[Review] The Nightshifter (Morto Não Fala)
Even before The Sixth Sense popularized the subgenre by plainly stating, “I see dead people,” the ability to see and speak with the dead has been a horror trope used to varying success. Most movies focus on the curse/blessing aspect of this “gift” and the heroes end up using it to solve crimes or to bring respite to the restless dead. Brazilian import The Nightshifter (Morto Não Fala) initially seems to examine the blessing that speaking with the dead can be but subverts expectations and goes into some genuinely dark directions.
When we’re first introduced to Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira), it’s through the hazy and distorted eyes of a recently murdered man, who answers Stênio’s questions with a slightly demonic and equally distorted voice. The corpse confusedly asks, “Is this the hospital?” But, no. No it’s not. It’s the morgue and Stênio is an assistant coroner. Stênio is able to hear and speak to the dead and, at first, it seems like a very useful ability for a coroner. For example, the corpse is able to tell Stênio his name so he can call his family. But if you think Stênio uses this gift to bring peace to the dead, you’re…well, dead wrong.
While the corpses seem very interested in talking with him, Stênio’s home life is rough. His wife Odete (Fabiula Nascimento) despises him and the smell of death he brings home from the morgue. His son Edson (Cauã Martins) is a brat who has been selling razor wire to bullies to cut down kids’ kites. Only his daughter Ciça (Annalara Prates) seems interested in his well-being. But truthfully, Stênio seems more at ease with the cadavers he works on, so maybe it’s not just the literal stench of death that lingers with him.
One day, a body comes in that knows stuff. Stuff he shouldn’t know. Stuff like how Stênio’s wife is cheating on him with Jaime (Marco Ricca), the owner of a bakery Stênio frequents. After he catches them kissing in Jaime’s car, he does what every cheated on, ghost-chatting coroner would do. He uses the knowledge gleaned from the corpse of a gang member and tells a local gang leader that Jaime is the person who sold out his killed brother to the cops.
But as a corpse tells him, “A deadman’s secret is a deadly secret.” And Stênio finds himself making a deal with the devil that threatens to consume his family’s entire existence.
The Nightshifter takes its time, setting up the characters and their tensions before getting to the true horror of the narrative. In fact, the first 40 minutes feels completely different from the last hour+ as it deals with a more vaguely supernatural gangster narrative; the kind where the hero gets caught up in criminal activity he can’t escape. But after he unleashes true horror with his actions, things start to settle in a more traditional ghost story. Think The Conjuring by way of EC Comics. The haunting starts slowly, at first, with weird little innocuous bumps in the night. An unplugged vacuum roars to life in the middle of the night. Doors don’t seem to want to stay shut, either at home or at the morgue.
The very immediate threat of the gangster narrative that opens the movie falls into the background, providing a foreboding set dressing of the place Stênio calls home. The morgue business is booming as the bodies from gang violence start to fill out the small autopsy room. Body after body hey delivered, sometimes in pieces. And Stênio’s ability feels even more like a curse as, for instance, a landslide sends multiple, mud-encrusted bodies to the morgue, their screaming voices melding into a cacophony that could drive anyone crazy. It offers a grim and oppressive backdrop to the more personal and immediate affairs of Stênio and his family.
Written by Cláudia Jouvin and director Dennison Ramalho, The Nightshifter is based on a short story by Marco de Castro that shares the Brazilian title Morto Não Fala (ironically translated to “dead do not talk”) and it has that Tales from the Crypt feel. You know the story, where someone does something that comes back to hand him his ass. It doesn’t quite nail the ironic twists those types of stories typically have, though the final image is hauntingly comedic. It feels a little overlong at just under two hours, but I’m not exactly sure what I’d cut. The beginning forty minutes are so important in establishing the dread and the last hourish fleshes out the more ghostly phenomenon. But it does lag a bit.
Director Dennison Ramalho comes from short films (he contributed “J is for Jesus” in ABCs of Death 2) and The Nightshifter marks a strong debut as his first feature film. He and his cinematographer André Faccioli wear their inspirations on their sleeve, as they dabble in James Wan’s school of spooky filmmaking. It’s very music heavy, with a Gothic and slightly overwrought score telegraphing jump scares or startling images. The score tends to dampen the scares, though and outside of a couple sequences, I never really felt on edge.
Truthfully, The Nightshifter is at its best when it's focused on the more grounded reality of Stênio's life and the very real and violent world around him. When it gets into the more traditional haunted house story, it tends to fall into familiar territory and tropes we've seen time and time again.
But it feels very restrained, in the best way. When I kept hearing people compare it to Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, I expected a flashier experience. But instead, it feels reserved and classy…even as it digs fists full of gore and viscera from the abundance of corpses. At the end of the day, it's still an impressive and resonant debut.