In Praise of John McTiernan’s 1986 Chiller NOMADS

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SHOCK celebrates the 30th anniversary of John McTiernan’s dream-like thriller NOMADS.

NOMADS is a difficult film; flawed, fascinating and enigmatic. It’s a movie that aims to reflect upon the messy mysteries of the human condition by cloaking it in a thin sheen of abstract fantasy. It’s a murky film, both visually and narratively, tonally out of focus and emotionally out of reach and it’s a movie that you can keep revisiting in order to unravel its gauzy secrets. Indeed, writer/director John McTiernan’s 1986 head scratcher, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is a movie that has both followed and frustrated me for years, much like the titular spirits do to the film’s protagonists.

And though Scream Factory released the picture on a gussied up Blu-ray last year, I still think NOMADS doesn’t yet have a committed fan-base. I still think its unique charms are far too alien to be totally embraced.

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NOMADS begins in confusion. During a long, graveyard shift in the ER, pretty young Doctor Flax (Lesley-Anne Down) encounters a beaten, bloody man (Pierce Brosnan, hot of TV’s REMINGTON STEELE and years before he became Bond) who initially appears to be a stark raving-mad transient. When the run-down, sleep-deprived MD leans in to check his pupils, the pair momentarily lock eyes before the wild-eyed lunatic bursts from his gurney in slow-motion, guitar stings wailing on the soundtrack, locking his jaw around her neck and then whispering something in French before finally collapsing, dead.

Shaken, Dr. Flax is treated for her minor wounds and left to lie down and collect her bearings before, almost immediately, she begins to experience vivid hallucinations that send her into violent fits. As she soon discovers, the drooling madman that attacked her wasn’t a madman at all but rather a famous Canadian anthropologist named Jean Charles Pommier, a man who after traveling the earth studying nomadic cultures had finally settled down at the request of his gorgeous wife (Anna Maria Monticelli), into a cushy teaching gig in LA.

Apparently, shortly before his death, Pommier had been tracking a leather-clad gang of street punks (whose ranks include 80’s rocker Adam Ant and cult film heroine Mary Woronov) drifting around his home. Turns out these homeless, rootless ruffians are in actuality a tribe of evil, nomadic spirits, the same breed of ancient, wandering souls he’d been obsessively following his whole life and are now hell-bent on driving him mad and worse. The bite that Jean Charles gives Dr. Flax inexplicably causes her to aggressively relive – and we, the audience along with her – the memories leading up to his final sad state. Soon enough, she too becomes sucked into the Nomads’ secret, clandestine, twilight world.

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NOMADS doesn’t really make much sense, not in a linear, easily digestible way, anyway. The odd narrative structure – with its flashbacks within flashbacks, ever shifting points of view and lack of clear explanation as to the Nomads’ history or true intent – makes for a rather infuriating initial viewing experience.

But Nomads has something. An aura. A lyricism, a kind of poetry. It has that certain – as Pommier himself might say in his phony French accent – je ne sais quoi, that elevates it beyond simple 80’s genre fare and into the fluid, subconscious realms of the surreal.

And the score is beautiful. Bill (ROCKY) Conti’s urgent, erotic synth and guitar score – especially the opening theme and closing hard rock collaboration with lunatic/guitar wizard Ted Nugent (Nugent also supplies the song “Strangers” and the myriad guitar screams that punctuate scenes of shock). Conti is interviewed on the Blu-ray supplemental material at length and his words about scoring the picture are rather edifying.

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Down and Brosnan are magnetic in a pair of extremely difficult roles that require them to achieve a bizarre sort of character symbiosis. I can tell you that the cold, washed out look of the film (perhaps the mark of a low budget, perhaps not…even the Blu-ray looks relatively drab) is claustrophobic and unsettling in its otherworldly, dim-lit way.

It’s difficult to believe that McTiernan would go on to create an endless spate of high octane, considerably less challenging, popular action pictures like PREDATOR, DIE HARD and THE 13th WARRIOR (before going to prison for illegally wiretapping his ROLLERBALL producer; he was release in 2014 and yes yet to make another film) because his maiden cinematic voyage is a work of such strikingly haunting and original moxy, such an intelligent, sophisticated, offbeat and mysterious psychological /supernatural thriller. Maybe the fact that NOMADS made about 10 cents at the box office scared McTiernan off from continuing in this daring, metaphysical fantasy vein.

30 years later, NOMADS plays better now than ever. It has a dream-like, ageless quality that reminds me of other pictures like 1987’s ANGEL HEART. Have you seen it? What are your thoughts?