her to freak our or pass out. She starts hemorrhaging and her eyes bleed as she has visions of the past from Jean Charles' vantage point. Upon moving into a brand new place, the anthropologist and his wife are harassed by a group of dangerous, black-clad punk rockers, who first make their presence known spray-painting up their garage and leaving bloody newspaper clippings behind detailing various murders, suicides and deaths. Jean Charles follows the punks' black van into the city and then proceeds to trail them for 30 straight hours as they indulge in lots of vagrancy, vandalism and numerous criminal acts (including a little casual murder). They have no home, no identities, no jobs and, strangely enough, they all appear to be mute and never even need to sleep. These nomadic drifters literally never stop moving the entire time. It's one parking lot or restaurant or back ally after another as they aimlessly move on from place to place.

The present and the past are all jumbled together with scenes of Dr. Flax wandering about after sneaking out of the hospital and whatever went on with the anthropologist, his wife and the nomads a week prior. After having snapped numerous photos of the nomads, Jean Charles returns home to develop the film and realizes the subjects are nowhere to be seen in the pictures... and then he realizes the tables are turned and the nomads are now stalking him. Dr. Flax, along with her foul-mouthed co-worker Cassie (Jeannie Elias), learn that one of the things uttered by the dying anthropologist involves something called “inuat;” ancient Eskimo spirits capable of assuming human form that bring disaster and madness to any human who falls in with them. Eventually, Flax and Niki's paths cross and they're ambushed in Niki's home by a whole gang of the nomads, who proceed to, uh, well... They basically just destroy the place, corner the ladies in the attic and then just leave them there and go somewhere else.

This truly had potential to be a great film and there are some wonderful and fascinating ideas in here, but everything doesn't come together into a satisfying whole largely due to McTiernan's muddled and often incoherent screenplay. The pacing alternates from deadly slow to rushed, the mythology of the nomads doesn't feel adequately fleshed out and the disjointed manner in how all of the events are presented doesn't really work either. Though most of the acting in good, the two leads don't come off so well. Brosnan's accent is terrible and his conversations with his wife are often unintelligible while Down is asked to crank up the histrionics in many scenes to the point where her character becomes extremely annoying, especially when she keeps falling into a trance over and over again during the finale. Worst of all is the soundtrack. The mood and atmosphere are all but ruined by the loud metal guitar soundtrack by Bill Conti and Ted Nugent, which is as grating and obnoxious as Nugent himself. Well, almost.

The supporting cast here is very strong. Veteran actresses Nina Foch (playing a real estate agent in one scene) and Frances Bay (who turns up in an abandoned convent as a ghost nun in a scene that makes absolutely no sense) both have nice bits. The always-great Mary Woronov has a memorable little role as Dancing Mary; a heavily-made-up “nomad” who does a memorable car-top dance and features prominently in the finale. Adam Ant, probably the prettiest guy to emerge from the 70s / early 80s UK punk scene who eventually scored one U.S. pop hit with “Goody Two Shoes,” plays another of the punks, as do singer Josie Cotton (who'd done some music for the Valley Girl soundtrack) and John Carpenter film regular Frank Doubleday.

Though unsuccessful itself, Nomads ended up at least doing great things for its director. Arnold Schwarzenegger saw it and was impressed enough to hire McTiernan to direct a little sci-fi / horror / action movie he was about to star in called PREDATOR (1987). After that film proved to be a huge success, McTiernan was then rushed into the big time. Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990) carried through on that initial promise; making him one of Hollywood's top action directors... but it didn't last for too long. His fifth film, Medicine Man (1994), under-performed and then came the heavily-promoted summer blockbuster Last Action Hero (1993), which surprised many by becoming the director's biggest financial flop to date. Even the star power of Schwarzenegger couldn't save it. Ever since then, McTiernan has never really been able to make much of a rebound. While a few of his films (including the third Die Hard) did OK, most were unmitigated financial disasters. The 13th Warrior (1999), Rollerball (2002) and Basic (2003) all lost tens of millions of dollars apiece for their studios (all three combined are estimated at losses between 150 and 200 million!) and McTiernan was more or less hung out to dry.

The last decade or so has seen the director facing felony convictions for illegal wiretapping and lying to federal agents, a messy and expensive divorce, two (still pending) lawsuits involving invasion of privacy and a 2011 car accident, losing his home, filing for chapter 10 bankruptcy and spending nearly a year in prison from 2013 to 2014.

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