Nanny (2022)

In Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature Nanny, a Senegalese domestic worker struggles to maintain her sanity while caring for the white child of a wealthy NYC family and scraping together money to emigrate her own son to her new home.  It’s essentially an atmospheric horror update to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, the second one I’ve seen this year after the South African apartheid horror Good Madam.  I personally preferred Good Madam, but Nanny earned better reviews and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so I’m out of sync with the consensus.  I suspect that’s because Nanny is less of a proper Horror Movie, landing the same accolades as an important “social thriller” that Get Out earned outside of horror circles in 2017 (in a way no other Blumhouse productions have in the years since, until now).  It’s an immigration story first & foremost, neatly containing all of its supernatural menace in its frequent nightmare & hallucination sequences in a way that the more straight-forward body possession story Good Madam does not.  Whichever spooky revision of Black Girl you prefer, it’s undeniably cool that they both exist, and remarkable that their distribution paths converged on the festival circuit this year – Nanny premiering locally at New Orleans Film Fest and Good Madam premiering at Overlook.

Comparisons aside, Nanny mostly holds together as a sharply tense, surprisingly funny domestic drama about working class exploitation, with plenty of spooky window dressing to maintain an eerie mood.  Heavily referencing African folklore figures like the arachnid trickster-god Anansi and the alluring water spirit Mami Wata, Jusu easily establishes a dense visual language in the film’s plentiful nightmare sequences & daytime hallucinations.  Spiders, mirrors, snakes, and mermaids creep into the frame at almost every turn, disrupting the labor exploitation story at the film’s core in violent jolts of surrealist imagery.  Highlighting that labor exploitation is the main point, though, and whatever supernatural scares accompany it are only there to provide texture.  With a few scattered edits, Nanny could easily be reconfigured into a standard Sundance drama about an undocumented worker’s grim daily routine sacrificing her own familial bonds to hold a wealthy family together for petty cash.  If anything, removing the supernatural horror elements might have left more room to dwell in the moments of discomfort, heartbreak, and rebirth in the film’s rushed ending, which would’ve been much more emotionally effective if the audience were allowed to fully sink into it.

Speaking generally, I’m happy that horror movies are starting to earn festival prestige & awards-season accolades instead of being siphoned off as disposable straight-to-streaming #content (which accounts for a lot of Blumhouse’s output these days).  Nanny winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance feels a little like Silence of the Lambs winning Best Picture at the Oscars, though.  Technically, it’s an industry win for horror, but it’s such a safe, cleaned-up, presentable version of horror that it doesn’t leave much room for the victory to be repeated.  I would need an actual, physical intrusion of a devious spider-god or killer mermaid into the “real world” to get excited about what this movie’s success means for the prominence of the genre on awards ballots & festival red carpets.  As is, I get the sense that Jusu is much more interested in the Dardennes-style economic drama she gets to tell outside those horror elements, which were more of a funding & marketing hook than the main purpose of her story.  Thankfully, the horror industry is booming right now with or without festival accolades, so I can find what I’m personally looking for in stories like these plenty other places: Good Madam, Good Manners, His House, Zombi Child, I Am Not a Witch, etc., etc., etc.

-Brandon Ledet

Big Ass Spider! (2014)

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three star

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I was tabling at last week’s NOCAZ Fest when two brothers (I’m guessing between the ages of 10 & 14?) named Beau & Joey let me with a film recommendation I promised I’d look into ASAP. I forget exactly how we got on the subject, but it probably had to do with our Marabunta Cinema zine, which is a collection of reviews of movies about killer ants. Beau, the younger of the pair, enthusiastically described the gruesome scenes of a Z-grade creature feature in which a gigantic spider melted the faces off patients in a hospital. When it came to telling me the title of the film, however, he sheepishly deferred to his older, quieter brother, due to a mild expletive in its title. Joey’s response? “Big Ass Spider!“.

Big Ass Spider! is perfectly suited for Beau & Joey’s demographic. It’s got the intentionally campy, Z-movie feel of a Syfy Channel Original but, as the title suggests, its tongue-in-cheek violence is slightly racier than what you’d typically find in the Sharknado format. The titular big ass spider melts faces, stabs chest cavities, and devours victims after grabbing them with its web like Mortal Kombat‘s Scorpion. All of this mayhem is promised as soon as the opening prologue, where the spider is going full King Kong at the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper, soundtracked by a down-tempo cover of “Where Is My Mind?” (in a little bit of borrowed Fight Club cool). Schlock fans are unlikely too find too much new or surprising here, except maybe in the detail that the spider grows exponentially in size by the hour, but the film is intentionally goofy enough to work & I can attest to at least two testimonies of it serving as a decent introduction to the creature feature as a genre.

By the way, speaking of the Syfy Channel, director Mike Mendez’ project immediately following Big Ass Spider! was the previously-covered Lavalantula, a Syfy movie about spiders that spew hot volcano lava at Steve “The Gutte” Guttenberg. Big Ass Spider! may have landed Mendez the job for Lavalantula, but distinctly feels more like a personal pet project for the director. Because he couldn’t afford a casting director, for instance, Mendez supposedly cast the entire film using his Facebook friends list. That means that Mendez is Facebook friends with Lin Shaye (best known for her work in Detroit Rock City & the Insidious franchise), Ray Wise (best known to me from Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), and Lloyd Kaufman (best known for blessing/cursing the world with Troma Video). Sounds like a cool dude to me. Mendez also stuck to his guns when distributors wanted to rename the film Dino Spider or Mega Spider, claiming that “Big Ass Spider! is the right title for the movie. I felt it in my heart and soul.” I can’t argue with him there. A lot of Big Ass Spider!’s charm is in knowing the whole time that there is a real-life movie called Big Ass Spider! and that you’re watching it.

Despite a couple missteps like an uncomfortable Hispanic stereotype sidekick, a stale “Hide your kids, hide your wife” reference, and some Da Hip Hop Witch-style street interview ramblings, Big Ass Spider! gets by enough on its inherent charm to stand out as an enjoyable, occasionally gruesome diversion. In short, if it’s good enough for Beau & Joey, it’s good enough for me.

-Brandon Ledet