Gothic horror from Italy serves up a last-minute shocker

'The Nest'

Source: Locarno

‘The Nest’

Dir. Roberto De Feo. Italy. 2019. 107 mins

A mother’s devotion to her son knows no bounds in The Nest (Il Nido), a creepy, old-fashioned gothic fantasy that cleverly surpasses and upends initial expectations. Director Robert De Feo confidently sustains his premise, and its apparent limitations, until a jolt of an ending reveals a bigger picture. Horror festivals and theatrical interest should follow the film’s world premiere at Locarno (it releases in Italy on August 14).

Genre fans will require patience with a film that favours mood and atmosphere over gore and cheap scares

By fully embracing familiar gothic ingredients, De Feo expertly lulls us into a false sense that we know exactly what to expect from The Nest. The setting is an isolated old mansion that could have emerged from the gloom of an Edgar Allan Poe tale. The atmosphere of dread is underlined by interiors that never seem to see the light of day and poker-faced characters who teeter on the brink of hysteria.

De Feo seems to be aiming for something akin to The Orphanage. The sound design plays its part as footsteps echo down wooden corridors sounding like fists pounding at locked doors. It is little wonder that we see wheelchair-bound 11 year-old Samuel (a suitably wan Justin Alexander Korovkin) as a prisoner in his own home. He is at the mercy of tyrannical mother Elena (Francesca Cavallin), a woman whose dress sense and severe demeanour could have been borrowed from Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs Danvers. It is her job to prepare Samuel for a future in which he will run “the estate” and build a better future.

A pre-title sequences captures events ten years earlier when Samuel’s father took flight with his then baby son. A tragic accident leaves the father dead and Samuel with a diagnosis that he will never walk again. Now, Elena has constructed a sanctuary for him. Samuel is never allowed to leave the extensive grounds of their home. A birthday gift of Milton’s ’Paradise Lost’ is one of the many ways De Feo stresses the perils of betrayal or escape.

Quite what “the estate” entails and how it operates remains rather sketchy in The Nest. We do know that Elena’s word is law, that servants tremble in her presence and that disobedience is strictly punished. There is a sinister doctor Sebastian (Maurizio Lombardi in Udo Kier mode) who seems only too happy to deploy his skills, and weak links in the family who are eminently disposable.

Some of this seems a little half-baked and De Feo pushes the gothic excess to the point of parody. Genre fans will require patience with a film that favours mood and atmosphere over gore and cheap scares. It is the icy conviction of Francesca Cavallin’s implacable villainy and our sympathy for the boy as an innocent victim that combine to sustain credibility in a tale that flirts with risibility.

The dynamic changes with the arrival of 15 year-old Denise (Ginevra Francesconi) as a new maid. She has the temerity to introduce Samuel to rock music and suggest that there is a whole world outside that he needs to explore. The sense of Denise as a threat to Elena’s rule focuses the slow-burning narrative and propels The Nest towards an unexpected but satisfying conclusion.

Production companies: Colorado Film, Vision Production

International sales: True Colours

Producers: Maurizio Totti, Alessandro Usai

Screenplay: Lucio Besana, Margherita Ferri, Roberto De Feo

Production design: Francesca Bocca

Editing: Luca Gasparini

Cinematography: Emanuele Pasquet

Music: Teho Teardo

Main cast: Francesca Cavallin, Justin Alexander Korovkin, Ginevra Francesconi