John McTiernan is a name most pop culture buffs associate with films that defined mainstream Hollywood action and thriller fare during the late ’80s and early ’90s: Die Hard, Predator, The Hunt For Red October. He’s not typically thought of in terms of horror fare but his first feature was Nomads, a low-key excursion into metaphysical, Twilight Zone-style creepiness. Like his better-known hits, it shows a thorough attention to craft that makes for gripping viewing.
Nomads begins with tired E.R. doctor Flax (Lesley-Anne Down) confronted by a disturbed patient (Pierce Brosnan) who thrashes around violently and babbles in French. He dies and she finds herself possessed by his memory as she relives the last few days of his life. She discovers he was Jean Charles Pommier, a globe-trotting anthropologist who settled in L.A. only to discover a band of odd, malevolent street hoods menacing him. He investigates them and discovers they have a supernatural origin that threatens not only his life but anyone he comes in contact with.
If you’re familiar with McTiernan’s hit films, you might be surprised how different Nomads is from those films: though it is smartly paced, the emphasis here is on atmosphere and McTiernan creates chills via slow-burn setpieces driven by visuals. It also has a tricky back-and-forth story structure that intersperses the past and present in a way that wouldn’t become popular in Hollywood until the post-Pulp Fiction ’90s. Most interestingly, as the mystery behind the titular villains is uncovered, the film takes on an unexpectedly philosophical bent where the theme is how modern society has become unmoored from its tribal roots.
That said, the attention to craftsmanship that McTiernan would soon become known for also shines through in Nomads. The script, penned by McTiernan himself, is tidy in its plotting and has a surprising amount of narrative drive for something so interested in atmosphere. He also invests this small-ish indie effort with a big studio level of style, working with cinematographer Stephen Ramsey to exploit the seedy, creepy side of Los Angeles and bring out its potential for horror. To their credit, they make a lot of sunny settings seem alien and creepy. The film gets an additional boost from a slick, synth-tinged rock score by Bill Conti (the guitar solos were contributed by – believe it or not – Ted Nugent!).
Nomads also benefits from committed performances by an interesting and eclectic cast. Down gives a memorably intense lead turn, really selling the viewer on the shock of having one’s body overtaken by another person’s memory. Brosnan is effectively cast against type here: his French accent is a bit overdone at first but he really sinks his teeth into the creeping paranoia and despair of his character in a way that pays off in the second half of the film. The titular villains have no dialogue but they achieve a sense of hypnotic menace through the charismatic and unusual actors McTiernan chose for the roles: their ranks include Mary Woronov, Adam Ant and Frank Doubleday.
In short, Nomads is a lost treasure that deserves to be discovered. You don’t have to like McTiernan’s bigger films to appreciate this stylish and creepy excursion into subtle horror fare.
Blu-Ray Notes: This film has gotten a blu-ray upgrade courtesy of Scream Factory. The transfer is a solid catalog title effort, bringing a nice clarity to the film’s glossy/hazy look and sporting a solid color palette. The audio offers a lossless presentation of the film’s original 2.0 mix and it’s a worthy vintage mix that adds some punch to the rock score.
Though not listed as a special edition, the value of this disc of Nomads is enhanced by the addition of a few extras. The most impressive are a pair of new interviews. The first is a chat with Lesley Anne Down that runs a little over sixteen minutes. She has a wry sense of humor and is often critical of her own work but praises McTiernan’s odd vision and gives a quick overview of her career. The other interview features composer Bill Conti, who discusses his philosophy of music and film scoring, discussing the challenges of working in a rock idiom and throwing in a fun anecdote about collaborator Ted Nugent. Anyone into film scores will appreciate his thoughtful musings.
The package is rounded out by some promo materials: there is a radio spot that plays up the presence of Pierce Brosnan, a trailer that highlights the film’s kinetic moments to sell it as a more commercial horror effort and a three minute animated still gallery that includes a mixture of poster art, stills and a shot of the crew. All in all, it’s a nice disc of an overlooked catalog title with some extras that further boost its value.