Punisher: Nightmare, both meditation on faith and action film of the year

Punisher: Nightmare is a miracle of filmmaking and a walking contradiction. Its portrayal of Frank Castle, one man force of destruction, uses all the techniques and artistry of budget filmmaking backed by the hunger and energy of the independent scene. The story is both brutal and thoughtful, grim and hopeful, contrasting Castle’s single-minded quest for total annihilation with his hopeless journey towards improvement and discovery through the words of the Bible. Standing only on its stunt choreography and camera work, Nightmare easily would have earned its place as a landmark for action films, but its examination of faith both engages with and elevates the Punisher as a character. I’m still grappling with the many thoughts that Nightmare left me with, but there’s one thing that couldn’t be more clear from my first viewing: co-directors Brandon Forgione and Rahi Raval are names to watch out for.

Watching this movie was a weird experience, made all the moreso in contrast to my last fan film experience: The People’s Joker. Just a week prior, I went into a chique Philadelphia venue full of drugged-up hippies to watch a raucous, subversive comedy. Nightmare was the exact opposite. Together in a suburban theater, friends and family of the creators met to appreciate something most of them were not the audience for, but they contributed to its production and came to show their appreciation anyway. With no idea what we were about to see, the coming action film was absolutely electric, suffused with an energy and enthusiasm I might never experience again.

It would be inappropriate of me not to add that this premier was also different because it opened with a prayer. Nightmare’s depiction of religion in action is an authentic examination of faith and those who need it most. It’s a reminder that whatever the political powerhouse Christianity is today, its force in culture came as a message to those who are weak and hopeless. A philosophy that speaks most to someone like Frank Castle, who is so mired in violence and purposelessness that he might be the one to understand its messages best. It’s easy to see the Punisher as a man without humanity, and indeed he has been portrayed this way in the past. In Warren Ellis’s framing, Castle is an evil man who would be killing people no matter where he ends up. The death of his family by criminals is just the excuse he needs to go out and hurt people. Nightmare’s directors don’t show him that way. They made him a person again, trying to convince himself that he has no way out but hate. That his pain and violence has a purpose. He sees nothing else worthy about himself. Over the course of the film he develops as a character; the natural consequences of his quest catch up to him, spiraling further into the city and threatening to consume it. The words of Kings start by strengthening his resolve to destroy, but as the violence escalates they also lead him on a path towards becoming better. Maybe, someday, to becoming whole.

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the Inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men, all of whom have guns

It’s impressive how much Nightmare can say without words. Castle spends much of the film kneeling in prayer, aching for a sense of purpose or decency that he doesn’t think he really deserves. These moments of poverty and humility, filmed in a series of dank city train stations and alleys, are a total contrast to the heart-pumping action scenes when he finally comes alive with the full ferocity of fighting for his life. When everything finally collapses, crescendoing into a climax of destruction and depravity, and Frank surrenders to the police, it’s not their authority he kneels to. It’s an act of humility and genuflection. What follows is the chance at a way forward, through the influence of someone who sees the world (well, I can’t call it seeing exactly) the way he does. Almost.

Even then, Frank has to overcome his twisted conception of the world. He sees a prison cell as a chance at redemption, but not as a quiet place for penitence and self-reflection. No, Frank sees God’s work in the slammer as a place he can relentlessly fight criminals. His understanding of faith needs work, but with the years of horror still inflicting him with sleepless nights, he may just find a way out, and do what we all pray to do every day: get better. Rahi and Brandon’s work might have blown the back of my skull out with violence, but it also managed to create something nuanced and thoughtful along the way.

Both directors met at Temple University’s Media Arts program and graduated in 2020 firm in the knowledge that they could only succeed in filmmaking by striking out on their own. They collaborated on Punisher: Uprising, a rougher work that doesn’t need to be seen to appreciate Nightmare. I respect that film a lot, but its action work is less developed and the consequences of working with a low budget more pronounced. Nightmare’s quality makes it appropriate for a general audience, but Uprising’s appeal is more limited to the type of dedicated film critic who goes to theater releases of fan films. With Nightmare, the team wanted to showcase their mastery of a variety of filmmaking techniques. Paying homage to films like John Wick, the Bourne series, and the Raid, they crafted each fight scene to have its own visual identity and rely on distinct camerawork.

The fight choreography is impressive, showcasing Frank Castle not as the superhero comics might suggest but as the man he is. Mortal and alone, he survives only by outclassing his opponents in pure visceral rage. Combined with the intensity of the camerawork and sound design, he comes alive as a demon fueled by pain and hatred. There’s no way I can tell you what it feels like to watch this movie. I hope we get a commentary track one day, because I had no idea you could achieve some of these scenes with one man and a camera. You have to see to believe how far Rahi and Brandon put themselves out there for Nightmare, and how well it succeeds. They made Frank Castle walking into a garden shed more ominous than the entirety of Ari Aster’s career.

Shot underground style in Philadelphia, the city’s natural grime gave the action a grounding you usually don’t get out of action movies. Every actor felt real, human, and mortal. Listening to the directors talk about filming Nightmare, it’s hard not to think someone was watching out for them. It worked out, but I beg any of you reading do not make a film like this. With no budget, they had no room for stunt doubles. Brandon ran his way along real rooftops, threw himself through floors and windows, slammed Rahi against an elevator wall untold dozens of times to get the shot right, and they chased each other with darkened headlights along late night I-95. While covered in fake tactical gear, guns, and blood they were stopped by the police multiple times and I don’t know how they managed to get away alright. There are about a thousand ways this could have killed both of them, but the hunger to prove themselves with this film kept them going. Watching with their parents and friends in the room was a surprisingly harrowing experience.

Sorry to take a line from Birdman, but there was real blood on that screen, and it came from Brandon (left) and Rahi (right) for the sake of the craft

Nightmare is next to make its way through the festival circuit, you can watch right now at the link below.

The Punisher: Nightmare (Feature-Length Marvel Comics Fan Film) [4K]

You can also follow the filmmakers at the Forgione Productions Youtube page or the official Instagram account. They were not the only ones who made Nightmare the landmark that it was. Hampus Naeselius, Michael Vignola, & Kevin Graham brought a score that matched the film’s dual moods excellently, moving between somber and barbaric as needed. Nikolas Diener’s cinematography along with Rahi brought some impeccable work during long making even the most chaotic action scenes comprehensible. I won’t spoil Tina Ursta and Tyler Hauser’s roles completely except to say they were able to bring nuanced menace and vulnerability to the film.

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John Farrell is an attorney working to create affordable housing, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/ or follow him on Bluesky @johnofhearts

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