Rob (Cian Berry) is a grocery store clerk who recently tried to kill himself after not being able to cope with the depression brought on by the sudden, tragic death of his girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy). Holly (Abigail Hardingham) is Rob’s co-worker, who has a morbid fascination with pain and death, so obviously she’s immediately smitten with Rob. This is the perfect pairing, at least for now, since Rob is in desperate need of a romantic connection in his life so he can at least attempt to get over Nina’s death, and Holly needs to be in an edgy relationship after her ex dumped her for being too “vanilla.” The sex that bookends their date seems to go spectacularly well. Sparks fly as the two young lovers copulate with abundant mutual attraction and chemistry. Suddenly, the sheets are covered with blood, a pair of gory hands emerges out of the bed, and before they know it, Nina, or at least a highly sarcastic zombie version of her, pops up for an extremely unorthodox threesome.
From this point on, “Nina Forever” immediately switches to sly horror-comedy-romance territory as an unusual love triangle blossoms between Rob, Holly, and the undead Nina. Jealous of Nina’s reemergence in Rob’s life, Holly storms off, but we know that’s not the last we’ll see of her. It goes without saying that if your ex-girlfriend’s bloodied corpse pops up in your bed and talks to you, your relationship status should be the least of your worries. I don’t know about you, but perhaps the details of one’s love life should take a back seat after one witnesses undeniable proof of life after death. Yet as soon as Nina returns from the grave, “Nina Forever” immediately turns into a zombified version of an indie romance.
Of course, nitpicking the many unrealistic character reactions in brothers Ben and Chris Blaine’s film is pointless, since their impressive debut feature merely uses comedy-horror tropes to create a delicate and deft study of the baggage each person brings to a new relationship, and how that relationship can soar or crash depending on the way a couple deals with their loves of the past. When a relationship is not ended, but cut short due to a tragic death, as in Rob’s case, moving on becomes especially tricky. Even if he has genuine feelings for Holly, Rob will inevitably carry Nina’s memory with him into his new life. Having Nina literally appear in bed every time the two have sex is not much more than a clever visualization of Rob being unable to let go of his painful past.
Meanwhile, Holly goes through the motions of attempting a healthy love life with someone like Rob. First, she leaves because she’s certain Rob will never be over Nina. Then, during a gorgeous (and surprisingly erotic) scene, she invites Nina’s body into bed and even tries to get her off, which finally answers the age-old question, “Does a clitoris work after rigor mortis?” Nina, on the other hand, acts more like a bitter representation of Rob’s conflict about moving on than the person he fell in love with. At least I hope that’s the case, since it would be hard to root for Rob if his ex was really this shrill and unreasonable when she was alive.
There were many ways the brothers could have veered into playful schlock territory during the third act. For example, a tattoo on Rob’s back gives the film its title. A lesser filmmaker would have probably constructed a hokey ending where the removal of that tattoo made Nina disappear forever, leaving room for Rob and Holly’s love to flourish. But the brothers manage to sell an unusual and controversial ending thanks to all the groundwork they previously put in by developing the characters. The powerful performances by the three leads really help create the brothers’ distinct vision.
Alas, “Nina Forever” is not perfect and suffers from some drawbacks usually found in freshmen efforts. It’s obvious that this material would have become an excellent 40-50 minute short. As a feature, the second act becomes a bit too repetitive and episodic. Rob and Holly have sex, Nina shows up, instant three-way conflict, rinse and repeat. They are also a bit too enamored with intercutting between a crucial scene and its aftermath. It wouldn’t be a major surprise to find out that the brothers are huge fans of “Don’t Look Now.” This approach is used efficiently during a couple of scenes, but is overkill in others.
Despite its shortcomings, “Nina Forever” is a fresh take on the genre. In fact, it transcends the confines of horror so much that it’s a hard one to recommend to typical gore hounds. Yes, it contains abundant amounts of blood, sex, and nudity. Hell, two of the actors are naked during half the film’s running time, and the other is never seen clothed. Yet the brothers’ goal is far from empty titillation, as they construct an original and surprisingly tender romance. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.