Released in 1993, Garth Maxwell’s neglected feature film Jack Be Nimble is in the news, after Museum of Modern Art film curator Ron Magliozzi picked it for a show. Horror: Messaging the Monstrous (23 June–5 September 2022) explored how the horror genre is underpinned by fears keyed to social, cultural, and political change. Jack Be Nimble screened in the section ‘Gender and Horror’, with the Aotearoa New Zealand director in attendance in New York for a Q and A. And now the film has been proposed for MoMA’s preservation programme.
Jack Be Nimble stars late US actor Alexis Arquette and Kiwi Sarah Smuts-Kennedy as siblings Jack and Dora. In childhood, they are separated from their parents and from each other. Dora gets adopted by a nice middle-class couple, but grows into a lonely adolescent, hankering for her brother. After a school-bullying incident, she develops ESP, and, later, forms a relationship with another psychic (veteran Aotearoa New Zealand actor Bruno Lawrence in one of his last roles). Meanwhile, Jack is taken to a hog farm and brutalised by monstrous foster parents and four savage stepsisters. He becomes a twisted psychopath, and invents a hypnosis machine to enable him to exact revenge, killing his foster parents … for starters. The siblings get back together as young adults and search for their real parents, but memories of childhood trauma continue to warp their actions.
The film’s take on gender is curious. When Dora tells Jack she can’t give him another childhood, he asks: why not? But at the end of the film, after he dies, we see her pregnant, enabling him to be reborn, communicating to her unborn Jack via her psychic powers.
At the time, New York Times critic Stephen Holden compared the film to those of Hitchcock and De Palma, while the Herald’s Dominic Corry called it “one of the strangest New Zealand films ever made.” In Empire, Kim Newman wrote: “If John Irving and Stephen King had collaborated to give us Garp and Carrie as twins separated at birth, they might well have come up with this strange New Zealand offering … With bizarre major plot points simply left unexplained, it certainly has a nightmarish, disjointed feel, but writer-director Maxwell, aided by excellent lead performances, also manages to make this at once affecting, funny and horrifying.”
The casting is notable. Alexis Arquette hails from a film-star family, with siblings Rosanna, Patricia, and David. As a drag queen, he performed as Eva Destruction, and became a transgender icon after transitioning in 2006. Sarah Smuts-Kennedy is now an artist, investigating “fields of energy as they engage with conceptual thinking both within an art-based language and other intuition-driven modes of enquiry.” Her work was recently showcased at Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery. Maxwell went on to be a director on the television series Xena and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. In 1998 he co-wrote and directed the feature When Love Comes, and in 2007 created the TV series ‘Rude Awakenings’.
For decades, Jack Be Nimble was hard to see and largely circulated through inferior pirated copies. But Maxwell says he can’t complain, as those copies kept interest in his film alive. Now Jack Be Nimble is back, better than ever, in a 4K restoration, reissued on Blu-Ray and available online.