In Dennison Ramalho’s phantasmagorical morality tale The Nightshifter, a cuckolded coroner’s assistant with the ability to communicate with the recently departed takes revenge against his wife and her lover, in turn unleashing a living nightmare upon himself and his two kids.
Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira) is an absent father and husband. In early scenes, he exists almost as a ghost-like presence. Not just because he’s a night shift worker who routinely engages in two-way chats with cadavers on the morgue table, but in his minimal interactions with the living. How and why Stênio can act as confessor and spirit guide is never explained by director Ramalho, all we’re told is it’s something he’s experienced since childhood.
Upon learning his missus (a brilliant Fabiula Nascimento, who brings rich pathos to her tragic character) has been dancing the horizontal samba with a local deli owner, all thanks to a chance conversation with a corpse, Stênio reacts badly, deciding to then reaffirm his masculinity in a negative way, and in doing so transgresses the golden rule of the dead: What’s said in the morgue stays in the morgue. The husband uses insider info on local gang conflicts to set up the deli owner and have him ‘taken care of’. Unfortunately, Odete (Nascimento) is caught up in the hit.
The story of a crumbling marriage, the disappointments of life, infidelity and revenge plays out like a Brazilian take on the classics of Edgar Allan Poe, with Stênio driven insane by his vindictive actions and the memory of his wife, who appears nightly as a poltergeist to torment him, demanding he atone for his crimes. Despite impressive practical gore effects, the film is unfortunately laden with naff-looking CGI and several jump-scare sequences fail to hit the spot, with this melancholic film at its resolute best when focused on the husband’s emotional horror.
The Nightshifter also succeeds thanks to compelling lead performances, its inventive scenario and a social backdrop whereupon São Paulo is presented as a city awash with extraordinary levels of violence not unlike David Fincher’s Se7en. If it isn’t street gangs and drugs-related assassinations stretching the resources of the emergency services to breaking point, its football hooligans killing each other. In one scene, Stênio struggles to find spaces for all the bodies, with paramedics bringing them in one after the other until the entire room is filled with body bags and bloodied dead people on gurneys. The kicker is, it’s not a stress dream.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn