The obvious inspiration for this low-budget horror feature is the Zuni fetish doll episode of Trilogy of Terror, though it also owes a little to the basic set-up of all the stories in From Beyond the Grave … an ornate box stolen from an antique shop turns out to contain or turn into a toothsome, winged, sadistic, usually invisible little beastie that drives the klepto to gruesome suicide and then latches onto heroine Jennifer (Penelope Mitchell), who spends the last act in a one-on-one battle with the monster. There are even riffs on Gremlins (a running joke about the microwave paying off) and Ghoulies (the critter in the shitter), but director Haylar Garcia (who co-wrote with Jim Brennan and Kathryn Gould) spin out an anthology movie episode idea to full-on film is to give more heft to Jennifer’s background, piling on the social agonies in a manner which might seem excessive until you twig that it’s only coming out of a ghastly situation which has given her the strength to match herself against the monster.
In the long first act, Jennifer moves into a run-down apartment complex, with a harridan manager (Sally Kirkland), a range of dubious neighbours and one gem in pudgy nice guy Terry (Kyle Gass). She’s struggling to get a non-waitressing job, hindered by the fact that she can’t cite the sheriff’s department she’s worked for as a secretary as reference because her slickly nasty ex-husband Boyd (Chris J. Johnson) is on the force. Boyd keeps showing up to abuse her into slinking back to him, obnoxiously confident that she can’t make it on her own – and every potential break goes bust, as when an old schoolfriend offers her a job but she shows up at the interview sleep-deprived because of her sobbing neighbour and covered in open sores that make her look like a junkie. Even the exterminator called in to fumigate her apartment gives her a drug rehab counselling tip, though he finds no bugs – especially not ones that match her infected bites.
The film wobbles a bit as it segues from apartment-from-hell psycho-horror to all-out monster fun, and the creature is more horrid when invisible than when its glowing-eyed, slightly comic puppet form manifests … but Mitchell (from Hemlock Grove, The Vampire Diaries, Curve and the Hellboy reboot) is terrific as someone who’s already a final girl in her life before the monster picks on her. It returns to its short story roots with a sting in the tail that’s guessable, but satisfying. The print I saw still had the original title, Gnaw.