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From the Boston Underground Film Festival: Newly Restored ‘The Nest’ Is Gross And Glorious

Dir. Terence H. Winkless — 3.5 Stars

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On Mar. 23, the first night of the 2022 Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF), the auditorium of the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square periodically reverberated with frenzied, skin-crawling clicks. These were the feeding calls of “The Nest”’s monstrous and unusual villains, which are certainly reviled in the real world but rarely portrayed as an existential threat to humanity: cockroaches. But “The Nest”’s are not standard, shower-drain-in-River-West cockroaches; they’re bloodthirsty and lethal, the result of corporate experiments gone wrong on an idyllic island.

In the 1987 film, newly (and richly) restored by The American Genre Film Archive and Shout! Factory, the insects torment the eccentric residents of a beachside hamlet, forcing them to band together. The result is a delightfully revolting horror extravaganza that pokes fun at campy creature features by dialing up genre conventions to the extreme. The restoration will enthrall fans of lighthearted late-’80s movies and syrup-blood horror, with their self-indulgent melodrama and aesthetic flair.

From its opening moments, “The Nest” is a perfect specimen of the “creature features” boom in the ’80s and ’90s, immediately recalling flicks like “Alligator” and “Arachnophobia” that followed unfortunate townspeople fighting off mutant animals big and small. The film’s synth-inflected score twangs as “The Nest” introduces Richard Tarbell (Franc Luz), the sheriff of island town North Port. In an unabashedly heavy-handed moment of foreshadowing, he flicks a cockroach off his hand while getting ready, then spits out another after accidentally drinking it in his coffee. In these moments, as in the rest of the film, the movie’s malevolent pests aren’t particularly terror-inspiring, but viewers are constantly reminded of their unnerving agility and inexhaustible numbers.

Luz gives an endearing performance as the oblivious protagonist, who mainly serves to figure out plot developments too late and be lusted after by townspeople. In one telling moment of cluelessness, he pulls out his gun to fight back cockroaches infesting the local diner, as if that will get them all. But his character never feels like the heart of the film; it’s ultimately an ensemble movie, and its hilarious depiction of eccentric townspeople keeps audiences on their toes as the film cuts between different storylines. Many of the supporting characters heighten or defy the tropes of creature features. For example, the classic role of “expert exterminator” takes on new life in the form of Homer (Stephen Davies), a self-described “independent pest control agent” who rides around town on a motorcycle, spraying pesticide concoctions and accidentally burning down his house while dressed like today’s hipster twenty-somethings in relaxed Hawaiian shirts, pleated shorts, and clear-frame glasses. The bizarre Dr. Hubbard (Terri Treas), a disgraced researcher from MIT (a local!) who harbors a creepy fascination with cockroaches, brings unpredictability and anti-social malevolence to the stereotypical “conniving scientist” trope.

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In this way, director Terrence H. Winkless places the film’s background cast of unusual, exaggerated, and archetype-transcending characters into a totally typical eighties horror narrative. “The Nest” unfolds like countless others as the unwitting townsfolk eventually realize the extent of the infestation, see many of their neighbors wiped out in comically dramatic attacks, then develop an elaborate plan to save their town at the last possible second. The film embraces its predictability but throws in minor twists for comedic effect, creating a rollicking ride that is both spectacle and satire. At one point, Richard, Homer, and Dr. Hubbard are fighting off a cockroach attack and realize they need to turn on the island’s lighthouse beam to halt the planned fumigation of the island, which would kill those who couldn’t evacuate. When Richard asks Homer to drive there while he stays to combat the roaches, Homer agrees, then mentions offhandedly “Oh, Sheriff, I don’t know how to drive a car!” So Richard has to drive him, his valiant last stand forgotten.

Throughout its 89-minute runtime, “The Nest” delights in elaborate, tittering death scenes in which unseen swarms of cockroaches devour people and pets, and the film almost makes a game of them. Each death is more dramatic and ridiculous than the last, drawing more laughs from the BUFF crowd and eschewing any real fear factor for the shocking fun of a man hemorrhaging fake blood after his fake arm is chewed off in hyper-speed. As the film goes on, it does introduce more moments of grotesque, stomach-turning insect frenzy — shots of toilet tanks teeming with hundreds of cockroaches can be nauseating — but the movie counters the effect by constantly re-emphasizing the humor in the premise. In one moment that prompted groaning laughter from the audience, a distracted teenager listening to ’80s rock on her Walkman headphones spills syrup from a tray of breakfast she’s bringing her mother, covering a carpeted staircase with sugar that immediately attracts the murderous bugs. As they eat her mother whole, the teen doesn’t notice her screams — her music is turned up too loud. Oh, the horror!

Ultimately, the new restoration is tongue-in-cheek, macabre gore at its best. The restoration highlights the film’s bright colors, sun-drenched scenery and softly fuzzy camera quality, reminiscent of a much-loved VHS tape one might find in a family member’s home or rental house, weathered by rewatches. Though it’s not very high-brow, it’s a creature feature fan’s dream with its escapist adventure, gorgeous ocean scenery, ironic theatrics, and ubiquitous eighties style. Even for those horror fans scared of cockroaches (like this beleaguered reporter), the film is a fun and hilarious watch, at once a time capsule to a distinct era of cheesy horror flicks and a tour through their hallmark conventions, tropes, and highlights.

—Staff writer Harper R. Oreck can be reached at harper.oreck@thecrimson.com

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