Color, 1993, 95 mins.

Directed by Garth Maxwell

Starring Alexis Arquette, Sarah Smuts Kennedy, Bruno Lawrence, Tony Barry, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Brenda Simmons, Gilbert Goldie / Music by Chris Neal / Produced by Jonathan Dowling and Kelly Rogers / Cinematography by Donald Duncan

Format: DVD - Image (MSRP $19.99)

A rare horror export from New Zealand that has nothing to do with Peter Jackson, Jack Be Nimble never really caught on with the midnight movie crowd but, thanks to video, has gained a small but loyal following. Its release was trumpted in many of the horror trades as a new terror classic, a claim easy to believe based on the truly chilling trailer, but in fact the film is more of a bittersweet fable which happens to contain a few effective horrific elements along the way. Director Maxwell, who has since worked on the popular Hercules and Xena TV series, displays a keen eye for color and detail here despite the impoverished budget, and the performers all do an effective job of pulling off a potentially silly storyline and pushing the material into surreal and often fascinating territory.

As children, Jack and Dora are separated after the deaths of their parents. Dora (Sarah Smuts Kennedy) winds up in a decent home and grows up to be a stable young adult who happens to possess a psychic link to her brother (Alexis Arquette, doing a good faux-Zealand accent). Unfortunately, Jack's adopted family leaves a lot to be desired; in fact, the poor boy often winds up on the wrong end of a belt and receives nothing but scorn from his three evil stepsisters. Jack devises a unique machine capable of hypnotizing an observer, so naturally he turns his invention on his adopted parents and commands them to go kill themselves. Dora senses Jack's predicament, and the two embark on an unnerving odyssey reminiscent of Night of the Hunter, aided by Dora's older lover, Teddy (The Quiet Earth's Bruno Lawrence) and pursued by the wicked stepsisters.

Most horror fans may be stymied by the weird mixture of Lynchian surrealism and unexpected moments of pathos, but Jack merits a look for adventurous viewers willing to go along with its quirky mindset. Gay/drag icon Arquette (Bride of Chucky) may seem an odd casting choice for a battered, vengeful New Zealand lad, but his subdued and sometimes creepy work here proves his abilities as an actor have yet to be fully explored in America. Lawrence, one of New Zealand's finest actors, really has little to do but nevertheless comes off as capable and assured in his limited role, while Kennedy artfully balances hysteria and sisterly affection. The film loses its grip somewhat in the final third, which ultimately winds down to a strangely anticlimactic semi-happy ending. Otherwise, the striking imagery and unusual plot twists make this a refreshing change of pace from standard slasher and pretentious arthouse fare.

The DVD edition from Image improves on the prior VHS release from Triboro, though this film will never really look pristine due to the cheap film stock, dark lighting, and oversaturated color schemes. Some lab tampering has resulted in a strange, "blotted" appearance through most of the film which could easily be misread as a faulty transfer, but the film has always looked this way, even on cable. The standard surround audio track renders the film's powerful score quite effectively, and the heavily accented dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout. An offbeat little creature, this film's reputation should steadily increase as more people discover it, and DVD is easily the best way to do so.

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