Brazilian filmmaker Dennison Ramalho has been a mainstay on the festival circuit for years, thanks to his short film output and his script for Coffin Joe's Embodiment of Evil. As a result, his first feature comes with high expectations. Luckily, they're expectations that are met, as long as you can handle some odd tonal shifts - for The Nightshifter is full of surprises.
The Nightshifter begins with a wonderful core conceit. Protagonist Stenio (an appropriately haggard Daniel de Oliveira) is a morgue attendant who stays late at work to speak to corpses - and they speak back, heard by nobody but him. Immediately, this opens the floodgates for storytelling possibilities. What do the dead have to say for themselves (with their weird, offputting, probably not originally planned CGI facial animations)? What secrets do they hold? Do they complain about their deaths? Who would ever believe him if he told them about it? And will he ever stop smelling of death for long enough to please his kids and increasingly unfaithful wife?
Naturally, the story really kicks off when a murdered street gangster reveals to Stenio the details of his demise. Endowed with this dangerous information, Stenio has a choice on his hands. Tell the police, and risk being found out and hunted down for snitching? Or keep quiet, knowing he could have helped made the mean, well-photographed streets of São Paulo safer?
As it turns out: neither. Stenio meets with the crime boss for whom the deceased gangster worked, offering to supply a name for revenge purposes. But in a jaw-dropping and grimly hilarious turn, he doesn't give the name of the killer, but that of the shopkeeper who's been sleeping with his wife. Suddenly, Stenio has ordered the death of his wife's lover, setting in motion a series of events that threatens to destroy everything he loves. It's a bold move for Ramalho, who risks making his protagonist seem utterly reprehensible, but its ultimate effect is that the audience leans in, eager to see what happens next.
What happens next is a serious slew of punishment for Stenio, as The Nightshifter turns into a more traditional ghost story. It's here that Ramalho gets to flex his horror-directing muscles, creating a series of excellent and squicky setpieces ranging from ghostly scares to Saw-like traps, including a particularly nasty run-in with razor wire. The action runs the gamut from spectral haunting to quasi-demonic possession, with multiple supporting characters acting as targets or hosts for Stenio’s wife's vengeful spirit. There's even a goopy-gross exhumation, for good measure.
Sadly, it's also in the second half that The Nightshifter loses some of its unique identity. Despite strong execution on Ramalho's part, it's hard to escape the fact that a straight-up haunting movie is just less original than the film's whimsically dark first act. Coupled with overactive musical blasts accompanying nearly every major scare, the change in tone sucks away the magical realism, replacing it with much more typical horror fare. As a result, it never recaptures the (ironically) life-giving energy of its core conceit - or of its central plot twist.
The film is consistent, however, with its theme. Stenio’s a self-centred dude, defined by his second-act turn of betraying innocent people to violent deaths. So obsessed is he with getting revenge, he dooms his entire remaining family to a ghostly curse. In that sense, he’s fighting the symptom rather than addressing the cause. If he’d merely spent a little time considering what personal failings or behaviours might have led his wife to seek intimacy elsewhere, he’d be a happier man - and a man with fewer ghost curses.
The Nightshifter might not be entirely tonally consistent. It also might not entirely fulfil the promise of its premise. But it’s an exceptionally well-made horror film about lies, deceit, revenge, and the damage they cause. Ramalho has made a strong feature debut here, surprising nobody familiar with his work. Let’s just hope he didn’t pull too many all-nighters to get it done.