New Zealand does not make a lot of horror movies when compared to other parts of the world, however this shortage stems from sheer infrequency rather than inability. The island country’s sparse contributions to the genre, from Braindead to What We Do in the Shadows, have largely proven to be as great as they are unique. No two Kiwi horrors are quite alike, and 1993’s Jack Be Nimble is no exception. This magnificently strange and obscure offering of New Zealand gothic horror holds a mirror up to family dysfunction, and the reflection is an absolute nightmare.
Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over
Much like its nursery rhyme basis, Jack Be Nimble is about beating the odds. The old English children’s song encapsulates the spirit of candle jumping, which was a fortune-telling activity as much as it was a sport. Anyone who can clear the flaming candle was said to have good luck. In place of a candle in Garth Maxwell’s film is now childhood. The title character and his sister, who were separated at a young age, finally come together again after spending years apart. Their reunion is then fraught with new hurdles, all stemming from their disparate upbringings.
When their birth mother abandoned them at a tender age, and their father gave them up for adoption, young Jack and Dora were placed with different families. Dora grows up fairly well-adjusted with caring parents, whereas Jack is left to fend for himself among a clan of sadists. Over time the brother became a lightning rod for alienation and pain. And unfortunately, the trauma racing through Jack is far too much for either he or Dora to control in the long run.
The conventions of dark fairy tales can be seen all across Jack Be Nimble. The earliest one is the clear distinction made between good and evil, with Jack (Alexis Arquette) being the ostensible hero caught in a bad situation. In his strange new home, the boy is subjected to chronic abuse from wicked foster parents, Clarrie and Bernice (Tony Barry, Elizabeth Hawthorne), and their four daughters (Wendy Adams, Tracey Brown, Nina López, Amber Woolston). Watching Jack be mistreated, both physically and emotionally, is evocative of Cinderella and other Grimm classics.
The presence of magic and unearthly events in Jack Be Nimble is also indicative of traditional fairy tales. While they had no contact again until their teenage years, Jack and Dora (Sarah Smuts-Kennedy) stayed connected through Dora’s psychic abilities. The flow of unruly voices through her head eventually allowed Dora to find her other half. Meanwhile, Jack’s powers pertain to hypnosis; he creates a contraption that entrances his abusers and leaves them susceptible to his vengeful suggestions.
Overcoming evil or obstacles is a crucial part of all storytelling. Unlike in many fairy tales, though, the inevitable retribution shown in Jack Be Nimble is not left up to fate or wonder. Jack instead uses both his survival instinct and his hypnosis machine to free himself of his tormentors in the harshest and most direct ways possible. Clarrie is flattened by a truck, Bernice is sentenced to a watery grave, and his and Dora’s biological father is forced to do sit-ups until he dies. Jack loudly sheds his initial hero role as the bodies start to pile up and his anger festers. In due time, his greatest enemy is the one so deeply embedded in himself.
As Jack takes matters into his own hands and punishes everyone who ever hurt him, the prince and princess archetypes are more subverted than ever. Not only is Dora now the champion of this sibling epic, she is the one doing the rescuing as Jack is seized by his four adoptive sisters. All the while, Dora is accosted by Bernice from beyond the grave; Jack’s foster mother has assumed the duties of the nefarious mastermind pulling the strings in this supernatural showdown. With only her disembodied voice as her tool and her daughters as her emissaries, she draws Jack Be Nimble’s newly appointed hero to the final battleground.
Jack Be Nimble is a deep and visceral conversation about growing up in toxic surroundings. The story also goes to considerable lengths to show how difficult it can be to cut those dark roots as an adult. Being exposed to so much abuse, negativity, and spite changed Jack for the worse; his resilience to such unhealthiness is all but gone. The nature-versus-nurture debate comes up as well, seeing as Dora is better equipped to handle her burdens, albeit ones arguably less hefty than those of her brother. Jack and Dora indeed came from the same beginnings, yet their final designs are worlds apart because of fundamentally different parenting and environments.
Through the lens of a bleak fable, Garth Maxwell delivers a fantastical allegory about battling formative traumas. He puts his characters’ rawest emotions on full display, and he embellishes their journey with exciting direction and striking imagery. Although Jack Be Nimble admittedly never scrounges up any bona fide scares, it does bring on some tears with its surprisingly sentimental scenes and overall bittersweet quality.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.
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