They Nest (2000)
★ / ★★★★
The critter-feature “They Nest,” written by John Claflin and Daniel Zelman, offers no intrigue or bite. Instead, it presents a series of potential subplots that go nowhere, often brushing the main plot involving killer cockroaches off to the side. But a movie like this has no need for pesky subplots because what matters is delivering a visceral experience. Put the cockroaches front and center, make them look as gross or threatening as possible, put a magnifying glass on these creatures so we can appreciate details down to the bristles on their legs, show what they can do in their natural environment, when they threatened, when they are ready to mate—and you’ve got a movie. For a ninety-minute picture, it feels closer to two hours because the padding comes thick and heavy.
Dr. Ben Cahill (Thomas Calabro), a recovering alcoholic, has been unable to perform surgery due to hand tremors. His superior suggests it might be a good idea for him to take some time off before he puts any more lives in danger. So, Ben takes a boat to Orr’s Island and decides to clean up the house that he and his former wife had purchased. But he is not the only new arrival. A corpse is washed up along the rocks and inside it is a cockroach, or what appears to be a cockroach, waiting to feed and reproduce. This tight-knit fishing community is about to be terrorized by creatures that have been around for millions of years. The setup is generic but not without potential. However, as the movie goes on, it proves to lack creativity and so there isn’t much entertainment value.
It asks us to care about a possible romance between Ben and Nell (Kristen Dalton), a woman with a can-do attitude, a good sense of humor, and a certain comfort in being in her own skin. Nell is far more interesting than Ben, on paper on top of Dalton’s enthusiastic performance, and so the further we get into the mystery, we are forced to ask ourselves why Ben is the central protagonist. Is it simply because he is a surgeon and knows how to cut people open? I think so. Because he does nothing special or memorable. Even when pushed around by the local drunks, he remains boring. Clearly, the man lacks spine—like the cockroaches in question. But must he lack a strong personality, too? He disappears completely, for instance, when the sheriff (John Savage) simply stands and breathes next to him.
The CGI cockroaches do not look great, but the quality of the visuals is not important to me. Most frustrating is a lack of originality in presenting these hardy creatures, details that are unique to this particular story being told. Sure, we see the bugs bursting out of bodies, attacking in swarms, and crawling from underneath kitchen appliances… but when a real-life encounter with one harmless cockroach is more terrifying or shocking than what the movie has in store, there’s a problem. What’s the point of sitting through this movie when you can take a stroll to the kitchen and experience horror first-hand? These are basic questions that the filmmakers should have asked themselves before shooting a single frame.
Directed by Ellory Elkayem, “They Nest” is also the kind of horror picture where it is all too easy to predict who will live or die. Good guys must live, bad guys must die. There is no subtlety. And, of course, the expected final tease is the threat of the creature inflicting its terror somewhere else. The movie is tired from top to bottom. In the middle of it, I thought of ways to improve the screenplay. I liked my idea of Ben coming to the island to exorcise his alcoholism, the bugs serving as metaphor for the demon that must be purged so he can go back to saving lives again. I would end it on an optimistic note, clear and precise. Far too many horror movies these days attempt to pull the rug out from under the audience during the last shot—even if it blurs the message of what the story is trying to communicate.