THE NESTING (1981): a review and remake fan-cast!

June 14, 2021

Recently, I babbled incoherently about my newfound love for Tubi which has, to date, not waned. I would like to point out, however, that I am in no way sponsored and receiving any perks for that — I just really dig the FREE content and in an era where everything already costs way too much, I wanted to spread the word about streaming media of decent quality for a nonexistent cost.

The title and poster are very misleading.

I mentioned briefly in that post that I had discovered a film that had been completely unknown to me viva Tubi’s horror selections, 1981’s The Nesting. In this post, I’d like to go a little more in depth into a review on the film, with some suggestions for updates and a fan-casting. 

Be ye warned: here thar be spoilers. So let’s hit it.

I have said time and again that I am an absolute sucker for a good haunted house film. I love my slashers and I dig my possession and religious-themed horror, I adore my vampires and werewolves (not swearwolves!) and various and sundry creature features, but at the end of the day, the one horror genre that never fails to draw me in is a haunted house story. The brooding octagonal house where principal filming occurred, the Armour-Stiner House in Irvington, New York, adds well to the initial creepy atmosphere. 

The setup for The Nesting is simple enough: author Lauren Cochran (Robin Groves) finds herself suffering panic attacks and, with a diagnosis of growing agoraphobia, leaves her New York City home at her doctor’s suggestion to find a secluded country home where she could relax and work on her next novel. When searching out a rural rental, Lauren and her friend Mark (Christopher Loomis) become lost and happen upon an empty house that looks startlingly similar to the one she had described in her most recent novel, to the degree that the novel’s cover art perfectly matches the building and Mark even believes it to be a set up or gag on Lauren’s part. Insisting that it is coincidence, Lauren is immediately enchanted by the place and sets out to make it her country hideaway.

Robin Groves as Lauren Cochrane

The vaguely precognitive theme to Lauren’s illness and eventual discovery of the house would be better served if it had been further explored. There’s never any real discussion as to why her anxiety attacks began at this particular moment or how she had been guided towards the small town where the house stands. Lauren herself even questions the onset of her anxiety with no real response from her psychiatrist (Patrick Farrelly). The simple addition of introducing Lauren’s precognition and attacks as either a longtime theme in her life that guided her writing or simply creating a sense of synchronicity by mentioning a date or anniversary — perhaps her birthday? — that would have led her there could have added a layer of realism that is sadly lacking. The simple line of having a life ‘full of unsolved mysteries’ on Lauren’s part isn’t enough to press the idea.

Though the house was not technically available for lease, Lauren is able to meet the owner and his grandson, Daniel (Michael David Lally), and rent the place. Her appearance so startled the elderly owner that he suffers a stroke, though it is passed off as mere coincidence, and Lauren  moves in.

Immediately, strange things begin to happen. It is the usual haunted house fare: footsteps, shadows, moving objects. Lauren seems unsure if what she is witnessing is real, often passing it off as a facet of her illness. 

Through a combination of her dreams and hallucinations, and interactions with a colorful cast of locals, Lauren learns the horrific history of the house itself: namely, that it was once a brothel serving soldier returning from World War II and, at the behest of the house’s owner, Colonel LeBrun, the call girls and their clients were massacred one night in his attempt to stop his son from marrying the daughter of the brothel’s madame, with whom he’d had a child. Lauren, it turns out, is that child, and the granddaughter of the Colonel; Daniel, as it happens, wasn’t his grandson at all, but rather the product of an affair between the Colonel’s daughter-in-law and another man while her husband, the Colonels son, was away at war. Lauren had been called home to the house to uncover the mystery and free the tortured spirits of her grandmother, parents, and all of the other tortured spirits held captive there.

One of the standout scenes in the film is the demise of Frank (Bill Rowley), the handyman, and one of the perpetrators of the massacre. After attacking Lauren in the house and being himself attacked by the spirits and levitated off of the ground, he eventually ends up in the pond nearby, where dozens of hands drag him down into the murky depths — a fitting end, given that he and his compatriots in murder had dumped the bodies of their victims there. 

Should have worn a life jacket, Frank.

All in all, it is a good haunted house film — or, rather, it has good bones. All of the right elements are there, the story, the mystery, the mildly dated but still acceptable effects, but there are a few key pieces of the puzzle that just don’t fit. Like many horror films of the era — and, if we’re being honest, of the modern era as well — the film suffers from highly sexualized scenes of nudity not necessary to the plot. At one point, Lauren stands bare-chested before the mirror in her dream and sees hands reaching to grope her, turning to find Mark standing here with a leer. She runs from him and is transported back into the era of the brothel’s heyday, tied down with a beaded curtain while an array of men she knows, from Mark to even her doctor, flash predatory grins and reach to touch her. While it fits in with the theme — Lauren taking the place of one of the ladies of the evening in her dreams — it could be accomplished without the nudity and without the feel of an assault taking place. As it happens, the director and co-writer of the film, Armand Weston, actually began his career as a porn director; it seems a bit too much of that leaked into his foray into horror.

Though Lauren was seemingly called to the house to right a wrong, she is still victimized by the ghosts, even as they protect her from Frank’s eventual attack. It doesn’t make much sense that both should be true; are the ghosts seeking her help, or do they want to frighten her away? It would have made more sense to build a grudging comradery between Lauren and the spirits before they began to defend her. Frank’s attack on Lauren itself is a little awkward; he is introduced as a grimey drunken handyman, cranky but harmless; his sudden turn towards attempted rape is startling.

For reasons never truly explained, Mark disappears from the narrative as Daniel becomes more of a player in the story. He is introduced as a friend though it is later intimated that he is seeking more of a romantic relationship with Lauren, who mentions offhand that he ‘doesn’t have to wait’ for her even while he insists that he will. What is the true nature of this relationship? And why does he simply drop out of the story? After the accidental death of her psychiatrist on the roof of the house, why didn’t Mark come running? He is shown with a broken down car, the hood slamming shut to give the impression that the spirits are acting against him, but that’s it. The lack of resolution is an irritating misstep in an otherwise intriguing film.

Loose ends seem to be a theme here. Daniel is introduced as an out of work physicist and is the first person Lauren speaks to following her initial confrontation of the spirits in the house. He promises to help her get to the bottom of the phenomena, but it goes no further than that.

Overall, it is a decent film. There’s not much in the way of cutting edge effects of camera work and music is not used to any real effect, but there’s enough here that this could have been a quality haunted house film with just a little more effort. Much as I have railed against remakes and reboots in the past, I really feel The Nesting is the perfect film for an update. The few narrative problems could easily be rectified and the story itself has a timeless appeal that would attract modern viewers.

A remake would definitely need to be a period piece to keep the narrative timeline, setting it in the late 70s or early 80s to keep the connection to soldiers returning from World War II. Though it could theoretically bumped up to a more modern setting, with the character of Leland being reimagined as a Vietnam vet, the themes of family reputation, small town ‘justice’, and assumptions regarding the mentality of returning soldiers still would fit better keeping the original timeline.

The biggest changes to the story itself would be to correct the failings of the original — namely, better exploring the relationship between Mark and Lauren and explaining Mark’s sudden disappearance from the story, as well as expanding the burgeoning relationship between Lauren and Daniel. The film falls into the age-old trap of dropping a romance in without explanation; with an original run time of 103 minutes (or 99, dependent on which edit you find), there’s more than enough room to add some better paced interaction between the two to explain the sudden intimacy, as well as to give a reason for Mark never showing up again. 

The title could also use some work. The film takes its title from the author character’s fictional novel, but it has very little to do with the actual story. Given that Lauren’s work, though not greatly discussed, bears the hallmark of a late 70s gothic-horror-romance (take a peek at the novel cover art!), a more logical title could be found that would better resonate with the actual story being presented — and much less slash-referencing than the film’s alternate release title, Massacre Mansion

Lauren’s diagnosis with agoraphobia is also problematic. This psychological condition has been explored in much more accurate terms by other films — 1995’s Copycat, starring Sigourney Weaver, comes to mind. Though I am by no means an expert, the idea that an agoraphobe could voluntarily leave the home where they feel safe to venture out into a long term rental far away from familiar territory seems flawed. Lauren herself questions this, relating what she was able to learn about the condition and how her symptoms don’t seem to match. It would be just as easy to have Lauren’s doctor declare that she was suffering from stress and anxiety that might be alleviated in retreating to a quiet, more rural setting. It might have been helpful also to mention the fact that Lauren was adopted, if only in passing, so that the final revelation doesn’t come so far out of left field. The brief mention by Lauren that she has been ‘terrified of men’ all of her life seems to fly in the face of the fact that she is literally surrounded by them: Mark, Daniel, even her psychiatrist is male. It doesn’t make sense.

There also needs to be some work done on Lauren’s ability to either repress or rationalize the things she has seen. After seeing the handyman, Frank, literally levitating off the ground, Lauren still returns to the house, in spite of her fear. More work could be done on portraying Lauren as questioning her own sanity — wondering if she really saw what she thought — and perhaps even adding in some growing, even manic, attachment to the house itself to further explain her reluctance to leave in the long run.

Finally, the house is left standing at the end of the film — granted, this provides leeway for a sequel if there had ever been one — but with the story concluded and the ghosts avenged, it seems some destruction should be in order. The fire that Lauren sees but turns out to be simply a means to push her out the door should really happen. Let it burn to the ground and offer some poetic justice for all who had died there

Perhaps add a final scene: Lauren and Daniel long gone from the scene as fire officials put out the smoldering remains of the once grand house and, to offer some final rest for those who had lost their lives, have bodies or bones begin washing up on the shore of the pond so that the horrors of what had happened there are finally known and the bodies of the women and soldiers who died there can be laid to rest.

Now let’s move on to fancasting! Let’s start with the ladies.

My initial thought for the new Lauren Cochran is Jessica Chastain. A wildly talented actress, she stole every scene in Crimson Peak and was criminally underused in the recent full length IT films. She could bring new depth to Lauren and bring about a better descent into anxiety and mania than the original film allowed.

For Florinda, our lovely 1940s era madame, I suggest Julie Benz. The actress of both Angel and Dexter fame has an air of golden age Hollywood glam about her, with delicate features and a soft, lilting voice paired with a capacity of no-nonsense practicality. 

Florinda’s ill-fated daughter, Rose, has, sadly very little by way of character exploration and even fewer real scenes, played in the original film by the same actress as Lauren. Her reveal to Lauren at the tail end of the film could be better served by making her notably younger than our protagonist, pressing the point of a life cut short and a chance of real happiness destroyed. I would suggest, oddly enough, Bella Thorne of Disney and OnlyFans fame, a young woman who has taken control of her career and seems to be living life on her own terms. Picture the scene of our recast Lauren meeting her mother face to face, seeing her youthful smiling face and feeling the pain of the life that was stolen from her, knowing at least that her child had outlived her to prosperity. It could be a pivotal moment in the film.

Depending on the new narrative take on Mark and his relationship with Lauren, the role could be rewritten for a woman to play. The original film can’t seem to decide if Mark is a good friend, a love interest, or a friend who wants to be a love interest and whines about it (a la Xander Harris). No matter which way the rewrite took the idea, Mark could be rewritten as a female friend or assistant to Lauren, lovelorn or not, played perhaps by Natalie Dormer — someone capable of expressing Mark’s funny, cheerful side while still portraying the emotional connection she feels to Lauren.

Now, for the male roles!

Colonel LeBrun, the family patriarch whose inability to accept his son’s choice in bride or his newborn granddaughter, could be played to great skill by horror veteran Dennis Christopher (Stephen King’s IT, Profiler, Fade to Black, etc). He could provide the old school gentility expected of such a character right alongside the inborn prejudice integral to the Colonel’s personality. Christopher’s skill as an actor is beyond reproach and, as a horror fan favorite, could draw in the horror convention crowd.

Frank and Abner, our good ol’ boys turned murderers, could be played by Bruce Davison and John Goodman, respectively. We’ve seen John Goodman take a sinister turn in a role before, and Davison can bring in just the right amount of fear and sleaze for the handyman’s role. If Davison isn’t up for the part, another choice could be — go with me on this — H. John Benjamin. Known primarily for voice roles, Benjamin’s inclusion would require the character of Frank to be aged down — a child at the time of the murders, perhaps dragged in by Abner (rewritten as his father?), which could go a long way to explain his reluctance to take responsibility for what he had done as well as his more erratic behavior.

Lauren’s New York psychiatrist, who becomes the film’s first on-screen casualty, could be played by Michael Ironside. Not only is he a veteran of the horror genre, he has considerable skill as an actor and could bring the dismissive attitude of an I-know-better-than-you doctor to the role.

And finally, as for Daniel, our love interest, why not Sean McGuire, who portrayed Robin Hood on Once Upon a Time? He could easily carry the air of the grandson of a wealthy family with the small town chip on his shoulder that would allow him to explore further into the mystery, while engaging with Lauren in a romantic manner.

As an added bonus, I would also suggest that the ladies of the evening shown in flashbacks and in Lauren’s dreams and visions be cast with some of our favorite scream queens from the 90s and 2000s, just for a fun little easter egg. Some suggestions? Danielle Harris, Rose McGowan, Eliza Dushku, Fairuza Balk, Jodelle Ferland… who would you add?

It’s worth noting that the original film did have a few familiar faces. Gloria Grahame plays the ill-fated madame, Florinda. Grahame was once set to be Hollywood’s next great starlet, until scandals in her personal life made her persona non grata among Hollywood’s jetset. I am almost positive that I spotted an uncredited appearance by a very young Sharon Lawrence as well, though I have yet to be able to find any confirmation.

What do you think of the film? And do you have any ideas for a fan-cast? Drop a comment below!

THE NESTING (1981); Stars: Robin Groves, Christopher Loomis, Gloria Grahame; Director: Armand Weston; Writer: Daria Price & Armand Weston

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