by Joseph Perry
Aficionados of well-made, atmospheric weird horror cinema should seek out the 1993 New Zealand feature Jack Be Nimble. It is by no means a fun or even pleasant watch, but it is a fascinating one.
Jack Be Nimble will be rich with symbolism, as a woman is whipped by sheets that she has hung outside to dry before breaking down, running into her house, and turning to the solace of the bottle, only to be similarly attacked by the curtains. The two children who witness their mother’s crisis are Dora and Jack, who are soon thereafter sent to an adoption home after their parents split up. Dora is adopted by a seemingly well-off couple, whereas Jack is adopted by a rural couple who turn out to be quite a sadistic pair. The couple already has four silent, filth-ridden daughters who are more than happy to pitch in on the different forms of abuse that Jack suffers at the hands of the family.
As a high schooler, Jack (Alexis Arquette, who had previously appeared in the 1989 film Last Exit to Brooklyn and the television series Alien Nation that same year) fails at his schoolwork except metal shop, in which he excels. It was in that class that he invented a hypnosis machine — its sinister purpose I will leave for future viewers to discover. He finally escapes the farm and heads to Auckland to try to track down Dora (Sarah Smuts-Kennedy), who has ESP powers and implores her older lover Teddy (Bruno Lawrence, who previously appeared in Warlords of the 21st Century  and The Quiet Earth ) to help rid her head of the voices of the dead.
As cinematic fate would have it, Dora’s ESP leads her to find Jack, who has become something of a sociopath because of the abuse he suffered growing up. He hates seemingly everyone except his sister, for whom he seems to have a, shall we say, strong attraction. The gothic horror and dark fairy tale elements — only a few of which I have touched on, for the sake of being as spoiler-free as possible — crank up as friction between Jack and Teddy, and therefore Dora, mounts, and people from the past try to locate Jack. All of this builds into a decidedly bizarre finale.
Dora may be the closest thing to a wholly likeable character, so it is hard to root for anyone else, even the title protagonist. The cast members are all in, though, no matter how nasty or nice their characters are. Arquette is riveting as Jack, doing a stellar job as a character whose emotions are usually running high. Smuts-Kennedy is great in a performance that requires her to run through a wide range of emotions. Lawrence is intriguing as a libido-driven psychic.
Writer/director Garth Maxwell (who went on to direct such TV series as Xena: The Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) has crafted an offbeat terror tale that puts virtually every character through the wringer. Every shot is beautifully planned and gorgeously framed. Fans of offbeat cinema should find Jack Be Nimble well worth seeking out.
You can watch the unrestored trailer at
Jack Be Nimble screened as part of the online NIGHSTREAM film festival, which ran October 7–13, 2021.
Directed by: Garth Maxwell
Written by: Garth Maxwell and Rex Pilgrim
Produced by: Essential Productions and New Zealand Film Commission
Starring: Alexis Arquette, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, Bruno Lawrence
Runtime: 92 minutes
Release Date: 1993 (currently on its Altered Innocence 4K restoration film festival run)
Joseph Perry is one of the hosts of When It Was Cool’s exclusive Uphill Both Ways podcast and Gruesome Magazine’s Decades of Horror: The Classic Era podcast (decadesofhorror.com/category/classicera/). He also writes for When It Was Cool (whenitwascool.com), the film websites Diabolique Magazine (diaboliquemagazine.com), Gruesome Magazine (gruesomemagazine.com), The Scariest Things (scariesthings.com), and Horror Fuel (horrorfuel.com), and film magazines Phantom of the Movies’ VideoScope (videoscopemag.com) and Drive-In Asylum (etsy.com/shop/GroovyDoom).
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