Terror at the Morgue in Dennison Ramalho's The Nightshifter


by Catie Moyer

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Dennison Ramalho’s The Nightshifter, recently released as a Shudder exclusive, is a dense, gritty tale of possession and the ties that bind.

In an unnamed Brazilian city, gangs, hooligans, and landslides keep a dilapidated morgue up to its elbows in autopsies. Our protagonist, Stenio, bears tragic witness to the after-death confessions of corpses who sometimes don’t realize they are dead. His gift is used without purpose -- more to pass time than to help the world around him.

Most of Stenio’s life is handled this same submissive way. His wife and mischievous son pay him no respect, and his coworkers play mean-spirited tricks on him. It isn’t until a familiar corpse hits his slab and shares a dying secret about Stenio’s life that the wheels of the plot churn into motion.

Using inside information garnered from his cadaver chats, Stenio enters the underworld to take back what’s his no matter the consequences. Of course, at an hour and fifty minutes long, there will be consequences -- consequences that threaten the lives of his family and loved ones. The Nightshifter presents the idea that maybe a dead man’s secrets should die with him.

What first transpires as well-paced drama with supernatural undertones quickly spins into a paranoid haunting. Visages of death and violence follow Stenio and undermine his sanity. We see those around him question his grip on reality as a truly gruesome surprise graces his son’s birthday party. His children become both target and instrument of the ghostly vengeance. Their sitter Lara is possessed in a bloody climax that shows us how what ties us to the ones we love in life will bind us to them in the after.  

It’s a testament to director Dennison Ramalho’s storytelling how often the film surprises us. He attaches much of the psychological torment to physical manifestation and does not relent to forced explanations. In a moment of panic at Stenio’s home, he must fight his way through razor kite string strung up like security sensors to reach his terrified children. When the illusion is proved to be just that - an illusion - his cuts remain. This haunting does not disappear when the wailing stops. Ramalho demonstrates a keen eye for suspense.

In The Nightshifter, Ramalho is concerned with creating a real world where the paranormal could exist. He treats his audience to expansive, world-building shots of the city at night. The subtitles are refreshingly colloquial and relatable for an international audience. He grounds his characters in real issues: parental illness, delinquent children, gang violence, and adultery. Well-placed news clips and radio static hint that these real problems are demonically instigated. The theme plays true when you revisit Stenio’s actions: he was damned if he did, and he was damned if he didnt.

Prior to The Nightshifter, Ramahlo has written and directed a series of critically-acclaimed shorts including Nocturna (1998), Love for Mother Only (2003), and Ninjas (2011). He lent his talents to ABCs of Death 2 (2014) with the segment J is for Jesus, and cemented himself as a name in the new crop of horror directors to watch. If he was up-and-coming before, he’s here now with The Nightshifter as testament.

Samantha Kolesnik