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

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.

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