Morto Não Fala (English title: The Nightshifter). 2018. Directed by Dennison Ramalho. Screenplay by Ramalho & Cláudia Jouvin; based on the novel by Marco de Castro.
Starring Daniel de Oliveira, Fabiula Nascimento, Bianca Comparato, Marcos Kligman, Annalara Prates, & Marco Ricca.
Canal Brasil / Casa de Cinema de Porto Alegre / Globo Filmes
Not Rated. 110 minutes.
Horror / Mystery / Thriller
Disclaimer: This essay contains spoilers.
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
Nobody ever said marriage was easy. It’s from this deceptively simple premise The Nightshifter blooms, starting as a supernatural drama with hints of crime and transforming into a strange ride through the dark heart of revenge. Dennison Ramalho’s film feels like a deep cut in a spooky EC Comics release from decades ago, marrying stories of the contemporary world with the eerie, odd, and whimsical qualities of stuff straight out of folk tales.
The plot follows Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira)— a morgue attendant with the ability to hear the dead speak. He’s got issues at home with his wife Odete (Fabiula Nascimento), as well as his delinquent son. One night, a corpse tells Stênio a secret about the attendant’s own family. This drives the troubled husband to revenge in an attempt to regain control of his life, which unravels his very existence.
Ramalho’s done several shorts, including “J is for Jesus” in the horror anthology ABCs of Death 2. The Nightshifter is his first feature-length film, which should be impressive to anybody with his keen eye for interesting and unsettling visuals. His storytelling abilities feel right at home in the realm of weird horror. This tale of a man who can speak to the dead touches on everything from death and loneliness to the desperate, damaging need for male control in a relationship.
“You wiped me out
Death and loneliness are two sides of a coin. A person can die without being physically dead, by being alone and lonely. Stênio’s ability to speak with the dead is never elaborated on, and never needs a backstory. In the initial scenes, his loneliness makes him akin to a corpse. He might as well be dead, floating from the morgue, to the bakery where he drinks alone, to his house where his wife can barely stand to be around him and his son disobeys everything he says. For all intents and purposes, he might as well be on the morgue’s table. It’s through this deadening that the man’s sanity and morality wither away, wounding every single person around him.
William Congreve wrote: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned“— might be better, in this story’s case, to change the end of this line to ‘man.’ Wounded male pride leads Stênio into an irreversible decision he attempts to justify. He externalises emotional pain over Odete’s infidelity into corporeal punishment for her. His need for a petty win over his wife in their marital battle translates into death. That fatal need boils down to Stênio feeling emasculated.
Stênio already tries to control his wife when she’s alive. A scene of note sees the married couple arguing over Odete’s spending habits. The angry husband implies her work is a) not bringing in as much money as him, and b) not as important as what he does, suggesting he has existing issues with male ego.
It gets worse. Stênio exerts sickening control over his wife once she’s dead. When Odete was alive, she rendered her husband powerless psychologically, at least in his mind. He finds empowerment through her death, and his patriarchal sense of masculinity reveals itself in full. Although the wedding ring works as a nice little plot device later in the film, the placement of it by Stênio on his dead wife’s cold finger is a particularly ugly, desperate attempt at reclaiming ownership. He’s like a dog marking his territory, trying to make sure that, even in death, Odete, as well as others, know she’s his property.A major theme in The Nightshifter is revenge’s cyclical terror. An act of revenge begets another, and another, until the end of time. The screenplay being focused on a married couple adds to the horror revenge can bring upon those who succumb to its lure. When two parents fight— no matter if it’s arguments, or if it escalates to the level of physical abuse— the people who genuinely suffer are always the children.
Here, the couple’s kids take the brunt of the damage, apart from Odete’s murder. “My children will know who you are,” the dead woman tells her living husband. By the end, in spite of everything the father tries to do, he has to come clean to his daughter and son. Not only are they left without a mother, they’ll go on living knowing their father played a significant part in her killing. Stênio runs off into the night at the end, chased by the ghosts of the dead he hears. While he’s able to run, no matter how lonely a journey it’ll be, his children are forced to stay put and live with their ghosts.
The existential death Stênio experiences is represented in physical terms during a scene when he’s digging up his wife’s grave to check if her ring is gone. He ends up buried alive by his wife’s vengeful spirit. He’s stuck down there alongside her remains— a fitting literal and figurative torture. Stênio actually tries to reverse the process, by using physical means to be rid of the supernatural haunting: a classic burning of the dead’s personal belongings. Yet the damage has been done. He’s essentially hollow inside, having given up all morality through the horrible act he set in motion that killed his wife.
Something important that could easily go unnoticed is the TV program playing in the background at Stênio and Odete’s home. We hear bits and pieces, starting with talk of “the devil” and a cheating husband supposedly possessed by a demon. The show’s host says evil could be “lurking around your home.” That’s because evil is, in part, human nature. Evil by man in its many forms is all too often excused as monstrous— by saying a man’s a monster, we excuse his acts, as if he couldn’t be human to do such things. In reality, the monster is man, and any of Satan’s perceived forces through flesh and blood are just the depraved acts of men.
The TV show host tries to pass off cheating as the work of demons, when it’s merely the frailty of men at fault. Similarly, people would call what Stênio did evil. It was actually his foolish male ego getting in the way, prompting a destructive chain of events that decimated his family and his whole life.
The Nightshifter is a pretty good horror with a fantastic premise, suffering solely from a lack of properly developed characters. Stênio himself is the most complete, obviously, and Odete isn’t bad, either. So much more could’ve been done with the kids— the daughter specifically lacks any real depth, whereas his son also isn’t given much more personality, only a bigger role— and also with Lara, whose plot felt tacked on to add another wrinkle in the story.
Father Gore, as a man, likes to read into issues of gender in horror. Underneath all the kooky fun and expert moments of dread, Ramalho’s film touches on male problems. Stênio inhabits a dual protagonist and antagonist role. He’s the character we spend all our time with, he’s the perspective we’re given, and he’s likewise the primary cause of violent hostility in the plot— his wife cheated, but he, by proxy, killed.
The dichotomy allows a reading centred on how masculine ego reacts to psychic wounds. In this dark fable, a man chooses revenge over life, over his family, and over his own soul. And it’s not coincidence the only good advice Stênio receives from a corpse comes from an old woman, as opposed to all the dead men he spoke to earlier in the film who ultimately led him horrifically astray. His initial experience with infidelity is one familiar to so many men, and women. The morally repugnant path he chooses in its wake is where the film takes a hard look at the scary places fragile men can go when they’re too weak to not be brutal.