Thursday, October 7, 2010

Maggie 2010: The Horror Fest Continues!

A note before these next six reviews: I have no qualms plunking down a whole TV season under a single review, because episodes therein are deeply connected. However, though this collection of six films rents as one set on three discs, these next six entries -- while wonderfully enhanced by one another -- are full-length films that can absolutely stand on their own. And since I highly doubt most people will have the excuse I had (being sick for a couple days), I also suspect most won't be able to get through all six in one go. So here's a set of independent film reviews, posted in the order I watched the set, to help you prioritize your viewing!

#106. Six Films To Keep You Awake: A Real Friend

Children are a perfect focus for horror, for they more than any other age group believe in the fluidity of worlds, the power of make-believe. For little Estrella (Nerea Inchausti) especially, the world of horror movie monsters has shored her up against loneliness: in her interactions with mummies, vampires, and chainsaw murderers (which walk a line between real and imaginary that viewers are regularly challenged to reassess) we see a fearless spirit in a tough world -- without friends, without father, but getting along just fine nonetheless.

The real thrill of this film, however, comes from the story of what happens when Estrella, who sees no difference between make-believe and reality, befriends a monster viewers soon discover is real--her father, out of prison, and attempting to regain his family by force. As terrified mother, Angela (Goya Toledo), tries to protect her fearless daughter from the dangers of reality, viewers are propelled through a well-defined tension between strength and weakness, naivete and knowledge. The twist ending is to some extent inevitable -- playful, over-the-top, and crudely satisfying -- but it is this core concept of vulnerability that director Enrique Urbizu captures best in his narrative build-up on screen.

#107. Six Films To Keep You Awake: A Christmas Tale

From a place of vulnerability, viewers are treated with the flip-side of childhood: cruelty beyond easy comprehension. When a ragtag group of Goonies-esque marauders discover a woman (Maru Valdivielso) in a Santa Claus outfit trapped at the bottom of a deep hole in the forest, their initial desire to help her is stayed by the discovery that she's wanted by the police for robbery.

Certainly the capacity of adults to dismiss children out of hand is a key point in this film by Paco Plaza, but more severely in focus is the callous, black-and-white view of right and wrong little children can just as easily espouse. Believing that this woman's criminal status justifies any violence or neglect they impose upon her, they hold her captive, starving her while demanding to know where the money is and threatening to let her die if she won't tell them. Long tracts of this film involve watching this woman suffer at the hands of her little tormentors: as with all the strongest works in this collection, this film's use of the supernatural is a very light, ambiguous touch arrived at only when the monstrosity of humankind has run its course.

#108. Six Films To Keep You Awake: Blame

The art of misdirection is alive and well in Spanish horror, as in Blame the supernatural again takes a back seat for most of the ride. When young nurse Gloria (Montse Mostaza) and her daughter, Vicky (Alejandro Lorenzo), are invited by Dr. Ana Torres (Nieve de Madina) to move into the doctor's old, sprawling, and mysterious home, human monsters are initially set up as the centre of this tale. As Gloria learns of Dr. Ana's immense loneliness, clearly tempered in the past by taking in other young women like herself, viewers are left to question what happened to these women in the end; and if the mysterious knocking at an unaddressed door in the house has anything to do with their sudden departures.

It's these surprising twists and turns, occurring on a much deeper level than one expects from a horror film, that make Blame one of my favourite pieces in this collection: while some viewers might not enjoy the absence of a direct progression to the main story, a tale of illicit abortions and murderous fetuses, to me there is a definite realism to this kind of drifting from perceived threats to actual threats. I take issue with a couple scenes that seem flimsy and excessive, but on the whole, this film by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador breaks ground rarely seen in North American horror -- and for that reason alone I have to recommend it.

#109. Six Films To Keep You Awake: Spectre / Moira's Ghost

Surprisingly, this horror collection features two stories about abortion and those who perform it, with this latter film centering on the story of a man both in his old age and naive youth. As a young man (Juan José Ballesta), a strict religious upbringing and an act of kindness only heightens Tomas' desire for the beautiful and secretive woman (Juan José Ballesta) his town despises. Tomas's story arc follows the only natural progression for one as young and narrowly driven as himself: he lusts after Moira, he pursues her, and then he gets possessive and confrontational about her adult life, the parameters of which he simply does not grasp. In his adolescent turmoil he finally makes a choice that has the most horrendous consequences for the lover who has vowed their lives are tied together now forever, and these consequences will haunt him for the rest of his life -- leading him back, as an old man (Jordi Dauder), to the village of his youth, and the wrong that went unavenged.

Again, the supernatural element in this film is a subtle touch, but also a sheer and unexpected delight. Director Mateo Gil takes this realistic piece in a direction that is truly unexpected, providing both a rich tapestry of flawed human characters and a thread of fantasy that binds them in the most fascinating weave to their ultimate fates. I would say this film is my favourite of the whole collection, for its subtlety and its depth of feeling. For gore, though? Not so much.

#110. Six Films To Keep You Awake: The Baby's Room

Finally, a horror film in this collection that's as blunt about the supernatural as anything out of Asia or North America! In The Baby's Room a happy couple tempts fate by daring to point out how perfect their life is -- a loving relationship, a beautiful baby, an old house to call their own -- and reaps the consequences. It's not so much that the house is haunted by the trauma of specific past events, as it is that a malevolent spirit stalks the halls -- and care of an introductory scene taking place years before the main events, we already know that this malevolent spirit likes to switch places with the living in order to wreak further violence in the real world.

This film by Álex de la Iglesia has all the comforting fixings of a truly terrifying ghost flick -- the baby monitors, naturally dark and discomfiting, that father Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) sees the evil spirit through; the classic masculine arrogance that leads him to avoid telling his wife, Sonia, (Leonor Watling) about future sightings when Juan's actions endanger both her and their child; the hidden rooms and ghastly murder scenes replayed within the spirit world. Yes, the ending is a bit predictable, but there is also just the right balance of stark horror and pointed commentary about human relationships leading up to this point, such that viewers are easily on tenterhooks for most of the experience. This is Paranormal Activity, made for TV -- a fun little number with a few good chills.

#111. Six Films To Keep You Awake: To Let

But if any of these six films has wanton horror-fest written all over it, To Let is it. Clara (Macarena Gómez) is just your average pregnant working wife who wants to go home and sleep after her shift, but her husband, Mario (Adrià Collado), has different designs on her time: a viewing of an apartment for let in a really creepy part of town. Again the normal tensions in any relationship, wherein one partner refuses to listen to the other's needs, has dire consequences for them both--because this particular apartment isn't run by just any landlady.

No, Portera (Nuria González) gave 30 years of her life to other people before the city condemned her building and her tenants left; since then, feeling entitled to her own share of happiness at any cost, she's been "collecting" tenants, one hundred percent against their will. In one unit is housed a chained man, a wire bound woman, and a poor baby stuck in the creepiest playpen ever. In the other... well, surprise! Mario and Clara are moving in--whether they like it or not.

There is an excess of violence in this film, making it a clear top pick in the gore department--and the story's pretty original, too, with all the desperate twists and turns one would expect of a horror flick centred on escape. One of the best parts of made for TV film is that one doesn't often see people "wasted" immediately (too many actors), so in To Let people come back when you least expect it, just to be injured more brutally than before. The ending is also deliciously depressing--a perfect note on which to end a collection of rich and diverse Spanish horror treats.

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