Jack be Nimble (1993)

Sex :
Violence :
Director Mathias Dinter Reviewer :
Writers Garth Maxwell, Rex Pilgrim
Starring Alexis Arquette, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, Bruno Lawrence
Genre Drama
Tagline Nothing Listed
15 second cap Two siblings re-united after years apart, one is adjusted, one has problems including four psychotic step sisters, mayhem ensues


"Remember Jack, you owe us" - Bernice

As young kids Jack and Dora are abandoned by their parents to the vagaries of the New Zealand adoption system. Mom went completely nuts, never explained, and Dad is a bit of a champagne Charlie who wasn't cut out for married life and responsibility. Dora is adopted by an upper middle class Auckland couple, Mr. and Mrs. Birch, who absolutely dote on her. However Jack is grabbed by a rural couple, Clarrie and Bernice, who if not completely insane, are definitely working their way up to sharp implements and stocking the cellar with murdered tourists. Jack is abused by his adoptive parents, both physically and mentally, and has to contend with four sisters who aren't exactly the full quid either.

Jack isn't exactly the best student in the world, given his home life not surprising, but does excel at metal shop. He makes a machine that surprisingly hypnotises people, just let it through to the keeper folks. Naturally he hypnotises his family which leads to Mom and Dad Psycho apparently committing suicide. Jack is off to the Big Smoke to chase up his Sister, who not surprisingly has some ESP abilities. Dora is having a relationship with the much older Teddy, as he helps her block out the voices of the dead. The kids are re-united due to Dora's power, but unfortunately Jack is pretty maladjusted in a social sense and can't stand Teddy. Meanwhile a pickup truck is approaching the City fill of long dark haired psycho Chicks, out to make Jack pay for his crimes against Ma and Pa. An explosive confrontation is looming, can Dora get Jack out of his downward spiral to self destruction or will the wicked Sisters extract their revenge? One hell of s stylistic modern day fairy tale ensures.

Director Maxwell opens his movie with the sort of prologue that would have made Dario Argento circa Suspira happy with life. We see a woman hanging out white washing, do the whites separate to the colours kids, in a strong breeze. She clearly is emotionally disturbed and the washing whipped into a frenzy by the wind is pretty much attacking her as she sobs and becomes almost entrapped at stages by vengeance seeking sheets. She flees inside and takes to a bit of booze at a window while her two young children look on. The curtains take up the assault begun by the washing, and at stages the woman is almost nun like as she is shrouded by the material. At once evocative, visually exciting, and no doubt dripping meaning like a just slaughtered pig, Maxwell serves notice he is delivering perhaps the greatest ever New Zealand Gothic movie.

Jack be Nimble pretty much is the most underrated movie to be made in New Zealand. When people talk Kiwi cinema this one hardly even rates a mention, beyond maybe a passing comment that Maxwell is one of our great Directors who has pretty much thrown away his career. Sam Neill, in his commentary on Kiwi movies Cinema of Unease, being the exception, Sam was well aware of the importance of this movie that mixes dark New Zealand thematic undertones with the Gothic concepts of horror. It's quite the achievement and bloody hard to review in any decent style what so ever.

The Director just piles on the symbolism and visual cues like he fears the concept is running out of favour. Jack be Nimble is interesting to watch for the weight of visual clues and complexity that is going down. Like The Machinist everything, even the most seemingly innocuous prop, has meaning or could have meaning if you are prepared to join the dots. Where Director Maxwell goes further than the great Brad Anderson is to link scenes, to provide a common narrative between seemingly different scenerios, you are in for a visual feast drenched with more symbolism than a hippy commune. Knock yourself out if you are a member of the wine and cheese set, though it would beg the question, why are you reading this site?

Absolute brilliance that could do with a modern digital upgrade, though I have no idea who would do it justice.

So while the art house crowd are going to be rocking out to what Maxwell has going down your average dark genre fan is probably going to be wondering exactly what they have stepped into. Jack be Nimble is steeped in the Kiwi gothic, which is generally a pretty brooding atmospheric rich place to be. While the story is unfolding, and there are a lot of creepy scenes, don't expect a huge body count or screaming spectres rushing at the camera. Maxwell builds an atmospheric rich vision but doesn't really ramp up the tension till the penultimate scene, which is then totally overridden by a strangely upbeat final scene. The beat here is more psychological, nature versus nurture anyway, than the physical. While Jack be Nimble pulls up to the curb next to a number of horror outlets, backwoods deranged anyone, it never parks and goes in. Probably the closest comparison I could make would be to Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, which of course has just turned off the kind of film fan that has a hatred for cinema outside the Hollywood conveyor belt.

There's certainly dark genre elements permuting the movie but I'm wondering if Maxwell maybe bites off more than a mouth full and is unable to digest that bite. Dora has some ESP power and can't stand the voices of the dead in her head who are constantly talking; wonder where Charlaine Harris got her idea for Sookie Stackhouse? This idea is a plot device that disappears through the second half of the movie without explanation. Jack is building up the murder tally and is clearly not playing with a full deck, which should actually lose Audience sympathy but doesn't, but that idea goes nowhere really effective. And finally the whole revenant thing is touched upon but done in such an obtuse fashion that a lot of people are going to miss it. By the time Dora goes Firestarter there's any number of dark themes disappearing into the hinterland. Perhaps if there is any real criticism of Jack be Nimble it's the scattergun approach Maxwell uses when constructing the framework of the movie.

I was actually surprised by the pacing of Jack be Nimble, it doesn't falter at any stage while keeping the viewer speared to their chair by the continued bombardment of images that are both striking and push the bounds of what the movie should be doing. By the time we return to the rural nightmare, and there are scenes on the farm that some viewers may find unwatchable though I would point out that Maxwell does a Tobe Hooper in implying much more than he shows, you really do feel like you have been through a repeat wash cycle. For lovers of dark cinema Maxwell is going to leave you drained as there is no chance during the movie of catching your breath and taking in what you are watching.

T&A isn't high on the agenda; Bruno Lawrence and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy get down and funky without really sexing it up or showing naughty bits. Sorry kids this is all about the dark driving nature of the plot and less about splattering on the sort of tinsel that some Directors try to use to paper over the gaps in the quality of their flicks.

Jack be Nimble is one of those flicks that are invariably on your Downunder play list but which you never seem to get around to watching. After last week's Sleepaway Camp festival I was after reviewing a couple of Kiwi flicks to get things back onto the straight and dark, and it just so happened I ran into Jack at one of my regular haunts. I'm really pleased I did catch up with the movie as it remains incredibly underrated and perhaps the greatest ever Gothic horror flick to be made in New Zealand, which is saying something considering most genre movies from this Country are Gothic in nature. Pity Maxwell decided to waste his talent on some pretty average television shows, with Jack be Nimble he shows he had some really talent for dark cinema. The movie is highly recommended to those who like a bit of art with their psychological horror, well worth checking out.

Not sure of the availability of the movie in foreign markets, you'll need to check your sources, it can be scored on DVD from Screenline for around $10 NZD. The movie has been re-released under the New Zealand Cinema banner, two thumbs up for that resurrection of classic Kiwi movies, but doesn't overly hit us with the extras beyond the standard features.

If after more information on the movie, and that's going to be a requirement, then browse on over to NZ Videos, where your host Charles will give you every conceivable piece of information you ever wanted to know about the movie. Hey we review and catalogue, NZ Videos document.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

  Oh hell yes, the sort of movie that could just turn you into a fan of Downunder dark musings.