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-bluNomads 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.

Nomads-01That 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 Nomads-02despair 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.

Nomads-03Though 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.