While macabre love stories have become more frequent in horror cinema of late, notably via the mainstream success of the zombie-meets-girl romance “Warm Bodies,” “Nina Forever” still manages a certain degree of novelty as it charts a relationship triangle in which only two sides can count themselves among the living. Well received at genre fests since its SXSW 2015 premiere, the Blaine Brothers’ U.K. debut feature should appeal to the same specialized demo when Epic Pictures releases it in U.S. theaters next Valentine’s Day weekend. Fans of more conventional horror fare — not to mention traditional, non-blood-soaked date movies — will be less taken with this flashy if ultimately rather thin narrative walk on the wild side.
Dumped by her boyfriend, David (Javan Hirst), for being “too vanilla,” 19-year-old supermarket clerk Holly (Abigail Hardingham) decides she needs to develop an edgier side. With that in mind, she grows intrigued by the mystique around her intense loner co-worker, Rob (Cian Barry), who is said to have tried killing himself after surviving a car crash that claimed the life of his own girlfriend. Eventually she succeeds in getting his attention. But when they first make love, they get some unexpected company: Bloodied and caustic, corpselike but all-too-talkative Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) simply materializes from the mattress to awkwardly halt their fun.
Needless to say, a disbelieving Holly freaks out and beats a hasty retreat. But the attraction between her and Rob (who’s none too pleased about being haunted, either) refuses to die even as Nina refuses to stay properly, quietly dead. Attempting compromise, they propose a three-way, but Nina isn’t having it. She declines to share Rob, let alone consider herself his ex. “We never broke up,” she opines, though mortality would seem to have made that decision for them.
Every time Nina appears she leaves blood-drenched sheets in her wake; ergo, the other two buy waterproof new ones. They try all different means to exorcise her presence, to no avail. When Holly moves in, Nina makes a project of incessantly pestering her stubborn rival, who in turn tries to eradicate every last physical trace of former habitation to which the predecessor’s spirit might still cling. Can Holly and Rob’s young love survive? Not if his old, dead lover can possibly help it.
Eccentric as this premise is, the Blaines’ screenplay trails behind their confident direction in terms of ringing interesting variations on a limited, somewhat repetitious theme. Resourcefully stylized on a budget, their presentation does much to enrich a story and characters that nonetheless aren’t quite developed enough to sustain feature length. Hardingham and Barry provide the understated detaiing necessary to make their sketchily penned figures credible working-class stiffs. But O’Shaughnessy is by contrast a bit too theatrical a nemesis, creating a semi-campy vixen at odds with the otherwise everyday southwest London tenor.
Perhaps the pic’s most psychologically insightful sequences involve the only other two significant characters, Elizabeth Elvin and David Troughton as Nina’s still-grieving parents, with whom Rob maintains a guilt-driven sort of “son-in-law” relationship. A climactic dinner scene with the three, in which everyone’s repressed anger comes roaring out, packs considerably more punch than the somewhat murky twist that resolves the narrative’s supernatural angle.
Though a mixed bag, “Nina Forever” certainly shows the Blaines as talents not just to watch, but also to promote onward and upward — one suspects they could easily handle bigger projects, directorially if not necessarily as sole screenwriters. All tech and design elements here are intelligently accomplished, not least the soundtrack’s lively use of diverse various-artist cuts.