Nocebo (2022) Review
Christine (Eva Green, Dark Shadows, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) is a successful fashion designer. She lives with her marketing consultant husband Felix (Mark Strong, Cruella, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) and their daughter Roberta (Billie Gadsdon, The Spanish Princess, The Midwich Cuckoos) in a huge house in the middle of Dublin. As Nocebo opens they’re out in front of that house with their expensive cars deciding who’s going to pick Roberta up from her private school. Life, as they say, has been good to her.
However, that’s about to change. At the showing of her latest designs, she steps away to take a call and a mangy-looking dog appears from nowhere to shower her with ticks before vanishing just as suddenly. Apparently as a result of a bite from one of those ticks she contracts a mysterious disease that leaves her sick, weak and suffering from memory lapses. Several months into her illness, Diana (Chai Fonacier, Write About Love, Born Beautiful) turns up at their doorstep direct from the Philippines claiming Christine sent for her, something neither she nor Felix have any recollection of.
This is where Nocebo first runs into issues for me. A stranger, a foreigner from an impoverished nation no less, turns up on this rich couple’s doorstep claiming they hired her. They have no memory of doing it and can’t find any evidence that they did. But they let her into the house, and give her a room and access to their daughter. Why do I find that highly unlikely?
From here Nocebo, in case you were wondering the title refers to the negative version of the placebo effect, becomes a very slow-burning psychological horror film. Diana obviously has some kind of agenda. There’s her odd arrival and we see her adding something from a pouch she carries to the family’s meals shortly after. So when she wins over the initially hostile Roberta and then her folk remedies start having a noticeably positive effect on Christine it feels like we’re being set up for some kind of Rasputin scenario.
But director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley, who also collaborated on Without Name and Vivarium, aren’t satisfied with something that simple. Nocebo’s plot takes a few twists with regard to just who the story’s real villain is. It also goes off with points made about capitalism, colonialism, consumerism and the exploitation of poor nations. And that’s where it stumbles again.
“In Nocebo, ancient forces rooted in nature clash with the neocolonial world of consumer capitalism. Our characters are the battleground where these forces meet, both psychologically and supernaturally. Repressed guilt is dragged to the surface and a terrible price is paid. Nocebo is a folktale for our generation”.Lorcan Finnegan
It doesn’t stumble because it raises these issues, many of which are valid, but in the way it goes about it. It does make a passing allusion to the fact some of these countries’ own governments are complicit in the exploitation of their people via Diana’s story of her parents exploiting her powers. But mostly it reduces a lot of complex issues to a simplistic good vs evil level to fit the filmmake’s narrative. That’s reinforced by making Christine and Felix easy targets for this critisism, making it all feel very heavy handed.
And that’s too bad because when it sticks to its folk horror elements, Nocebo is an effective film with some genuinely creepy sequences including one involving a giant tick and a CPAP unit that’s quite horrifying. That and the film’s other effects are for the most part well done and don’t rely on CGI which makes it a bigger shame that they tend to be overshadowed by the film’s simplistic moralizing.
RLJE Films will release Nocebo Friday, Nov. 4 in theatres and on VOD and Digital platforms on Nov. 22nd. You can check the film’s website for a list of theatres. If you want something similar, FilmTagger can suggest some titles.