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Jess Franco: 1964

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Of all the films of Jess Franco’s early career, El Segreto del Dr. Orloff (“Dr. Orloff’s Secret”, aka “Dr. Orloff’s Monster” and “Les Maîtresses du Dr. Jekyll”) is the first that really feels like a Franco movie.

Coming as it does right on the heels of his two eminently successful thrillers, La Muerte Silba un Blues and Rififí en la Ciudad, El Segreto del Dr. Orloff feels like a step backwards in quality and professionalism… though this could be attributed mostly to the lack of funding. After the French co-producers he’d lined up for Rififí en la Ciudad had failed to come through, Franco found himself on the hook for some of its production expenses; then Rififí didn’t perform well at the Spanish box office, making the situation worse. Gritos en la Noche, Franco’s first horror movie from three years earlier, had done well, both in Spain and internationally. But so few prints had been struck of the film that even given its success, Gritos… still took several years to show a profit. Thus Franco had to cut a few corners to get El Segreto… finished, giving the movie that uneven, slightly unbalanced feeling that fans of the later Franco know so well.

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff also features far more gratuitous nudity than his previous pictures. It’s not just the fact that we see more naked female bodies: it’s the context… or should I say lack of context… for the nudity that looks forward to the Franco of the 1970’s and beyond. Furthermore, by this time Franco had written and directed enough films that his patterns were starting to become recognizable. This was the first of his films in which so many elements of his prior scripts had been drawn together. Sure, a movie like Gritos… had also been a patchwork of references, but those had been to other people’s movies; in this film, Franco was clearly quoting himself.

The film begins with an eerie and atmospheric sequence: the awful Dr. Fisherman (Marcelo Arroita Jáuregui) lies on his bed, smoking a cigarette, while his troubled conscience tortures him with memories. He had surprised his wife and his brother (Hugo Blanco, from La Mano de un Hombre Muerto) in bed together, and had murdered his brother. Since Fisherman is a respected doctor, he’d been able to pass off his brother’s death as an accident… but he’d never been able to rid himself of the image of the two of them together, nor the image of his brother’s eyes widening in fear as he’d killed him.

Fisherman’s crimes go much further than this. He’s also stolen his brother’s corpse and brought it back to some semblance of life. He keeps the reanimated cadaver in his laboratory, in the attic of his castle. There — out of a weird combination of guilt and the desire to continue punishing his brother even after death — he uses the living-dead man as his human test subject.

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff

The arcane knowledge Fisherman uses to restore life to dead tissue comes from his work with another scientist, the elderly Dr. Orloff (two “f”s, and [cough] presumably no relation to Howard Vernon’s character from Gritos en la Noche). Orloff is dying, and on his death-bed he confides in Dr. Fisherman his segreto — his method for not only making corpses breathe and twitch, but actually move and obey commands. His secret is this: in place of the “eleven herbs and spices” he advertises, he really uses only one ingredient, monosodium glutamate, which… ummm… wait a minute. Excuse me. That’s the horrible secret of Colonel Sanders. Orloff’s method involves ultra-high frequency sounds (sort of a zombie dog whistle), which have no effect on living human beings, but which stimulate reactions in creatures which no longer have the ability to filter them out. Yes, it’s nonsense, but it looks forward to the wacky behaviorist theories of Dr. Zimmer in Franco’s next movie, Miss Muerte (1966), as well as Jorge Grau’s 1974 zombie flick, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.

With the Secret of Dr. Orloff in his hands, Dr. Fisherman is ready to complete his experiments. Partly out of a spirit of scientific curiosity, partly to avenge himself on his late brother, and partly to avenge himself on all womankind for his wife’s betrayal (but mostly because he’s in a Jess Franco movie), Fisherman takes to picking up bar girls. He seduces them with costly gifts, and then uses those gifts — necklaces with receptors built into them, which pick up the sound waves from Fisherman’s control device — to mark the wearer as the next target. Perhaps The Secret of Kindly Dr. Carruthers might have been a good alternate title? Of course, necklaces were also part of Howard Vernon’s Orlof’s technique, so perhaps the Secret also involves dating tips.

Unfortunately for Fisherman, there are a few complications that crop up and interfere with his experiments. The first is the arrival of his niece, Melissa. Fisherman’s been appointed her guardian until the following year, when she will come of age and inherit her father’s estate. Of course, she doesn’t realize that her father (now called “Andros”) is standing in a glass coffin just upstairs… though she nearly stumbles upon him when she first arrives at Castle Fisherman. Fisherman is anxious to be relieved of his guardianship, but that process takes time. For the moment, he’s stuck with her.

And she’s stuck with him… and the other dreary inhabitants of the castle (in fact, Castle Fisherman is the same castle used in Gritos en la Noche, which had also been the scene of the “Lord Marian” dream sequence on Franco’s first feature, Tenemos 18 Años. It’s a little disconcerting to see the same castle in both of Franco’s imaginary towns, Hartog and Hölfen, just as it’s equally disconcerting to see that the castle really stands in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It had looked so lonely and isolated in the previous films!). Dr. Fisherman’s assistant, Ciceron, is an odd little man, while Melissa’s Aunt Inglud (understandably, under the circumstances) is a bitter, drunken wreck of a woman. It looks to Melissa like it’s going to be a grim Christmas chez Fisherman.

Melissa’s arrival also brings about a completely unexpected complication. Though Melissa never knew her Dad, and fails to recognize his photograph when she sees it, there’s still an odd connection between father and daughter. The longer Melissa stays in the castle, the more “Andros” becomes aware of her — and becomes attuned to her thoughts and fears. We start to realize that the theories of Dr. Orloff are inadequate: Andros is not merely a puppet. He has begin to remember what is is to be alive and fully human.

When Melissa, unsatisfied with the explanation of her father’s death, determines to break into his sealed room and go through his belongings, Andros senses her presence. He breaks out of his glass box, staggers downstairs and surprises her. His appearance is so horrifying that Melissa faints. Fisherman tries to get Andros back under control, but the living dead man ignores him and plunges off into the night.

But even if Andros is beginning to regain his humanity, old habits die hard. So his first act of rebellion is… to go continue his master’s vendetta against women of easy virtue. He breaks into the home of the local club’s jazz pianist (played by Franco himself), murders his girlfriend after she takes a long bath, and then makes short work of the helpless pianist on his way out.

The bathroom-stalking episode is really pretty cheesy; but the clumsily-handled nude scene is followed, in typical Franco fashion, by one of the most powerful images in the movie. As dawn breaks, Fisherman and Ciceron go looking for Andros with the high-frequency sound generator. They find the living dead man standing over his own empty grave. Andros’s face is as expressionless as ever, but we get some idea of what’s going on in his mind by watching him clench his fists compulsively…

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff

All the ingredients are here: we have the mad medico, killing young girls to further his nefarious plans. We’ve got the zombie henchman, who begins to develop a will of his own (much to his master’s consternation). Here the henchman is Andros instead of the expected Morpho, but that’s OK: the mad scientist is Fisherman instead of Orlof. Hugo Blanco’s Andros does look remarkably similar to Ricardo Valle’s Morpho; though instead of being blind, Andros’s disfigurement comes from the fact that his body had already started to undergo autolysis by the time he was revived from death. Thus the skin of his face has started to separate from the tissue below, giving him a ghastly look. Hugo Blanco had also played the murderer in La Mano de un Hombre Muerto (no real spoiler there), so his appearance is a sort of synthesis of both Franco’s earlier horrors.

What else? Let’s see: there’s the expected Melissa, the daughter of the Bad Father (in this case, the adulterous Andros, who is now her uncle’s killing machine)… but this time, Melissa’s also the ward of the Bad Uncle! We’ve got the barely competent Hölfen police inspector — “Klein” this time; Georges Rollin was dead by this time, and no doubt so was his “Inspector Borowsky”. The character “Karl Steiner” from La Mano… is back in Hölfen, but in name only: rather than being an intrepid reporter, he’s a retired boxer in this story. Steiner is the sometime-boyfriend of one of the murdered girls; whereas the “Steiner” of the previous film had been the man who solved the mystery, this Steiner only serves as a red herring for Inspector Klein.

The deathbed scene with Dr. Orloff early in the film serves a similar purpose to the deathbed scene in La Mano de un Hombre Muerto: to kick off the story with the revelation of a deep, dark secret… though the secret turns out not to be quite as important as it seemed.

As usual for a Franco film of any genre or any vintage, there are also plenty of club scenes and musical numbers… but here they seem less related to the story than they’ve been in his movies so far. The first of these interruptions features the danseuse to whom Fisherman’s just given a deadly necklace. Her act is a striptease, and oh boy is it cheap and sleazy. It’s not as though the stripper’s very carefully dressed when she starts: her skimpy lingerie is put on so haphazardly that it looks for a moment as though we’re about to get the first of Franco’s famous pubic shots. But once she starts wiggling, her performance is staggeringly banal. She’s not on stage: she’s just standing in a clear spot between the patrons at the club, shaking her body in a way that could only be described as “dancing” as a euphemism on the “occupation” line of her tax return. For most of the number, she keeps her eyes glued to the camera. Then she takes off her top, and the act is over. It looks and feels remarkably like a real striptease in a shabby, disreputable bar somewhere — and heaven knows Franco had seen enough of those by this time.

Perla Cristal’s (literally) show-stopping number later in the film, “Pepita que horror”, is far more dignified (and better-dressed), though like the musical numbers in Franco’s later films it does grind the story to a halt. Fortunately, the song is so good that we don’t much care… However, Franco does manage to work in another delightfully sleazy striptease, this time in the guise of a murder set-piece. When the pianist’s girlfriend goes upstairs to take her bath (where Andros is waiting for her), the pianist (Franco) stays downstairs working on his latest blues composition. His music filters up to the bathroom, where the girl disrobes. The music continues as she steps into the tub and splashes the water all over her body, paying particular attention to her breasts… The blues in the background makes it a musical strip show with an added hint of voyeurism. It’s the clearest example we’ve had to date of the sort of thing the later Franco has in store for us.

'Pepita que horror'

Though these striptease sequences may match our expectations of the Franco of the future, they really don’t fit in this particular movie. The rest of El Segreto del Dr. Orloff is heavy with Gothic atmosphere, but those brief scenes are blunt and comparatively dull. They could have been shot by, say, Herschell Gordon Lewis and inserted afterwards, that’s how out-of-place they feel in this context.

Another thing I can’t help but think is out-of-place is our mad Doctor Fisherman himself. Franco regular Marcelo Arroita Jáuregui is a good actor, and he gives the movie’s strongest performance as the temperamental Dr. Fisherman… but after Howard Vernon’s turn as the Awful Doctor, Arroita Jáuregui just doesn’t look the part. To me, the bearded, rotund actor looks less like the successor of Orloff and more like Father Christmas (the Saint-nic Baron von Claus?). The Christmas setting of the story doesn’t help me take him more seriously. OK, OK: I admit this is my problem, not his nor Franco’s. But really: Dr. Fisherman? That’s not the most sinister and suggestive of names, is it? The French seem to have realized this, and renamed the character “Dr. Jekyll”, though this makes it difficult to explain why Andros goes to stand beside the Fisherman family crypt. Franco claimed for a time that the name “Fisherman” was a sort of homage to the English director Terence Fisher, though later in life he called Fisher “one of the worst directors that ever was” (in a 1986 interview reprinted in “Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco”).

Nevertheless, for all its problems, the movie redeems itself with its final sequence — a long fatal walk that seems to look forward to the endings of the films of Jean Rollin. Daniel White’s elegiac score and Andros’s one-and-only spoken line contribute to the feeling of tragedy and despair. Again, this is a touch of the later (dare I say “mature”?) Franco: like his later Virgin Among the Living Dead, El Segreto… ends with a gesture that suggests the whole film might have been deeper than we realized. It’s an illusion, but it’s a remarkable illusion, and it helps explain why viewers like me keep going back time and time again into the frustrating world of Jess Franco.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part IV: Lovely Molly (2011)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Concluding our series on the modern follow-ons from The Blair Witch Project. This one has the strongest connection of any of them…

ICONIC TALISMAN: Yes, though only glimpsed for a moment.

For years the standard response to the success of The Blair Witch Project was limited. There were parodies, of course, but the wave of found-footage movies that followed weren’t much more than superficial parodies themselves. Reality television seemed to get into the phenomenon a little bit deeper, but the lesson they took away from Blair Witch went awry: they saw…

  1. that with enough footage, you could tell any story you wanted, and tell it very convincingly;
  2. that POV video could make you a lot of money from a very small investment;
  3. that overmarketing will kill a brand, but it’ll also make the producers rich… so who cares?
  4. and that while people no longer believe that “pictures don’t lie”, they are much more likely to suspend their disbelief if a movie camera is hand-held.

These are all interesting lessons, but they’re not really enough. So while there’s a line to be traced directly from Blair Witch to Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, the really interesting developments that should have followed Myrick and Sánchez’s work took almost a decade to appear. I guess it’s only fitting that one of the best of the current crop of movies that bear an obvious relationship to Blair Witch should come from none other than Eduardo Sánchez himself.

Lovely Molly starts with a knowing reference to the most famous moment from the 1999 movie: the heroine sits in front of a camera, sobbing in despair, apologizing for the horrible things that have just happened. Yes, says Sánchez, I made The Blair Witch Project; let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? The first second or two of this introductory scene feels like a quick wink from the director. But enjoy the moment: a split-second later, things get very unpleasant indeed. The movie doesn’t wink again. It maintains a steady, ice-cold stare and doesn’t look away for a moment.

Molly and Tim have been married for about a year, and life for them is not easy. They’re both blue-collar folks — hats off to Sánchez for making a horror movie that remembers most ordinary people, even haunted ones, have jobs and responsibilities! Tim is a truck driver whose job requires him to be off on the road for long stretches. Molly is a janitor at a mall. They’re just about the least glamorous and most compellingly realistic couple ever to inhabit a horror flick.

Money is tight for the couple, so they are relieved that Molly’s family’s old house is available for them to live in for the first few years. It’s actually a very nice old farmhouse, far bigger than anything they could hope to afford… but it’s an old house, and subject to all sorts of inconveniences. It’s also the place where Molly’s father met a messy end when she was just a child. Molly herself has had issues related to her father’s death: she’d become addicted to drugs as an adolescent, and had spent some time in an institution… apparently for more than just detox. There are definitely bad memories hanging about the place. But in Molly and Tim’s position, the troubled past must make way for the troubled present.

Almost as soon as the movie’s been set up for us, the couple experience a terrifying midnight break-in at the old farmhouse. When the police arrive, they don’t find anybody on the premises, but Tim and Molly know they heard someone moving around in the pitch-dark house. It’s never made clear if the break-in has anything to do with the sinister events that play out through the rest of the film, but that doesn’t matter. The break-in puts us immediately in sympathy with Tim and Molly — reminds us of their vulnerability by putting them in a realistic situation with which we can identify very easily.

Shortly thereafter, Tim has to leave on an unexpected job. It’s good he’s getting work, since the couple needs the money. Unfortunately, this means he’ll be out of town for Molly’s birthday. Molly’s hurt by this at first. Eventually she makes peace with Tim (over her cellphone), but she’s still pensive when her vivacious older sister Hannah comes to celebrate with her.

Things start to go bad when Hannah unthinkingly shares a joint with her sister over slices of birthday cake. Hannah immediately regrets her action, remembering Molly’s substance abuse problems. Molly simply brushes off her sister’s concern. But that night — coincidentally or not — the disturbances begin for Molly as she tries to sleep, alone, in her father’s old house.

It certainly feels as though there’s someone in the house with her… particularly in her father’s old study, with its peculiar wall-full of horse pictures. Is that really a voice that she hears whispering fiercely to her? Are those the sounds of footsteps coming from downstairs? Or is she just imagining things in a house full of bad memories and bad floorboards?

After a few troubling incidents, Molly casually approaches her sister at work and asks her of she could, maybe, score her a little weed to help her relax. This sets off all sorts of alarm bells with Hannah — as well it ought. In the meantime, Molly continues to lose sleep as the strange events continue at the house. The light in the bedroom she shared with her sister growing up seems to turn itself on every night. Molly’s even awakened by the sound of a child sobbing from that room. The strange occurrences are accompanied by a high-pitched ringing sound, like the buzzing you get in your ears sometimes (for example, before you faint).

And all the while, the narrative flow is interrupted by brief cuts to hand-held video camera footage taken by Molly herself. Why is she singing to herself in that eerie, girlish voice? Why does she seem drawn to her neighbor’s house, to look through her windows… to spy on her children? What is the meaning of the curious horse-headed talisman Molly takes from its hiding place in the cellar?

All through my first viewing of Lovely Molly, I found myself deeply impressed. Here, I thought, was a Bad House movie where it was clear — unambiguously clear — that the haunting was entirely in the heroine’s troubled mind. Molly is deeply disturbed; by the time she climbs into the attic and digs out the secret stash of heroin she’d hidden before they took her away as a teen, we see that she’s never really recovered from her early traumas. With an addict’s cunning, she’s convinced herself as much as everyone else that she’s outgrown her issues; but it’s not true. Her stash suggests she’d never fully intended to break free of the drugs — not in the deepest part of her. And her use of the drugs suggests that she’s never been free for a moment from the demons of her childhood.

Of course, the main demon of her childhood was her own father. The sobbing that she thinks she hears coming from the closet in her old childhood room? That’s the ghostly echo of her own sobbing, a long time ago, as she hid in the darkness while her father did unmentionable things to Hannah (and later, to her). And the Thing that eventually comes clomping up the stairs at night, chanting Molly’s name over the clatter of approaching hooves, is her father’s evil spirit.

Is it real, this uncanny horse-demon? Is it truly banging on the door to be let in? Has it really knocked the key out of the keyhole and demanded entrance? Molly’s POV video camera says yes: it is, and it has…

…but can we trust the video? Later on, when Molly’s employer shows her surveillance camera footage that seems to show her having a seizure, we discover that what Molly sees in the same footage is herself being raped by a dark stranger. When the boss blames Molly for what he sees on-screen, not realizing Molly sees it so differently, it drives the already-distraught girl into pure raving hysteria. Clearly we cannot trust what we think we’re seeing through Molly’s eyes… or even through Molly’s video camera.

Gretchen Lodge, as Molly, does a fantastic job of portraying a woman gradually succumbing to mental illness. The central tragedy, the core of Molly’s deterioration, is that she has been corrupted by her father. She has a horrible affinity for his abusive nature — whether through some hereditary illness, or just as a result of the perversion of the natural bond between father and daughter, she is becoming like him… and the strain is destroying her. It’s a brave performance in what appears to be a brave film… a film that doesn’t shrink from showing us a truly damaged psyche… a film that keeps us sympathizing with Molly, even after her collapse has made her a monster; a film that doesn’t bother to suggest the haunting is real, but shows us instead how irrationality leads to stories of ghosts and demons.

At least, that’s what I thought I was watching.

But then… after I’d watched the brutal, uncompromising story of a woman destroyed by the demons of her own mind… I saw the movie’s brief coda. And then I watched the DVD Special Features. And then I went on-line to see what others, including Eduardo Sánchez himself, had said about the film. And boy, was I ever surprised.

Because it turns out this superbly unambiguous study of Haunting as Mental Illness was actually supposed to be a genuine Demon Possesion film.


Tell me, if you like, that Citizen Kane is a film about sledding. Tell me that Titanic was an educational film about boating safety. Tell me anything. But please! By Azazel, by Samael, by Jor-el and Kal-el… by Baphomet, by Calumet, by Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, don’t try to tell me that Lovely Molly‘s about genuine demon possession. I mean, they’d done so well, up until the coda! It’s as though they watched Uruguay’s La Casa Muda and thought, “Yes, very interesting — but that’s not the way mental illness really works; we can do this better.” Sánchez & Co. gave us a sensitive portrayal of Molly as young woman with deep psychological problems… problems that just happened to manifest themselves as some kind of supernatural visitation. They showed us how trauma and substance abuse lead to Molly’s break with the real world, into a terrifyingly real-seeming hallucination that eventually destroys her life (and the lives of those around her). They showed us a harrowing illustration of the cycle of abuse. There was absolutely no need to drag the Devil into it.

And in fact, dragging the Devil into it cheapens the whole story. I’ve already had enough of Pat Robertson and his ilk on my TV screen, blaming the latest natural disaster on gay marriage and unwed mothers — some evangelical yob insisted the hurricane that tore through my town and my state in 2012 was God’s warning, because the evil liberal northeast was too soft on the sodomites. With this foolishness still ringing in my ears, the very last thing I want is another movie suggesting that some serious, tragic problem — like mental illness — is actually demonic possession. Are you kidding? Demonic possession is almost cosy compared to the alternative.

Now, if you want to think of Lovely Molly as such a conventional horror film, you can. There’s enough leeway in the telling of the story to support either conclusion, if you absolutely must have some ambiguity about the supernatural. Until the coda. The coda ruins everything by tacking on a hackneyed “it isn’t over” epilog — actually, now that I stop to think about it, it isn’t even the coda in its entirety so much as it is one gesture: one spoon-fed piece of information left out for us (and for one of the surviving characters) in an obvious place, to let us know the whole story’s been stage managed by Ol’ Scratch.

Turn off the movie just before the epilog, and you’ll be left with a near-masterpiece. You’ll see a convincing portrayal of evil as an inside force: something that results from poor choices and poisoned opportunities, something that’s passed down across generations like a disease. Something that forces us to hallucinate demons and ghosts to externalize the horrible pressures within. Something tragically human.

Watch it to the very end, though, and all you’ll see is another average horror movie.

This is not to say that there aren’t other problems with Lovely Molly, too — principally its male characters. The preacher-man, Pastor Bobby, is way too easy a target — I say this aware that I might be accused of contradicting myself in my outlook on religion in this film. But seriously: Pastor Bobby is much too much the cliché of the venal priest. Furthermore, Tim — who is in every other way the picture of a loving and long-suffering husband — does something thoughtless and stupid in the course of the story. Not only is what he does out of character for the man we’ve seen so far, it’s also brought into the story so abruptly, with such inadequate preparation, that a common reaction in viewers is to look back and question whether it was really Tim in those scenes. Worse, it feels as though the only reason this lapse was written in was to give Molly some sort of twisted justification for what she does to him. I’d like to think we’ve reached a stage where we can allow strong female characters to stand on their own — even as monsters. There’s no reason to weaken the male characters just to build some sort of misguided sympathy for a strong woman.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part III: Silent House (2011)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Continuing our series on the heritage of The Blair Witch Project: not just found-footage movies, but movies whose technique is inextricably bound up with their content.

ICONIC TALISMAN: Does a toilet count?
MOMENT OF SNIVEL: Not really, though closer than the original.

Silent House is a remake of the Uruguyan film La Casa Muda from 2010, and while it follows the outline of La Casa Muda fairly closely, there are some very important differences. Since any discussion of the film and its inspiration requires me to reveal their darkest secrets, this little review assumes you’ve either seen one or both films, or that you don’t care about Spoilers.

The first thing you realize about Silent House, if you watch it and the Uruguayan original back-to-back, is that Silent House looks much more like A Movie than La Casa Muda did.

La Casa Muda was shot on a still camera (!), and it has a cinema vérité feel to it; while it’s true that the oppressive darkness of the film makes it difficult to see what’s going on much of the time, the overall effect is to give the movie a sense of immediacy and realism. The original didn’t rely on standard camera tricks to heighten the story, and the result was a film that felt like a Blair Witch-style POV experience… even though it wasn’t. Sure, the Uruguayan film was also cleverly blocked and shot, but the camera work was subtle… so that the audience came to take the camera for granted.

Silent House has a totally different aesthetic. Its very first shot is a dramatic overhead look at Sarah, the heroine, sitting alone on a rocky shore. The image announces itself as a Composed Shot — you could take a still from the opening scene and frame it, or make a calendar out of it. The camera then descends gently to ground level, to join the girl as she walks to The House. We’re aware of the camera, impressed by the images it captures and the smoothness of its movements.

The divergences continue: La Casa Muda revealed its hints quietly, so quietly that many of them weren’t obvious until you saw the movie a second time. For example, the heroine Laura’s reaction on first catching sight of the House is to catch her breath and stop, just for a moment. That moment goes by so quickly it’s easy to dismiss it, but it’s still important. In Silent House, on the other hand, Sarah has already been at the house, working on the cleanup, for some time before the movie starts. We have no opportunity to gauge her first reaction to the House. Furthermore, Sarah’s House belongs to her family — and rather than being asked to come help a friend, Sarah and her father are working alongside Sarah’s uncle.

Barely 5 minutes into the film, the writers of Silent House attempt to cram so much obvious foreshadowing into the dialogue that it’s a wonder anybody was surprised by the twist that comes later in the film. Sarah’s uncle discovers that there’s mold in the walls of The House — it’s possible (wink, wink) that the whole structure is rotten with corruption. “If you cover it up, we’ll never know!” says Sarah. Ah, of course.

But let’s just be brutally frank for a moment: the underlying concern of this movie, its Prime Motivator, is… child rape. You need to be extremely careful when you’re dealing with a topic like that, because it doesn’t lend itself to simple exploitation. If you were making a movie with such a sensitive issue at its heart, would you want one of the opening images of your film — in a scene laden with symbolic significance — to be… Daddy widening a hole with his sledgehammer? Really? Was anybody thinking about this?

“Just looking at it is making me sick,” says the uncle. I agree.

When the infamous Polaroid camera makes its first appearance, Silent House again distances itself from La Casa Muda by falling back into Movie Mode. The camera zooms in slowly on Sarah’s face, gradually excluding the action in the foreground. A bewildered look appears on her face. An ominous pedal point on the soundtrack tells us that This Means Something. And then, shortly afterwards, the hints start coming that all is not well in this apparently tight-knit family.

The ghostly little girl in La Casa Muda — who might be a symbol of Laura herself, or the ghost of an aborted fetus, or something entireley different — has been replaced in Silent House by two different figures. One is a fully-grown young woman of Sarah’s own age. This Sophia is an independent character, who interacts with Sarah as a long-lost friend that Sarah seems to have forgotten about. I’m not sure that’s an improvement… especially considering that Sophia is introduced outside the house. If nothing else, that brief interlude spoils the growing sense of claustrophobia, which was handled so well in the original. The second mysteriously-appearing figure is, surprise! a ghostly little girl, but in this case she’s obviously (too obviously) a symbol of Laura herself as a child.

Nearly all the ambiguity is missing from the remake. In Silent House, there’s a moment at which you can pinpoint the shift in reality — it’s when Sarah finds the red box (perhaps she rented Silent House from the Red Box, and fast-forwarded to the end? Hmmm…). Everything before that can be considered to have unfolded in a linear and comprehensible manner. La Casa Muda may have been intended to work in the same way, but I came away from it feeling as though there was no clear line between what was to be taken literally and what was pure hallucination. It’s possible to see the first two-thirds of the Uruguyan movie as entirely metaphorical. And certainly there were no wall-mounted bleeding toilets in La Casa Muda — followed by the all-too-blatant return of the sledgehammer — to make the situation plain. The difference between the two movies is this: one is a competent horror movie with a squirm-inducing twist… and the other, the original, forces the attentive viewer to think very carefully about how we process the information we see on the screens that fill our daily lives.

Both movies were shot with a gimmick: they both appear to have been shot in one continuous take. They weren’t, really, but that’s beside the point… both films are technically extraordinary. Again, though, their aesthetics are completely different: in the original, both the technique and the story are urging you — coercing you, really — to take what you’re seeing at face value, only to betray you in the end. The original used very little obvious trick camera work, and when it did — for instance, when Laura is out in the woods, disoriented, and the camera spins to find her in unexpected places — it came as something of a shock. In the American film, as I mentioned in discussing the opening, the single-take gimmick is just an overlay: otherwise it relies on the standard cinematic vocabulary of camera movements and setups. When it does get all hand-heldy and Blair Witch-y, that comes as something of a shock.

Still, considered purely on its own terms, Silent House is mostly an effective thriller. The cast is very good — though it might be a little disturbing to see an Olsen sister (even though it isn’t one of The Twins) in a movie about child abuse, Elizabeth Olsen delivers a fine performance in a role that keeps her on-screen for the entire duration of the movie. All the Olsen sisters have a sort of neotenic cast to their features — it’s part of what kept Mary Kate and Ashley a viable franchise for so long, and is clearly evident in the promotional image of Elizabeth used for the poster and DVD cover. This makes Elizabeth a wise choice for this particular role — she has a certain child-like vulnerability built into her very appearance. It might have been better had the camera not developed an inappropriate interest in her cleavage, which (considering the ending) makes us in the audience feel a tad queasy.

What really makes me uncomfortable, though, is Silent House‘s decision to change the underlying reason for all the horror.

La Casa Muda‘s back-story concerned the sexual abuse of an adolescent girl — a girl just old enough to fall prey to older men while believing she was making decisions for herself (it’s strongly suggested that Laura was under the age of consent, though that’s not made explicit… the age difference alone between Laura and the men, to say nothing of the incestuous aspect, makes it ugly enough). This abuse resulted — apparently, since everything is open to question in La Casa Muda — in a pregnancy and in the loss of the child, either to an abortion or something even more drastic. If the Polaroids we see are to be believed, La Casa Muda‘s Laura was tricked (with the help of alcohol) into believing she was a participant on equal footing with the adults who abused her… which she, as a girl on the cusp of sexual maturity, might well have been anxious to believe. Laura is driven to madness and murder not just by the abuse (though that would have been enough), but even more by Nestor’s subsequent abandonment and betrayal — that is, by her internal struggle, and her own feelings of guilt for having gone along with him and her father. Laura’s madness is personified by the phantom of a little girl, who might represent her lost child, or possibly her own ruined childhood. But the fact that this ghostly little girl shows up in the Polaroids, when she’s clearly a hallucination, makes us wonder if the Polaroids themselves are to be trusted.

By contrast, Silent House‘s Sarah was violated when she was very, very young. It’s all clear-cut: there’s no pregnancy, no doubt about her status as a minor, no troubling questions in her own mind about whether she was capable of giving consent, no terrible conflict between longing and loathing. Sarah’s phantom isn’t a mute little girl: she’s a full-grown young woman her own age — with a name — who actually explains things to Sarah at the dénoument. And certainly there’s no possible ambiguity as to what’s real and what’s not after Sarah looks in the mirror.

Far from making us doubt our deepest instincts, and question if anything we’ve seen has been literally true, Silent House goes out of its way to tell us what’s happened, and how we ought to feel about what’s going on… The movie even cuts away coyly from Sarah’s actual murder of her father and its aftermath, in an attempt to keep our sympathy. Contrast this with the way La Casa Muda‘s camera suddenly assumes the point of view of the dying Nestor at the end of the main part of the story — putting us in the position of the rapist. Silent House‘s conclusion seems to undercut the point of the original, which left us too uncomfortable to sympathize with anybody in the story. Even Laura. Especially Laura.

Considering its subject matter and the potentially-infuriating nature of its twist, I suppose it’s remarkable that the American film got made at all. Bearing in mind how many changes and (over-)simplifications American horror movies often go through before they are released to a mainstream audience, Silent House is a pretty typical effort. If you didn’t like it, I’d suggest giving the Uruguyan original a try. If you did like it, then I think you should watch the original, too: you may be surprised at what La Casa Muda could achieve with such limited resources. But if you hated the Uruguyan film, you’ll probably find little to please you in the remake. At least in the original, there were no tasteless double-entendres about sledgehammers, and no bleeding toilets.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part II: La Casa Muda (2010)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Continuing our examination of recent horror movies that make a serious attempt at extending the subgenre made famous by The Blair Witch Project more than a decade ago…

ICONIC TALISMAN: Yes, sort of: a rag doll and a Polaroid camera.

A surprising number of people took the whole “found footage” aspect of The Blair Witch Project seriously — just ask the beleaguered residents of Burkittsville, MD. Today we’re going to look at a gimmick movie of a very similar kind: not a “found footage” flick, but a movie that hid its real import behind a technically innovative surface; a movie that extended the ideas presented in Blair Witch, and forced us to think carefully about how much we trust the camera to tell the truth. It’s not just the distance in time that makes La Casa Muda so interesting: it’s also the distance in geography. For it wasn’t Hollywood that came up with such an interesting follow-up. It was Uruguay.

Not that Uruguay hasn’t been producing cine fantàstico for years now: Ricardo Islas may be working in the US these days, but he got his start with microbudget horror films in his native country. Then there’s Maximilian Contenti’s very bizarre horror-comedy Muñco Viviente V (“Living Doll V”, 2008 — though there are no parts I through IV), in which the Killer Doll’s motivation really must be seen to be believed. And perhaps you’ve heard of Fede Álvarez, who directed the 2013 Evil Dead remake? He’s from Uruguay… and his magnificent short Ataque de Pánico! (2009), which he made for $300, manages in its 5 minute span to outdo the whole Jerry Bruckheimer Transformers series with its Giant Robot mayhem.

But 2011’s La Casa Muda is the first Uruguayan horror film to get widespread attention in the United States, if only because it was picked up for a remake by an American producer. It may seem like a dubious honor, to have your work remade for an American audience… as though you hadn’t done it right the first time; but that’s often the only way for the original version of a movie to get attention in the US marketplace. It’s a curious paradox, but in La Casa Muda‘s case a paradox is very appropriate.

The film was advertised as being shot in one continuous take. It’s not the first film to be structured like this, but it’s still a remarkable technical feat. However, almost immediately, critics began to complain that this couldn’t be true. La Casa Muda was shot using a reasonably-priced still camera (manufactured by Canon) which also had the capability of capturing high-quality video… but it could only shoot 12 minutes’ worth of footage at a time. To shoot the entire film in one unbroken take, the nay-sayers pointed out, would be physically impossible. In fact, there are places where the darkness of the image allows for takes to be edited together seamlessly (and that seems to be what the film-makers did). But the film had its defenders, too: they pointed out that it would actually be possible to attach a hard drive to the camera to enable it to shoot longer takes. And what’s more, they pointed out, even if the film was put together from several takes, it still seems to play in one continuous shot, so the technical achievement is still impressive.

Besides, since when is it a bad thing to make it look like you’ve done the impossible?

But as interesting as the single-shot technique may be, the really interesting thing about La Casa Muda — and the aspect of the film that leaves audiences either impressed & thoughtful or totally infuriated — is its approach to its narrative. And it’s here that the movie invites comparison and contrast with Blair Witch and its successors.

The basic setup for the story is this: a young woman named Laura is taken by her father to an abandoned house somewhere in the Uruguayan countryside. The house belongs to her father’s friend Nestor, but he plans on selling it. Before the house can be sold, though, it needs to be cleaned up — and that’s where Laura and her father come in. Nobody’s lived in the house for several years; Nestor warns them that the upper floor is falling to pieces and is too dangerous to be worked on. He leaves the keys with Laura’s father and says goodnight. Laura’s father locks them in for the evening and settles down to get some sleep. He advises Laura to do the same, since they want to get an early start on the cleanup in the morning.

But Laura is not comfortable in the house. From the very first time she caught a glimpse of it, she seems to have been taken aback. She peers around the dark old house and its dismal, unkempt grounds, but in her explorations she acts more like someone stepping back into a bad dream than someone naturally curious. Unable to sleep, she thumbs through an old photo album in the gathering dark. Something about the album disturbs her — or rather, something not in the album, since the thought seems to strike her when the photos stop. She looks up from the album at her sleeping father, then back at the album. What could it be?

And suddenly, there is a crash from upstairs.

Distressed, Laura wakes her father, who tells her it was nothing and that she should go back to sleep. But then the sound comes again: deliberate, purposeful, not in the least furtive. Eventually she’s able to convince her father that something’s really going on upstairs. He promises to go check, as long as she promises that she’ll be properly asleep by the time he gets back. The old man goes grumpily up the steps…

There is a brief pause. Then, a short, sharp scream, followed by a thud. And then the dragging noises begin.

What follows is a long, harrowing game of cat-and-mouse between Laura and whomever (or whatever) is in the house with her. It’s a game in which the bound & bloodied corpse of her father keeps popping up in impossible places. The other playing-pieces in the game seem to be an old rag doll and a Polaroid camera, which also have a habit of disappearing and reappearing. And then there are the keys — Laura’s father had the keys of the house in his pocket when he went upstairs, but even when Laura is able to find his body (it’s not always where she thinks it is), the keys stay lost. The game’s also played in near-darkness — Laura must often turn out her feeble lantern, as it’s an even bigger giveaway to her position than her ragged, panicky breath. The Intruder is seen only as a pair of feet or an out-of-focus shadow, but his (its?) presence is palpable even when we can’t see him clearly.

Laura does eventually manage to break out of the house, but even outside strange things continue to happen. Something seems to be following her — something she can’t quite get a look at — and when she finally sees the eerily-illuminated figure of a little girl standing in the road, she’s almost run down by Nestor’s car.

Naturally, Nestor is a little concerned to see Laura, covered with blood, standing in the road a good distance from the old house. Poor Laura stammers her explanation, but Nestor can’t believe it. He insists on going back to the house to look for Laura’s father. Laura begs him not to go back, but he insists. Leaving the girl sobbing in his truck, he dashes off into the house… only to re-emerge a few minutes later and practically drag her back inside. There is nothing, and no one in the house — living or dead.

That’s a summary of the first half of the movie. If you haven’t seen it, and haven’t read about its secrets, you might think you have a pretty good idea where it’s going from that point on. You’re wrong. In discussing the rest of the movie, I’m afraid Spoilers of the worst and most revealing kind are inevitable. Go see the movie, or the American remake, and then read the rest.

We’ve been trained to trust what we see on-screen. Even in an age in which photo and video editing tools are common in everyday households, we still half-believe the old saying that pictures don’t lie. Movies may emulate the literary technique of the Unreliable Narrator, but the camera isn’t usually considered an accomplice. In movies with a twist, like The Sixth Sense, the camera may elide the story a bit, or may drop out a few necessary bits of context. But it doesn’t usually lie to us. When we go back to watch the movie again, we can fill in the context we didn’t know before, and see what we missed — and usually it’s there for us to see, like the clues in a Golden Age detective story. If it’s not, we’re likely to feel we’ve been cheated.

Why? Why must it be so?

We know better in Real Life. We know that those Photoshopped pictures of 100-pound cats in their owners’ arms are clever fakes. We can see when a “photojournalist” has copied and pasted explosions from one place in his cityscape to several others. We may not know exactly who that grinning airbrushed corpse on the magazine cover might be, but we know it can’t really be Paula Deen. Why, then, are we so inclined to trust what we see on video — especially if it’s shot with a hand held camera? Heck, it doesn’t even need to be a Point-Of-View camera… as long as it’s slightly shaky and has the feel of having been shot on somebody’s phone, we’re already half-inclined to believe what we’re seeing.

And this is especially true of a movie that lulls us further into its spell by playing out in real-time. What do we even mean by “real-time”? The word “real” in that respect is misleading… and the fact that people got mad at the movie for not having been shot in a single take shows they didn’t appreciate the subtle misdirection that the advertising implied.

La Casa Muda calls us on our complacency. It turns out that pretty much everything we see for the first two-thirds of the movie is hallucination. In fact, the whole setup of the movie is revealed to be so unreliable that even the last third can not be trusted. The film forces us to think about the presentation of reality in the movies. We are manipulated ruthlessly in the beginning of the film; then we’re pulled equally far in a totally different direction as the movie concludes.

So kudos to the film-makers for coming up with a movie whose story subverts is technique (and its marketing). Or maybe I meant that the other way around… it’s a little confusing. But as interesting as the experiment may be, there are some real problems with the movie as a finished product.

The main problem is the seriousness of the subject matter that’s suddenly introduced, without preparation or explanation, as the movie draws to a close. There are some things you don’t use as plot conveniences, unless you’re prepared to deal with the implications. Sexual abuse is pretty close to the top of that list. In the case of La Casa Muda, we’re never given enough of a clear insight into what’s happened to make sense of it. The only thing of which we can be certain is that Laura has been raped at some point, and that her father was somehow complicit in the act. The twist in the story comes as a considerable shock, but let’s face it: this is the sort of thing that should never be used purely for its shock value.

The movie’s other problem is structural, and is a consequence of the risks it takes by breaking all the narrative rules. The twist in the plot leaves us with no frame of reference. The only way the second part of the story can be taken at face value is… if the entire first part of the story is considered pure metaphor.

That’s a little much to ask of your audience, and it’s the aspect of the movie that’s left most people angry and bewildered. Viewers try to find the point at which Laura’s hallucination begins (and they usually identify it as the moment when she looks up from the photo album, as the noises begin upstairs). But if you take any of the opening literally, the whole movie falls apart. It’s impossible to believe that Nestor would leave evidence of a heinous crime lying around on the second floor of a house he’d abandoned a long time ago. It’s ludicrous to think that Laura’s father would bring her back to the scene of that crime (in which she’d been involved), and expect her not to remember it. But if we take the images at the end of the film as the key to the deciphering the movie, the “ruined house” is more than just the scene of the crime. It’s also a symbol of what Nestor and Laura’s father have been involved in… a situation that has fallen apart, and must now be “cleaned up”.

The house is also an obvious symbol of Laura herself. It’s not just that the dusty and abandoned rooms represent the closed-off parts of her mind, where she’s hidden her bad memories, and where dangerous figures lurk. There’s another, nastier side to the symbolism: it’s Laura who needs to be “cleaned up” by Nestor and her father. Apparently she had become pregnant with Nestor’s child (or possibly her father’s; the photographs we see hint at this, but Laura may not be able to admit it to herself), and the two men have conspired to make the “evidence” go away. Laura thinks her child has been murdered: this probably means they coerced her into aborting the baby, though there’s also the faint possibility that the men have killed the child after it was born. The baby may also be purely symbolic, in spite of what Laura says. The ghostly child may represent Laura’s own ruined childhood, rather than an actual child. There’s really no way to tell for certain: the mysterious and terrible events in the house are very likely all part of Laura’s nightmares, after she’s rebelled and killed the men who abused her. The Intruder, the doll and the Polaroid camera may all be fragments of her psyche.

But the house is also The House: a real place, where Laura killed two men. If Nestor’s dying words are to be believed, the real reason Laura was brought back to the house was for some kind of rapprôchement, or to assume the worst, a continuation of the old activities (and this may have been enough to tip Laura over the edge of madness). But Nestor’s words should not be believed — or at least they should be viewed with suspicion. According to Nestor, the Polaroids Laura found don’t exist. Then again, the text at the beginning of the (first set of) credits state that “disturbing photographs” were found at the scene, even though we see Laura burning them before she walks off into the wilderness. The “disturbing photographs” may not be the pictures we see of Nestor with Laura… they may only be the Polaroids Laura has taken of the butchered men. And the ghostly little girl, who (we know) doesn’t really exist, actually shows up, semi-transparent, in one of the Polaroids we do see. It is completely impossible to untangle what’s actually happening — what’s real and tangible — and what’s in Laura’s imagination.

And for this same reason, we shouldn’t trust Laura either. All the way through the movie, we’ve been goaded into taking Laura’s point of view on the story. Our deepest instincts compel us to believe her, since she is clearly the original victim and has clearly been driven insane. But as far as the action on screen is concerned, we’ve been manipulated: first through the conventions of scary movies, then by bringing up abortion and rape and murder — issues which it’s virtually impossible to remain neutral about. Even when the camera glances into a mirror, and reality (as we believed it to be) shatters like silvered glass, we’re still inclined to believe Laura’s literal point of view. But it’s useless to try to sort it all out, because the literal truth is not there to be found. We cannot trust what we see.

So what’s real? Well… the bodies of the two dead men, and a handful of photos — exactly what the movie’s press materials say was found in a real country house in the mid-1940’s, in the event that inspired the film itself. Only the house is witness to what else may be true… and la casa muda isn’t giving up its secrets.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part I: Atrocious (2010)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Examining some of the most interesting horror movies of recent years that owe an obvious debt to The Blair Witch Project, over a decade later… starting with this misunderstood gem from Spain.


Like many people, I have a habit of saying and doing incredibly stupid things. I’ve even made some of my stupidity public — enormously, permanently public — by posting it here on-line. One of the very dumbest things I’ve ever said was in the introduction to a review several years ago, where (for some reason I cannot begin to fathom) I came right out and stated that very few movies had ever attempted to follow up on The Blair Witch Project.

(I’ve kept the original review unchanged and unedited, because I don’t believe in trying to make myself look better in hindsight. However, if you think I’m going to link to it directly, you’re out of your mind. Go find it yourself!).

That statement was demonstrably untrue at the time I made it, and is even more foolish-sounding now. What I think I’d been trying to say was this: since the startling, innovative aspect of Blair Witch was technical rather than narrative, very few exploitation-movie makers understood it well enough to make a genuine follow-on. Sure, every big cinematic success has been a combination of technical achievement and narrative appeal; but it’s generally the narrative and not the technique that gets ripped off.

Intelligent film-makers looked at Jaws and studied Spielberg’s technique: for instance, his method of building tension, and then releasing it in ways that made the audience think they’d just seen something far worse than it was. Mere imitators looked at Jaws and thought about re-doing the story with a bear, or an octopus. But with Blair Witch, at least for the first few years after its release, it seemed as though the best the exploitation film-makers could come up with was (to continue the comparison) Jaws with a slightly different shark. They didn’t really contribute anything meaningful to what had already been done: they could only duplicate, by sending a group of kids into a dangerous situation with camcorders. At least, that was my thesis… it wasn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever come up with, and my lame attempts to defend it haven’t made it seem any more intelligent.

I stand by this point, though: the real lessons of Blair Witch had little to do with the overt setup of the film. One lesson — a superficial one — was that given enough footage and some skilled editors, you could tell practically any story you wanted, and tell it magnificently. It was a lesson that the makers of reality television learned well before actual film-makers did. One of the most interesting points of the 2007-8 Writers’ Strike in the U.S. was the demand of the editors of reality shows to be allowed to join the Writers’ Guild. By cutting up and re-arranging hours upon hours of raw footage, they were creating — out of “reality” — new characters and story arcs that didn’t exist until the edits were made.

A deeper lesson to be gained from Blair Witch is that modern viewers should be very, very careful believing anything they see… no matter how convincing it may seem; no matter how professional-looking the associated web site may be. It’s taken a while, but in recent years horror film-makers have really started to internalize this lesson and build on it. The result has been some amazingly thoughtful films that use the entire phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project, and the familiarity of Reality TV, to question the presentation of “reality” on-screen.

Atrocious is one of these films. Dismissed by many as a late-to-the-party Spanish Blair Witch rip-off, it is in fact a subversion of the earlier film. And the twist at its end is, in a way, brutally funny.

Atrocious immediately acknowledges how much the camera has invaded our lives in the years since Blair Witch was made. Remember how many people complained that the characters in the 1999 film kept their cameras rolling long after it seemed prudent to stop? Well, welcome to the new millennium, where there’s nothing in our lives too trivial that we won’t try to capture it and share it on YouTube or Facebook (oh — and nothing too momentous that we won’t try to reduce it to 140 characters for Twitter. We are slaves to our cellphones — but we don’t much care about reliable telephone service any longer, as long as our phones take good pictures and video, and allow us to access our social media… but I digress).

In the case of Atrocious, our young protagonists — Crisitan and July, brother and sister — have a video blog, on which they research and document spooky urban legends. In spite of the fact that they are still very (very) young, they’re seriously committed to the blog, and have invested a good deal of time and energy into it. That’s why they’re a little miffed that their mother and father are taking them (and their little brother, who’s still too young to go ghost hunting with them) off to the country for the summer.

Fortunately, the kids have a back-up plan. Their vacation home is near the site of a spooky rural legend: when someone gets lost in the woods of Garraf, the spirit known as Melinda — a ghostly little girl in a red dress — will appear and guide them to safety. As long as the kids are stuck in the boondocks, they might as well investigate that. Their little brother José can always just stay behind and play with the family dog.

(Yes, I’m sorry to say there’s a family dog; and yes, you have every right to be deeply concerned about its safety.)

The first clue we have that Atrocious is not going to be as straightforward as it seems comes from its epigram: “The mind is like a labyrinth, where anyone can become lost.” Hmmm. Our second hint comes from the location of the family’s vacation home… its creepy old vacation home. It’s in Sitges, which (as if you didn’t know) is home to a very famous Fantastic Film Festival — sort-of the Cannes of horror films. Hmmm.

The third clue comes when the kids are exploring the house. In the basement they find a stack of VHS tapes. One of the tapes in that collection turns out to be very important at the tail-end of the film; but what the kids themselves find is a copy of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which they pop into the deck and watch for a few minutes.

Finding an Argento film in conjunction with… that other tape that plays at the movie’s end… is just plain silly — and I think that was the point. It’s a joke that Atrocious‘s intended audience will pick up on quickly. Then, too, we need to consider the movie’s opening statement. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is notorious for the inadequacy of its “psychology”: as Maitland MacDonough points out in “Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds”, when the TV shrink is trying to explain the killer’s motivation at the end of Argento’s film, his interviewer falls asleep… thus revealing Argento’s contempt for the reasonable explanation. Clinical accuracy was not the point in Bird…, and that’s something the makers of Atrocious want us to remember.

Thinking of memories: it turns out the children haven’t been to the house in Sitges in so long that their recollections of it are very dim. Certainly they never heard the legend of Melinda while they were there. Their father’s friend Carlos fills them in on the story as he’d heard it: they say that Melinda had disappeared in the woods, or possible had fallen down a well… her body was never found, but she still roams the woods at night, looking for her mother. Those who have encountered her ghost in the forest say they never forget the terrifying sound of her whispers as they creep up behind you.

Is Melinda an evil spirit? Carlos doesn’t think so, but the stories are too numerous and varied to be sure. Nevertheless, Carlos promised his own father many years ago that he would never go into the woods of Garraf at night. And he never has, even as an adult. Carlos’s seriousness makes a big impression on the kids. Later, Cristian wakes up in the middle of the night, convinced that he hears strange noises coming from the woods around the house. Could this just be just the influence of Carlos’s story on an impressionable young boy? Or is something stirring?

Cristian and July begin their investigation the next day, on the first of April ( HMMM! ). Normally they’d have to sneak around to do their research; but today, conveniently enough, their Dad has been called back to work in Madrid. That’s great news for the kids — their Dad doesn’t approve of the video blog (“Do you think that’s normal?” he asks, in the tradition of Dads everywhere), and has threatened to punish them if they continue with it. Now that the old man is out of the way, Cristian and July feel safe exploring the house and grounds with their camera.

Their first stop is the basement, where they find an assortment of peculiar junk: their old toys, an anatomical model of a human foot, dolls left over from their mother’s childhood in the same house… and a trunk full of mirrors. Odd. There’s some sort of journal, too; but that’s obviously boring, and they put it aside unread when they discover the box of videotapes. Cool! Bruce Lee! And Dario Argento!

All three kids are immersed in a horror film when they’re distracted by a sound from upstairs. Someone’s dropped a glass in the kitchen above… When the kids rush upstairs, they discover that someone’s also been rummaging through the cabinets. But who could it be? Dad’s gone, and Mom’s upstairs asleep. Perhaps the paranormal has come to find them already?

Cristian tells José to go play with the dog or something, and he and July go to investigate the abandoned hedge maze that adjoins their property. The gate to the maze is padlocked, but the resourceful July has already found the key. Cristian marks the way as they go, so they won’t get lost. Eventually Cristian notices a hidden trail that branches off from the maze proper. When the kids go to follow it, they find a dried-out well hidden in the undergrowth. Could this be Melinda’s well? Cristian decides to find out: he leans over the edge and calls, “Melinda! Melinda! Melinda!” He almost loses his glasses as he does it…

…but though he doesn’t lose his glasses, or (worse yet) fall in, Cristian may not have got off quite as easily as he thinks. There may be other consequences of what he’s done.

For as the kids pick their way out of the maze, Cristian thinks he sees someone else in the maze with them. Just visible through the hedges is a light-colored shape that could be a pillar… or could be a statue… but could also be another human being. Cristian wonders if it might possibly be their Mother, but July is certain it isn’t. Looking at the videotape later with José, they’re unable to decide if it’s really a person or not. It could be someone huddled in the hedgerow, or it could be nothing at all.

That night, Cristian attaches the camcorder to his laptop and points it out the window at the gate to the labyrinth. If there’s really something in the maze — maybe the same thing that made the mysterious noises the night before? — the camcorder will capture it.

And something does happen during the night… though it’s not the camcorder that gets a good look at it.

If there’s one thing in life that really brings me joy — one thing that makes everything else worthwhile — it’s dog noses. I love dog noses, preferably the big, wuffly-snuffly kind that come up and shovel you for attention. I like them mostly because they’re attached to an actual dog, but I also appreciate them for the precision instruments they are. The sense of smell is the most important way dogs get information about the world around them. Their noses are so sensitive, I’m told, that some dogs can get scent cues from as much as a hundred miles away. And did you know that some dogs can sense when their humans are about to have an epileptic seizure? It’s true: the neurological condition brings about changes in human body chemistry, which the ultra-sensitive doggy snoot can detect. Thus the animals can be trained to alert their companions before a seizure happens, so they can prepare themselves and keep themselves from harm.

You’ll have guessed I’m stalling.

You see, it’s the dog who senses activity in the maze overnight. He’s not frightened of it: he’s fascinated. It’s almost as though something hidden in the maze were talking to him, urging him to come in. And eventually he does… and he never comes out again.

In the morning, July and Cristian go looking for the dog. Little José is particularly upset over the dog’s disappearance — and who wouldn’t be? July suggests searching the maze, but the kids’ long-suffering mother doesn’t want them going in there. It’s overgrown and dangerous: it was easy enough to get lost in the maze when it was still in good repair, but now? Who knows what’s in it — even if it’s not a ghost?

If it had been their father telling them, perhaps they’d have listened; but since their mother is preoccupied with their distraught little brother, the older kids decide to go into the maze anyway. At first there seems to be no sign of the dog. But then they find a smear of fresh blood on the ground… and then a collar. Can you guess where the fly-blown trail of blood leads? To the well, of course. And down the well…


The dog has been mutilated. Clearly it wasn’t a wild animal that killed him and dragged him off into the well. And as if the dog’s death wasn’t bad enough, they have something worse to look forward to when they get home: keeping a brave face for José, and not letting him guess what they’ve found.

My readers know how I feel about the inclusion of animals in movies like this. They’re usually thrown in just to be brutalized… just to be the first to die, to shock the viewers before bad things start happening to the “actual characters”. Fortunately, these days we’re less likely to see horror movies in which the animals are really killed. But I don’t object to animals-as-characters suffering the same kinds of fates as the humans, provided they are taken seriously. And here the dog’s death is taken seriously. It’s not just a meaningless shock-moment: it’s a loss that’s felt very deeply by July and Cristian, all the more because they need to keep it from the heartbroken José. The killing of the dog is a moment that draws us into a deeper involvement in the story, rather than simply giving us a cheap thrill. In a sense, when you consider the end of the film, this involvement turns out to be a trick… but I still think in this case, the dog is not sacrificed in vain.

Unlike domestic animals, children are not usually put in any real jeopardy in horror films… particularly Hollywood horror films. In a sense, that’s a good thing: violence against children in movies is a very strong gesture, and it needs to be approached with care. That said, though, it’s become something of a cliché for children to come out unscathed from scary movies. So it’s a little refreshing to see that Atrocious is courageous enough, first, to earn the earn the right to put its young characters in real danger, and then to actually follow through with the threat. We’re told from the very beginning that terrible things are going to happen to the whole family. And terrible things do happen: rarely in horror history have kids been so thoroughly butchered as they are here.

For it turns out that this was not a good time for Cristian and July to be curious about dead children in Sitges. Something has been awakened by their curiosity… something that has been asleep for a long time; something that knows the woods and the maze intimately, and wants to draw the children into it. Something that will cause one of them to run a long way through the trees with the camera set to night-vision, à la Blair Witch… while seeing nothing. Something that will also leave one of the kids alone, terrified and burbling into the camera in a very familiar way.

In fact, the connections to (and quotations from) The Blair Witch Project are so obvious that it’s easy to see why some viewers have written the movie off as a pale imitation. But then, there’s the ending. Just at the crucial moment, when it seems like everything’s about to be revealed, the movie comes to sudden halt. We’re then given some news footage of the aftermath of the “atrocious” events we’ve been seeing. It turns out to be even worse, and even bloodier, than we’d expected… but that’s not the only surprise in store for us. No sooner have we been given a glimpse of the aftermath, when we suddenly find ourselves rewinding — actually, literally rewinding the tape: we’re back at the story’s real conclusion, the revelation of what horrible force-from-beyond has risen from the labyrinth to slaughter the family.

And it’s then that we realize we have not been watching the movie we thought we were watching.

The film-makers have learned the lessons of The Blair Witch Project very well. They’ve figured out how to use the POV camera to build atmosphere — how to stretch out a sequence just long enough without becoming intolerable, and how to suggest just enough without showing us anything. And they’ve also factored in our awareness of the existence of The Blair Witch Project, as well as its progeny. As a result, they’re able to pull of a nice piece of misdirection.

Some reviewers complain the twist isn’t fair. Really, it is: if you go back and watch the movie again after you know its secret, you’ll see how you’ve been tricked… but the movie’s played fair with you all the way along. Others complain that the resolution of the story isn’t the way things work in real life… to which both I and the movie offer no argument. I think that’s why the movie goes out of its way to bring up The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. On a certain level, Atrocious is a horror film about horror films: it sets up the conventions we expect and then pulls them all away just when we’ve come to rely on them. What’s more, by showing us glimpses of the end at the beginning and putting the epilog before the dénoument, it teases us mercilessly.

This is something the Spanish seem particularly good at: not just giving us a twist ending, but thinking deeply and dispassionately about the mechanics of film, and coming up with something that forces us in the audience to consider our responses to it. This was what Jaume Balagueró did with Darkness: he dared to set up a very conventional horror film for the first half of his movie, taking the risk that his audience would lose interest… but when he got to explaining the motivations of his monsters, he managed to subvert the very conventions he seemed to be repeating. Atrocious, too, takes one hell of a risk, by seeming to be slightly above-average Blair Witch rip-off for most of its running time.