The haunted house movie The Nesting reached a few screens in limited release in 1981. But then Warner Bros. Home Video picked it up for one of its famous clamshell case VHS releases and hung haunting artwork on the cover. Suddenly, The Nesting achieved fame—not as a movie people watched and remembered, but as a spectral and sexy image on video store shelves that entranced youngsters who either weren’t allowed to watch horror films or were too scared to watch them.
Could a film like The Nesting live up to such evocative, moody artwork? Of course not. I didn’t need to watch the movie to discover this, but I did anyway because it was on Amazon Prime and I’m easy prey for haunted house films, even rotten ones. I was once one of those kids in the video store and I wanted answers from that cover.
The haunted house subgenre experienced a renaissance in the early ‘80s because of the success of The Amityville Horror (1979) and the high profile of The Shining (1980), two films so far apart on the quality spectrum that they might as well exist in different dimensions. Don’t visit the Amityville dimension, which is a dimension not of sight or sound but of boredom.
The Nesting isn’t fully in that dimension of boredom, but it doesn’t have leads like Margot Kidder, James Brolin, or Rod Steiger to give it some flavor. There are small parts for film noir legend Gloria Grahame, her final role, and John Carradine, who’d agree to do any movie offered him, no judgment, provided he got a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies. Can’t fault the man’s work ethic. The main cast is made up of minor leaguers, none impressive, and a director whose previous work was in porn films. It’s not a disaster, but it never achieves the mood, scares, or psychological drama it reaches for. The Nesting feels like it’s trying, but either the talent wasn’t there or the project didn’t match the talent that was there—likely both.
The story has similarities to The Shining and 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Lauren Cochran (Robin Groves), a writer of Gothic romances, suffers a sudden panic attack in New York City, which her therapist believes is agoraphobia. Lauren decides to take a few months vacation in the rustic town of Dover Falls. There she discovers an old mansion (the famous octagonal Armour-Stiner House in Irvington, NY) which bizarrely matches the one she described in her most recent novel. She rents the mansion from its owner, elderly Colonel Lebrus (John Carradine, of course), and moves in.
Poltergeist activity starts almost immediately, and Lauren begins having visions of a strange woman (Gloria Grahme) and sexual encounters in the house. As she struggles with concerns over her sanity, Lauren suspects the house has an unsavory history connected to a few unpleasant locals. What secret hides within the rotting wood of the house and what does it want from her?
There’s nothing wrong with this premise: amateur sleuthing work mixed with nightmare visions and mental drama. I’m sure it looked fine on paper. Not the script, just paper. But director Armand Weston doesn’t execute the psychological terror necessary, and neither the flat script or most of the cast can fill in the gaps.
I don’t want to fault Weston for having a career directing porn; 1970s porn was shot on film and often brushed up against the mainstream with its budgets and ambitions. But nothing in The Nesting shows Weston had a flair for Gothic horror or psychological melodrama. There are some well-shot sequences, such as Lauren’s panic attack in New York and a few of the ghostly visions. The cross-cutting between decades for the finale comes close to working. The best scene has Lauren trapped on the roof of the house, which has genuine bits of suspense. It’s a rare moment when the movie remembers Lauren’s agoraphobia. But away from these brief flashes, Weston’s direction is drowsy and uninspired.
Where The Nesting fails most is Lauren’s psychological descent. There isn’t much here, even with ample material to mine. The merging of Lauren’s writing with the ghostly phenomenon in the house—fiction overlapping the real world—hardly matters once she’s settled in. We hear almost nothing about her writing or what else may be similar between her most recent novel (called The Nesting) and her discoveries in the house. Early in her stay, Lauren finds an old manual typewriter in a closet and starts using it to write. We all know what a typewriter can add to a haunted house tale about a writer! But the movie only uses the typewriter for a minor incident, then forgets about it. That’s one of several missed opportunities to ratchet up the mental melodrama.
The void in the script puts the burden on actress Robin Graves to invest more into the part, but she can’t manage it. Lauren only earns the basic sympathy horror viewers give to a victim, and this “free square” won’t carry a whole movie when the other characters are also uninteresting.
At least Lauren comes across better than her boyfriend Mark (Christopher Loomis), who enters the movie doing a series of racist accents. His stream of flippant quips will put him at the top of audiences’ “Please Kill” list. The film doesn’t even bother: Mark’s car breaks down before he can reach the finale. Daniel Griffith (Michael Lally), grandson of the house’s owner, is a better love interest possibility, but only because he isn’t trying terrible one-liners whenever he opens his mouth. Daniel ends up as merely a sounding board when the movie has to dump a massive amount of backstory for the finale via a ranting John Carradine. Admittedly, hearing John Carradine give exposition does make it easier to take. He earns those Chips Ahoy.
The movie makes one unexpected turn about midway, when it flies into a long chase copied from a slasher movie, except shot in bright daylight and with no tension. The scene ends with the movie’s big gore moment: a sickle across the face. It’s pure slasher cheese that’s hilariously incongruous with the rest of the movie. The camera lingers on the make-up effects, as if begging the exploitation crowd not to leave the theater to go see Friday the 13th Part 2 or any of the other dozen slashers released each month in 1981.
Today, The Nesting is more cover art than movie. Most comments I’ve found on it range from dismissive to dire. In an interview about Armand Weston’s career, exploitation cinema scholar Joe Rubin called it “a pretty god-awful film.” The review on Blu-ray.com for the Blue Underground release of The Nesting is more vicious, calling the movie “one of the most tedious and tiresome films of the entire 1980s Horror landscape” that “does not one single thing right.” I think it does a few things right; I’ve listed several, and choosing the Amour-Stiner House brought instant production value even bland photography couldn’t diminish. I won’t recommend it, but I’ve seen far more tedious horror movies from the 1980s, mostly rote slashers. I’m forgiving toward haunted house films from the time. The Amityville Horror is still junk, however.
If you’re looking for a traditional haunted house film from the same period and you’ve already watched Poltergeist and The Shining a dozen times, I recommend The Changeling (1980) starring George C. Scott. Not a masterpiece, but it doesn’t let down its VHS cover and George C. Scott has more character than five Nestings.
I wanted desperately to title this post “VHS Cover Lied: The Nesting No Have Cookies.” But even I have to draw the line somewhere at obscure humor.